1902 Encyclopedia > William Dyce

William Dyce
Scottish painter

WILLIAM DYCE, (1806-1864), a distinguished painter, was born in Aberdeen, where his father, a fellow of the Royal Society, was a physician of some repute. He attended Marischal College, took the degree of M.A. at sixteen years of age, and was destined for one of the learned professions. Showing a turn for design instead, he studied in the school of the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, then as a probationer (not a full student) in the Royal Academy of London, and thence, in 1825, proceeded to Rome, where he spent nine months. He returned to Aberdeen in 1826, and painted several pictures; one of these, Bacchus nursed by the Nymphs of Nysa, was exhibited in 1827. In the autumn of that year he went back to Italy, showing from the first a strong sympathy with the earlier masters of the Florentine and allied schools. A Virgin and Child which he painted in Rome in 1828 was much noticed by Overbeck and other foreign artists. In 1829 Dvce settled in Edinburgh, taking at once a good rank in his profession, and showing considerable versatility in subject-matter. Portrait-painting for some years occupied much of his time ; and he was particularly prized for likenesses of ladies and children. In February 1837 he was appointed master of the school of design of the Board of Manufactures, Edinburgh. In the same year he published a pamphlet on ihe management of schools of this description, which led to his transfer from Edinburgh, after eighteen months' service there, to London, as superintendent and secretary of the then recently established school of design at Somerset House. Mr J. R. Herbert was head-master about the same time. Dyce was sent by the Board of Trade to the Continent to examine the organization of foreign schools; and a report which he eventually printed, 1840, led to a remodelling of the London establishment. In 1842 he was made a member of the council and inspector of provincial schools, a post which he resigned in 1844. In this latter year, being appointed professor of fine art in King's College, London, he delivered a noticeable lecture, The Theory of the Fine Arts. In 1835 he had been elected an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy; this honour he relinquished upon settling in London, and he was then made an honorary U.S.A. In 1844 he became an associate, in 1848 a full member, of the London Royal Academy ; he also was elected a member of the Academy of Arts in Philadelphia. He was active in the deliberations of the Royal Academy, and it is said that his tongue was the dread of the urbane President, Sir Charles Eastlake, for Dyce was keen in speech as in visage; it was on his proposal that the class of retired Academicians was established. In January 1850 Dyce married Jane, daughter of Mr James Brand, of Bedford Hill, Surrey. He died of a cancerous disease in his house at Streatham on 14th February 1864, leaving two sons and two daughters.

Such is a brief outline of the honourable and prosperous career of one of the most learned and accomplished of British painters—one of the highest in aim, and most con-sistently self-respecting in workmanship. His finest pro-ductions, the frescoes in the Queen's Robing-room in the Houses of Parliament, may rightly be called great, and an honour to the country and time which produced them; these frescoes, and the water-glass paintings of Maclise in the same building, would find few rivals in contemporary Continental labours. Generally, however, there is in Dyce's work more of earnestness, right conception, and grave, sensitive, but rather restricted powers of realization, than of authentic greatness. He has elevation, draughtsmanship, expression, and on occasion fine colour; along with all these, a certain leaning on precedent, and castigated semi-conventionalized type of form and treatment, which bespeak rather the scholarly than the originating mind in art. The following are among his principal or most interesting works (oil pictures, unless otherwise stated). 1829 : The Daughters of Jethro defended by Moses; Puck. 1830: The Golden Age; the Infant Hercules strangling the Serpents (now in the National Gallery, Edinburgh); Christ crowned with Thorns. 1835 : A Dead Christ (large lunette altar-piece). 1836: The Descent of Venus, from Ben Jonson's " Triumph of Love;" The Judgment of Solomon, prize cartoon in tempera for tapestry (National Gallery, Edinburgh). 1837 : Francesca da Rimini (National Gallery, Edinburgh). 1838, and again 1846 : The Madonna and Child. 1839 : Dunstan separating Edwy and Elgiva. 1844 : Joash shooting the Arrow of Deliver-ance (the finest perhaps of the oil-paintings). 1850 : The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel. 1851 : King Lear and the Fool in the Storm. 1855 : Christabel. 1857 : Titian's first Essay in Colouring. 1859 : The Good Shepherd. 1860: St John bringing Home his Adopted Mother; Pegwell Bay (a coast scene of remarkably minute detail, showing the painter's partial adhesion to the so-called " pre-Raphaelite " movement of that time). 1861 : George Herbert at Bemerton. Dyce executed some excellent cartoons for stained glass :—that for the choristers' window, Ely Cathedral, and that for a vast window at Alnwick in memory of a duke of Northumberland ; the design of Paul rejected by the Jews, now at South Keningston, belongs to the latter. In fresco-painting his first work appears to have been the Consecration of Archbishop Parker, painted in Lambeth Palace. In one of the West-minster Hall competitions for the decoration of the Houses of Parliament, he displayed two heads from this composi-tion ; and it is related that the great German fresco-painter Cornelius, who had come over to England to give advice, with a prospect of himself taking the chief direction of the pictorial scheme, told the Prince Consort frankly that the English ought not to be asking for him, when they had such a painter of their own as Mr Dyce. The cartoon by Dyce of the Baptism of Ethelbert was approved and com-missioned for the House of Lords, and is the first of the works done there, 1846, in fresco. In 1848 he began his great frescos in the Robing-room—subjects from the legend of King Arthur, exhibiting chivalric virtue. The whole room was to have been finished in eight years ; but ill-health and other vexations trammelled the artist, and the series remains uncompleted. The largest picture figures Hospitality, the admission of Sir Tristram into the fellowship of the Round Table. Then follow—Religion, the Vision of Sir Galahad and his Companions; Generosity, Arthur unhorsed, and spared by the Victor; Courtesy, Sir Tristram harping to la Belle Yseult ; Mercy, Sir Gawaine's Vow. The frescos of sacred subjects in All Saints' Church, Margaret Street, London ; of Comus, in the summer-house of Buckingham Palace; and of Neptune and Britannia, at Osborne House, are also by this painter.

Dyce was an elegant scholar in more ways than one. In 1828 he obtained the Blackwell prize at Aberdeen for an essay on animal magnetism. In 1843-4 he published an edition of the Book of Common Prayer, with a dissertation on Gregorian music, and its adaptation to English words. He founded the Motett Society, for revival of ancient church-music, was a fine organist, and composed a " non nobis " which has appropriately been sung at Royal Academy banquets. His last considerable writing relating to his own art was published in 1853, The National Gallery: its Formation and Management. (w. M. R.)

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