The most expensive item at Michael C. Williams Fine Art Gallery is not the paintings that surround you. Rather, it is the massive wooden cutouts that loom above the gallery’s entrance.
The gallery is located on London’s Regent Street and is filled with the works of British art from the 1860s to the present day. From the golden era of London portrait painting in the late 19th century all the way through to the modern masters of the mid-20th century, you will find many famous faces looking out at you from behind the wood and canvas.
Amongst the collection, you will find the works of renowned artists such as John Everett Millais, George Frederic Leighton and Marcus Keeler. There is also a portrait of the Queen by Leighton which stands as a testament to the royal photographer’s skills.
The Queen in Front of a Dead Deer
The gallery’s entrance is dominated by a striking portrait of Queen Victoria by Marcus Keeler. Standing in front of a dead deer is the British monarch wearing a magnificent brocade gown. While the backdrop to the painting may be a real English countryside, Victoria’s dress and jewellery are all purebred fakes.
Behind the monarch is one of Millais’ most famous works, ‘A Scene in a Country Churchyard’ which shows a young couple embracing. Although the scene is actually a depiction of an imaginary lovers’ tryst, ‘Country Churchyard’ is a real location in the artist’s home county of Suffolk and served as inspiration for one of Millais’ most famous paintings.
Keeler’s portrait of Victoria is, in fact, a composite of two different images. The artist captured the queen when she was in her early seventies and the sitter is actually the product of a mixture of face cream, laxatives, and alcohol. When asked why he used those three powerful substances to give Victoria a youthful appearance, Keeler replied: “Practice, practice, practice”.
An Inspirational Work by Leighton
Even if you have seen the work of John Everett Millais before, it is worth a second look at the Michael C. Williams Fine Art gallery. That is because there is something quite unique about the way that William’s curators have arranged their selection of artwork. Instead of simply placing Leighton’s work in chronological order, they have interspersed the paintings neatly throughout the gallery. This is to allow the visitors to meander slowly between the rooms, enjoying small personal moments with the artists’ works.
The selection is impressive, not simply because it features one of the finest British painters of his generation but because it captures the imagination of viewers from around the world. Even if you have never heard of John Frederic Leighton, you will recognise his work because of its simplicity and clarity of vision. The English landscape painter’s most famous work, ‘The Bay of Biscay’ was a response to a trip that the artist took to France with his wife in 1881. While the artist’s visit was overshadowed by the events of the Franco-Prussian War, Leighton used his return to England to paint a series of canvases that perfectly encapsulate the rugged grandeur of the country’s coastline.
Leighton’s ability to depict the stark beauty of the English countryside is, in part, thanks to his love for a particular village in Suffolk. The artist was so inspired by life in this village that he purchased a property there and spent much of the later part of his life either there or in Paris. If you love the works of John Everett Millais or Marcus Keeler, then it is well worth a visit to see how a great artist lived and breathed, creating masterpieces that still draw inspiration from a simple life in a simple place. Even if you are not that interested in art, you will find that this gallery is a must for anyone who loves travelling back in time to savour a piece of English history.
Painting a Historical Event
Marcus Keeler’s 1881 ‘Duke of Edinburgh Accepting the Cross from Lord Kitchener’, is one of the most famous works in the museum. The fact that it was a commission for a patriotic exhibition, held to celebrate the end of the Franco-Prussian War, only adds to its star quality. Although the painting is a composite of different poses, it is mainly the duke’s face that catches the eye. One of the last of its kind, ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ is a tribute to Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday in 1881.
As a child, William grew up in a house filled with memorabilia from the Queen Victoria’s reign. The duke’s love for all things related to his grandmother, the queen, is apparent in every aspect of his life. Not only does Keeler immortalise one of the most historic events in British history with his painted masterpiece but he uses his artistic skill to perfectly capture the likeness of the young Queen Victoria who sought to inspire the nation by playing a key role in the reconstruction of Europe after the Franco-Prussian War.
Highly Individual Touches
While viewing the gallery is fascinating, it is also well worth going back to simply appreciate the high quality of the works themselves. Each one of Keeler’s paintings is a masterpiece in its own right and even if you are not that familiar with the English landscape painter’s work, it is still well worth a visit to see how he applied his unique talents.
For example, take a closer look at Keeler’s ‘Storm Cloud Over Snowdon’ or ‘Snowflake’. Both of these paintings, which feature his typical ‘sheep in wolf’s clothing’ motif, employ a technique that he learned from his mentor, J. M. WESTON. A specialist in woodcut printing, Weston taught Keeler how to create detailed landscapes using simple silhouettes. This enables the viewer to focus on the dramatic sky and how it interacts with the rolling hills of England.
Weston, a former pupil of Francis HOLMAN, also made a lasting impression on Keeler. The English woodcut artist spent some time in Rome learning how to paint and draw and it was there that he was largely influenced by the works of Raphael and his contemporaries.
While in Italy, Weston made a habit of visiting the Renaissance courts where he would teach the rulers and their guests how to paint as well as sculpt and mediate. It was during one of these visits that the old master convinced the duke of Edinburgh to have him paint his portrait. Having Keeler immortalise his grandmother, Queen Victoria, in paint was probably the greatest gift that the artist could have asked for.
You might also be interested in the gallery’s porcelain collection which is filled with highly original pieces by some of the greatest names in English porcelain, dating back to the 18th century. It is possible to spend an entire day wandering from room to room, enjoying the company of the ceramic giants that once graced the dinner tables of famous English households.
Whether you are a seasoned art collector or you are just discovering the beauty of British art, it is well worth a visit to the Williams gallery which celebrates the work of three great masters.