Thursday, 11 January 2018

William Maw Egley

Today's post is borne out of my desire to know more about a painter with whom I am familiar but I know practically nothing about.  When I did my degree, about a thousand years ago, one of my set books was on Mid-Victorian Britain and the front cover image was this...

Omnibus Life in London (1859)
Here we have the interior of an omnibus, a large horse-drawn carriage, ferrying people about in London.  People of differing backgrounds are forced to sit together, and attempt to not look at their companions.  A young mother has two ringleted moppets at various stages of 'flop', an elderly lady seems to be lost in thought while looking at them and a well-dressed young woman is attempting to get in (the best of luck to her).  This print, amusing and accurate, was very popular and became an engraving for the London Illustrated News.  However, that is going ahead of ourselves.  Let's go back to the beginning and find out more about the artist, William Maw Egley...

Georgiana Sophia, Lady Burghley William Egley
Before William Maw Egley, there was William Egley Snr, a successful miniaturist painter from Doncaster.  He had rebelled against his father's wishes and not become a bookseller, rather taking up his passion for painting and making a career for himself.  He was a jovial chap, good with children which made him much in demand for child portraits. He seems to have become a Quaker when he married his first wife, Sarah, in Norfolk in 1825.  Their only son, William Maw Egley was born and christened a Quaker in 1826, recorded by the Society of Friends in Paddington where the Egley family lived.

William Maw Egley started painting at the age of 14 under his father's tutelage. He moved on to work for William Powell Frith, a member of a group of painters called 'The Clique'.  The Clique were a band of young artists (sound familiar) who rejected the old ways of the Academy and made new, contemporary art.  The group consisted of Richard Dadd, Augustus Egg, Alfred Elmore and other artists you probably have heard of but are just before the Pre-Raphaelites.  They loathed the Pre-Raphaelites, incidentally, in the marvellously predictable way that rebels always loath younger rebels.  Anyway, Frith, despite running two households and two families (naughty boy), employed William Maw Egley to paint his backgrounds.

Prospero and Miranda (1850)
Maw Egley's early work is on literary subjects and he had an obsession with costume, which is always exquisite in his paintings.  He made a special study of children's clothing which seemed a bit odd until I read how popular his father was as a children's portraitist so possibly he was encouraged by his father.  A very odd story I read about William Maw Egley was that he was the creator of the very first Christmas card.  Now, this is obviously not true, but for decades this story seemed to reoccur in the newspapers, almost every Christmas, until the 1970s.  

It was thought that teenage Egley designed a card for his family in 1842 (as the young tend to do in their spare time) and shows various Christmas-y activities with Columbine and Harlequin in the centre. In the right-hand corner is Egley's signature and a rather ambiguous date which was assumed to be 1842 (a year before Sir Henry Cole's Christmas card).  However, one learned art historian managed to uncover the truth by rigorous research (by which I mean they took it out of the frame and turned it over) and it was actually dated 1848.  Anyway, Maw Egley holds the slightly less exciting accomplishment of second Christmas card ever.

"Hullo Largesse!" A Harvest Scene in Norfolk (1861)
Those of you who have watched the film Akenfield will no doubt be shouting 'Largesse!' at this point as these charming villagers are calling in the harvest.  As his mother came from Norfolk, it is possible that Egley was familiar with this sort of celebration and this is possibly a recognisable place.  In the 1860s, Egley adopted an easier, romantic, more commercial subject, often touching on the eighteenth century.  Whilst he didn't become a massive success, he started to do moderately well.  However, it's in his awkward, intense earlier work that I find the most enjoyment.

The Lady of Shalott (1858)
This is a particularly apt picture to show as it is an example of how Egley is familiar but just not the person you think of first.  His 'Lady of Shalott' crops up when you start talking about Pre-Raphaelite-esque depictions of Tennyson's poem but he gets lost in the Waterhouse deluge.  It has much to recommend it - look at the window in the back of the image, with those tiny lead cells, and that mirror above the frame where she was working.  Our little blonde lady is clutching her heart as she stares at her fatal attraction both as a symbol of love and also her now progressing death.  The stonework is gorgeous.

The Talking Oak (1857)
Another Tennyson subject is The Talking Oak, with the lovely Olivia hugging the tree (who wishes he was a younger, smaller tree so she could get her arms around him).  I am oddly reminded of Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough because of the way the figure and the tree are shoved over to the left and the beautiful swell of countryside dominates our view.

Just as the Twig is Bent, the Tree's Inclined (1861)

Just as the Twig is Bent, the Tree's Inclined (1861)
These two are my favourite of Maw Egley's works as they are marvellously gossipy and show how Blondie becomes a prize flirt at the expense of her brunette sibling.  It's all very ambiguous in whether it's a good thing that Blondie neglected her studies, but we all know that girls who read don't get the boys and will remain reflected in their miserable corner.  Well, we've all learned something today.

Music Hath its Charms (Coming Events Cast Their Shadow) (Military Aspirations) (1861)
Marvellous.  I saw this one with alternative titles which mean something no doubt.  Do we assume that the girl at the front is unaware of how much the little boy wants her attention?  She is sort of the opposite of Blondie who could not be doing more to get her chap's attention.  Do we also assume that our little boy is going to grow up to be a soldier?  Please can someone tell me who the handsome chap on the wall is, but I'm guessing he is a war hero - is it Nelson or Wellington or someone?  This is what I have Mr Walker for, he knows that sort of thing.  Anyway, Egley's oddness did not endear him to the painting-buying market and he never made it as a massively successful artist.  When he died, he left only £125 and no longer lived in his own home, staying with relatives.  It would be nice to know a little more about him and to see him paintings together again in a retrospective.  

After all, he was the man who missed the posting date for the first ever Christmas card...


  1. The music on the stand is by Louis-Antoine Jullien (short version for he had 36 names) who did rather worse than Mr. Egley, ending his life in an asylum, which he reached via a debtors' prison. Not him in the picture though.


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