George Wilson - A Brief Biography
The 'Brotherhood', as some of the closer friends within the older group had started to refer to themselves in conversation, consisted originally of John Butler Yeats (1839-1922), John Trivett Nettleship)1841-1902), Edwin John Ellis (1848-1916) and Sydney Prior Hall (1842-1922). Hall left the group very early on and was immediately replaced by the much younger George Wilson. The other painter friends who intermingled with the group at the time, but who were never so closely involved, included Samuel Butler (1835-1902); Thomas William Gale Butler (exhib. 1874); Frank Potter (1845-1887), and Robert Catterson Smith (1853-1938). From within this group, it was J.T. Nettleship who remained the closest of friends throughout Wilson's life.
A brief anecdote that displays both Wilson's nature and the depth of their friendship recounts how, when Nettleship was still young, he had developed a degree of alcoholism to cover the pain from a riding accident. Wilson is recorded as having taken him away on a six months painting tour, on the advice of Dr Thomas Barlow (the renowned oculist and physician to Queen Victoria), during which he never left his side until he was cured. Wilson promptly gave Barlow a delightful watercolour landscape in grateful thanks. This painting, entitled A Fallen Beech, now hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.[i]
It was probably through Nettleship that Wilson met another of his patrons, the architect Halsey Ricardo, but it was through J.B. Yeats that he was introduced to Dr John Todhunter, the Irish doctor turned poet and playwright, who was to become his greatest advocate and lifelong friend, patron - and his first biographer.[ii] Todhunter amassed a fine collection of works both by some of the 'greater' Pre-Raphaelites of the day as well as supporting in particular those who never wished to profess to such greatness. Unfortunately, Todhunter's collection appears to have been lost - possibly to a storage warehouse fire - so a significant portion of Wilson's finer work is currently deemed lost with that collection.
In 1871, Wilson was recommended by Thomas Heatherley to the Royal Academy Schools, which he duly entered on July 17th. However, he stayed at the RA for only one year, since in May 1872, he entered the newly founded Slade School of Fine Art under the tuition of Edward Poynter, where he was joined again by his old friends Nettleship and Yeats. Poynter's tuition was to have a profound effect on Wilson's draughtsmanship and undoubtedly influenced his keen interest in the medium of chalks - in which he came to excel. The three friends studied for a further year at the Slade, but by mid 1873 had left to make their respective ways in the world.
In Wilson's case, this appears to have meant at least two further years of study and travel in Italy, following which he returned to take a studio lodging with Nettleship in north London. It was from there that he commenced his somewhat cursory flirtation with the exhibition galleries when he exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy with an enigmatic chalk drawing entitled Study of a Head. In the same year, he exhibited another chalk drawing, A Bacchante, at The Dudley. In 1878, he was at the RA again with the poignant allegorical oil painting, The Quest from Shelley's 'Alastor', but thereafter, he exhibited only infrequently at the Grosvenor, the Dudley, Liverpool's Walker, the RGI and the RI.
Although several of the Heatherley 'Brotherhood' intermingled with the 'great' Pre-Raphaelites of the day and their followers, and although Wilson must inevitably have been caught up in such gatherings at the time, he was of an entirely retiring nature and had no personal aspirations for either fame or fortune. He led a largely nomadic life, coming and going as the mood took him, travelling regularly to Italy to paint, as well as to the south of England and, of course, his homeland of Scotland. He also once visited Algiers.
Wilson completely shunned all publicity and he exhibited and sold his work only very infrequently. Rather critically, for the future identification of his works, he never, ever, considered signing his work - probably largely in the belief that no-one would ever find it important or necessary to ascribe their creation to himself.
[i] In typed notes accompanying to the Helen Barlow Bequest, Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
[ii] Todhunter, John, English Illustrate Magazine: George Wilson, Macmillan & Co, London, 1891