Shaw, (John) Byam Liston (1872–1919), painter and illustrator
by Tim Barringer

Shaw, (John) Byam Liston (1872–1919), painter and illustrator, was born on 13 November 1872 at Ferndale, Madras, India, the youngest of the three children of John Shaw (d. 1887) and Sophia Alicia Byam, daughter of John Houlton Gunthorpe. Byam Shaw—as he was known throughout his life—lived in India until his father abandoned the position of registrar of the High Court, Madras, in favour of a solicitor's practice in London, in 1878. After a period in Bath (1878–9) he was educated privately by his mother and a governess in the family home at 103 Holland Road, Kensington. His early artistic promise was encouraged by his parents, and on the advice of Sir John Everett Millais he was enrolled in 1887 at St John's Wood Art Schools. The schools, under the direction of Abelardo Alvarez Calderon and Bernard Evans Ward, specialized in preparing students for entry into the Royal Academy Schools, through a strict course of drawing from the antique and from life. Shaw duly entered the Academy Schools in 1890, where the visitors, or tutors, included leading members and associates of the Royal Academy, such as its president, Sir Frederic Leighton.

Shaw shared a studio with his friend Gerald Metcalfe from 1893 (the year he first exhibited at the Royal Academy) and produced a series of elaborate allegorical compositions which marked the development of his distinctive artistic personality. Among his most ambitious early productions was the decorative painting Love the Conqueror (exh. RA, 1899; priv. coll.; reproduced Taylor), a 10 foot canvas featuring almost a hundred literary and historical figures of great lovers. Controversial at the time, when it was attacked as vulgar and overblown, the painting displays Shaw at his most overwhelmingly eclectic. Whither? (exh. RA, 1896; reproduced Cole, 47), demonstrating an awareness of European symbolism, is a brilliantly coloured decorative composition in which two lovers are drawn across the sea of life by nude allegorical figures of Birth, Maturity, and Death; bubbles rising from the sea contain visions of the past and future life of the protagonists. The Blessed Damozel (exh. RA, 1895; Guildhall Art Gallery, London) pays tribute, both in subject and pictorial treatment, to the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In 1899 Shaw married the miniature painter and teacher (Caroline) Evelyn Eunice Pyke-Nott (1870–1959). Their household some years later is recorded in the elegant pastel My Wife, my Bairns and my Wee Dog John (1903, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull), in which the artist's face appears in the mirror. Of their five children, and attained eminence as, respectively, a leading connoisseur and an actor and theatre director.

Working closely with the artist Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, Shaw increasingly became identified as a late follower of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (founded in 1848), notably in Boer War, 1900 (exh. RA, 1901; City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), which recalls the naturalism of Millais, thus tacitly rejecting the influence of French impressionism which was dominant among Shaw's contemporaries. Heightened colour and brilliant detail remained hallmarks of Shaw's style throughout his career.

Shaw excelled as a painter of genre scenes of historical and modern subjects. He exhibited thirty-nine such paintings, ‘Thoughts Suggested by some Passages from British Poets’, at Dowdeswell Galleries (160 New Bond Street), London, in 1899. A further exhibition, ‘Sermons in stones and good in everything: suggested by the book of Ecclesiastes’, followed in 1902 at the same gallery. As a book illustrator he ranged widely from the classics, for example, The Chiswick Shakespeare (1899), to contemporary and orientalist subjects such as The Garden of the Kama (1914). During the First World War his graphic skills were harnessed in the preparation of cartoons and propagandistic illustrations. He also explored other decorative media, notably in a large fresco, Mary's Entry into London as Queen, AD 1553, for the palace of Westminster, and a design for the act drop at the London Coliseum (exh. RA, 1914; English National Opera, London).

In 1904 Shaw joined his friend and future biographer, the landscape painter Rex Vicat Cole, on the teaching staff of the women's department of King's College, London. In 1910 they founded the Byam Shaw and Vicat Cole School of Art at 70 Campden Street, Kensington. Offering a traditional grounding in drawing from the antique and from life, the school added pen-and-ink illustration, miniature painting, landscape, and other elements to the curriculum. Renamed the Byam Shaw School of Art on Cole's retirement in 1926, it has continued to flourish.

An academic artist who never fulfilled his ambition of election to membership of the Royal Academy, Shaw was a dedicated member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, to which he was elected in 1898; he also became an associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1913. He emphatically rejected the idea of the artist as a bohemian: a contemporary recalled that he ‘often appeared in a suit of loud checks, looking more like a bookie on a race-course than an art master’ (Cole, 135). Content throughout his life to conform to the norms of the upper-middle-class professional circles in which he moved, Shaw was a committed tory imperialist. His character, combining shyness with a fondness for japery and an enjoyment of the camaraderie of his students, emerges very clearly from Rex Vicat Cole's affectionate memoir of 1932.

Shaw died on 26 January 1919, at 40 Grove End Road, St John's Wood, London; he was buried at St Barnabas's, Addison Road, London. By the time of his death his work had come to seem dated and irrelevant. As Frank Rutter noted in his obituary, ‘he was not a “modern” as the word is now understood … [but rather] a decorative painter who was born a little too late to find his just milieu’ (Sunday Times, 23 March 1919). Recent reappraisals of Byam Shaw's work have been more enthusiastic in their assessment of his merits: the opulent and eclectic quality of his productions finds more favour with post-modernist than with modernist critics.



R. V. Cole, The art and life of Byam Shaw (1932) · T. Barringer, ‘Not a “modern” as the word is now understood: John Byam Liston Shaw (1872–1919)’, English art, 1860–1914: modernities and identities, ed. D. P. Corbett and L. Perry (2000) · G. Taylor, Byam Shaw, 1872–1919 (1986) [exhibition catalogue, AM Oxf.] · P. Skipwith, ‘Byam Shaw: a pictorial story teller’, The Connoisseur, 191 (1976), 189–97 · J. Christian, ed., The last Romantics: the Romantic tradition in British art (1989) [exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 9 Feb – 9 April 1989] · A. L. Baldry, ‘Our rising artists: Mr Byam Shaw’, Magazine of Art, 22 (1897–8), 633–42 · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1919) · F. Rutter, Sunday Times (23 March 1919) · Graves, RA exhibitors · G. Taylor, ‘Shaw, Byam’, The dictionary of art, ed. J. Turner (1996)


G. Metcalfe, drawing, 1896, repro. in Cole, Art and life of Byam Shaw, frontispiece · J. B. L. Shaw, self-portraits, repro. in Cole, Art and life of Byam Shaw · photographs, repro. in Cole, Art and life of Byam Shaw

Wealth at death  

£4184 17s. 5d.: administration, 2 April 1919, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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(John) Byam Liston Shaw (1872–1919): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36049