William Bowyer Biography

Portrait of William Bowyer

William Bowyer RA (1926-2015)

Son of Arthur and Emma, William Bowyer worked in the tradition of English figurative painting and English landscape painters, particularly Constable and Turner, strongly inspired his work. Bowyer was a member of the Royal Watercolour Society, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and, for thirty years, he was a leading figure in the New English Art Club.

Bowyer was born in Leek, Staffordshire, into a family whose main income came from the hat shop run by his mother.  During the Second World War he was conscripted to work in a colliery in Stoke-on-Trent as one of Ernest Bevin’s ‘Bevin Boys’, before going on to study at Burslem School of Art and the Royal College of Art, London. Here he developed abiding friendships with his inspirational teachers Professor Carel Weight and Ruskin Spear.

Bowyer represented a tradition in British painting that extended back to the late 19th century. As honorary secretary of the New English Art Club for three decades, he was a fitting successor to luminaries such as Philip Wilson Steer, John Singer Sargent and Stanhope Forbes. His art was essentially conservative, but his bright hues and lucid compositions gave his landscapes – above all the Suffolk coast and the riverside at Chiswick in west London – a post-impressionist brilliance. He was also a distinguished member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, his subjects ranging from the Queen to the mineworkers’ leader Arthur Scargill (a natural corollary of his early mining years). Bowyer’s success with portraiture – his pictures of Scargill and the cricketer Viv Richards were acquired in 1988 by the National Portrait Gallery – was due in part to his sense of composition and colour. However, his strength also derived from his undeniable engagement with his sitters. Working from photographs as well as from life, he conveyed a variety of personas, and was particularly adept at painting children, whether for private patrons or for more personal reasons – in the case of his granddaughter, so that she could “remember me once I’m gone”.

The post-war world brought greyness and Bowyer contributed to the bleak tenderness of the so-called “Kitchen Sink School”, although sadly his work from that period was destroyed by fire. During the early years of his career, Bowyer began to make a living from education, and taught the future pop artist Peter Blake at Gravesend Technical College and School of Art until 1951. Later, he became Head of Painting at Maidstone College of Art, his wife Vera providing the power behind the throne and her practical, creative business acumen went side by side with raising their family and supporting William.

After Bowyer became a Royal Academician in 1981, he left his teaching post at Maidstone College of Art, Kent, and began to paint full-time. Bowyer acquired a summer residence at Walberswick, near Southwold (where impressionist painter painter Philip Wilson Steer painted) in 1993. Here he indulged his passion for fishing, oysters and playing as well as painting cricket and, alongside the Thames at Chiswick, where he lived for 60 years, this haven provided a major source of inspiration in his work. Latterly when he had a mobility scooter, he would head down to the shore loaded with equipment (a mechanized Cézanne on his way to work). If his steed stuck, a simple low growl would bring immediate succour from a passerby.

Averse to publicity, he went without a solo show, until, in 2003, he appeared at Messum’s Gallery in Cork Street, London. By then he was 77 and willing to admit that it was time to come “out of the woodwork”, although he had managed quite nicely up to then, through group exhibitions, private sales and commissions from august bodies such as MCC.

A stroke six years earlier may have added to Bowyer’s sense of urgency, although equally important was the encouragement of Ian Collins, the author of Water Marks: Art in East Anglia (2010). Collins had met Bowyer in Southwold and, marvelling at his reserves of unsold pictures, described him aptly as “a splendidly silent painter who wants simply to paint”.

Despite the element of repetition, few artists have represented water and its environs more vividly or rigorously. Bowyer’s combination of chromatic intensity and taut, linear designs, often with a diagonal emphasis, has an almost crystalline quality. His art rapidly developed vitality and charm and he maintained a consistent style for decades, notwithstanding the occasional accusation by unfriendly critics that he worked to a formula. He remained true to his luminous brand of naturalism to the end.

Fellow Academician Ken Howard says of his work: “The content of his pictures is the artist’s life, whether it be his beloved river at Hammersmith, Walberswick in Suffolk – where he escaped whenever possible – his friends and family, as seen in his strong and challenging portraits, or his life-long love of cricket. Bill Bowyer’s work communicates with us directly. It gives us a way of seeing the world and above all it is life enhancing.”

Mick Rooney, another fellow Royal Academician, writes:

I regard William Bowyer as the epitome of an English painter. His name alone along with Stringer, Arrowsmith and Fletcher is a seminal reminder of English history….. William Bowyer always moved forward, never dwelling in nostalgia. His life’s work attests to a most certain nowness and directness. Somehow his passing is just that – still moving forward, still wreathed in the fumey halo of a fine cigar – “that’ll be alright”