British, 1848 - 1890
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Scottish landscape and figure painter. Studied in London. Exhibited new works at the Royal Academy, including 'The Quest from Shelley's 'Alastor', and two works at the NWS. London address, but visited Scotland every year. Als travelled in Italy and North Africa.
Source: 'Dictionary of British Art: Victorian Painters', Christopher Wood, Antique Collectors' Club, 2008
- 'The English pre-Raphaelite painters: their associates and successors', Percy H. Bate, George Bell & Sons, 1899
- The Studio, 1904, pp 139-43
- Website of Robin J H Fanshawe, researcher of George Wilson
"It may be that exception could be taken to the inclusion of George Wilson in an account of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and it is true that he was neither a member nor an associate of the group; but it must be admitted that the same spirit was there—he was as little content as they to adopt the routine and the conventions of picture making. Love of Nature and reverence for her was evident in everything that he did; and the same reaction against a mere display of skilful technique, the same impatience of the attempt to formulate rules by which the production of masterpieces could be ensured, and the same honest endeavour to be individual, to paint good pictures, and paint them in the best possible way, mark him as being in sympathy with the aims of the earlier English Pre- Raphaelites. He sought his own path, he aimed at his own goal; and, undeterred by his chronic ill-health, and unmoved by the damnation of faint praise bestowed upon him by some casual art critic, he went his way, and accomplished a life-work which has not been recognised as the really fine artistic achievement that it is.
Born in 1848, near Cullen, a fishing town on the Banffshire coast, he showed even as a youth the bent of his genius; and when about eighteen, he came to London, having determined to make painting his profession. Heatherley's studio was his first training-ground, and the Royal Academy School for a short time numbered him among its pupils; but this he left to study under Mr (now Sir) E. J. Poynter, at the Slade School. Always of a retiring and sensitive disposition, he never was a popular painter; and, caring but little for public praise or blame, he was content to work quietly at his own ideals, happy in a small circle of friends and admirers, who loved both the man and his art. His appearance at exhibitions was infrequent and irregular—indeed, it often happened that, seeking ever a more perfect interpretation of his conceptions, he failed to have his canvases ready in time for the exhibitions for which they were intended. A reticent, shy, silent man, loving music, children, and flowers, his spirit attuned to the most delicate appreciation of the beautiful in Nature and imagination, he worked to the end, in spite of chronic ill-health, with steadfast courage; and when he died in 1890, he left behind him a series of pictures full of a delight in beauty for beauty's sake, full of a distinctive poetic quality, and noticeable for a charm of colour that is evident in all his work, either in landscape or in figure painting.
In his landscapes there is a certain idyllic feeling which has been said to recall Mason: trees he loved, the grandeur and variety of their forms appealed to him, and he depicted inimitably "the sunned spaces of grassy glades seen through and under the trees, and steep grassy slopes in sunshine or shadow, and the wild tangle of long grass and weeds and flowers." Such landscapes are fit settings for the beautiful visions of old. Dryads and Oreads would seem to haunt such mellow valleys; and the highest manifestations of Wilson's genius are those works in which he employs a delightful poetic landscape as a background for some ideal figure. Two very typical and lovely examples are the magnificent vision of Asia, from Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound," and the equally fine Alastor, inspired by the same poet's work. The last picture has been thus described: "The Alastor, exhibited many years ago at the Academy, represents the Poet of Shelley's poem as he comes to the lonely spot in the woods where he is to die at moonrise. He puts aside the branches of the thicket, through which he has to force his way, with his right hand, peering through them with wistful, melancholy eyes, while with his left he presses his scanty drapery to his breast, as though his heart itself were a wound. The last faint afterglow of sunset is seen through the trees above his head, and a single white moth, disturbed by his coming, flutters away by his left shoulder. A few withered leaves, whose brown tints are of great value in the scheme of colour, mark the time as late autumn. The likeness of the poet's face to the well-known portrait of Shelley will be evident to everyone. In this exquisite picture Wilson has embodied the very spirit of Shelley's poem—the spirit of solitude. It is genius making its way alone through the wilderness of the world. This is one of the most perfectly finished of his pictures. The figure is a masterpiece of expression; and the lovely branch drawing is at once true to Nature and subtly composed; as a piece of rich and delicate colour, it is beyond praise; and the whole has a haunting intensity, yet is full of that decorative quality which runs like music through all this painter's work."
One can but wish that the large picture to illustrate Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci" had been carried to completion. The mystic atmosphere of the poem, the dim land of fantasy, lit by the light that never was on sea or land: what artist could have rendered these for us with half the sympathetic power of Wilson? But, diffident of his own work, and impatient of some little lack of success in attaining his ideal, he destroyed the canvas. It was this constant seeking after further perfection, a dissatisfaction with what had already been achieved, that caused some of the blemishes in his pictures—faults of drawing, for instance, and a certain lack of freedom, produced by working and re-working in an attempt to get the exact pose of the figure, the precise gesture which would best express the ideal he had before him. That he was really a fine and reverent draughtsman of the figure is evident from the preliminary studies for his pictures; and it is a great pity that his strenuous endeavours after a more perfect accomplishment should have resulted (as it must be admitted that they sometimes did) in some slight lack of spontaneity.
In conclusion, it may be again noted that throughout the work of George Wilson the atmosphere is essentially ethereal. The rare air is that of a poet's world, the sunbathed Arcadia of nymph and faun, the mystic land of faërie; but the air is the open air, and not the perfumed incense-laden breeze, that haunts the mind when one thinks of Rossetti's superb conceptions, or Solomon's mystically sensuous visions. He dreamed of beauty, and he painted poems because he lived in them; and though he may not have been a painter of the highest rank, though strength may not be the keynote of his art, the world would have been the poorer lacking his exquisite work."
Excerpt from 'The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters: Their Associates and Successors', pp 66-68, Percy H. Bate, George Bell and Sons, London, 1899.
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