William Dyce, the painter and educator, was born on the 19th of September, 1806.
William Dyce was a painter and educator, not a painter and decorator, albeit he is famous for having decorated the Palace of Westminster with some of his paintings. Those paintings are known as frescoes and have nothing to do with Al Fresco or even al fresco as they were all painted inside. Frescos are those paintings that are painted on walls and ceilings, in plaster that is not quite dry, so that the paint is absorbed into the surface layer. Dyce decorated many famous buildings and residences in Britain with his frescoes and of particular note are those of sacred subjects in All Saints Church, Margaret Street, in London; his depiction of Comus in the summer house of Buckingham Palace; the ‘Consecration of Archbishop Parker’, painted in Lambeth Palace; his 1846 cartoon of the ‘Baptism of Ethelbert’ in the House of Lords; and those of Neptune and Britannia, at Osborne House, which was done under the patronage of Prince Albert.
Dyce got the job of painting the Palace of Westminster through an 1843 competition, but in reality, he was probably the only man in Britain with a technical knowledge of frescoes and was an obvious choice. His appointment received the backing of Cornelius, the great German fresco painter, who had come over to England to give advice and perhaps had an eye on taking over the chief direction of the pictorial scheme. Cornelius ended up telling 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 theme of his great frescoes, which were intended to decorate the Queen’s Robing Room in what was then the new Houses of Parliament, was the legend of King Arthur. Dyce had some difficulty in combining christian virtues with scenes from those legends. Reconciling the courtly romance of Malory into the world of Victorian sexual morality and avoiding pitfalls, such as the incest that conceived Mordred, took some doing. He solved the dilemma by turning to allegory in his depictions. The values portrayed are: mercy (Sir Gawaine's vow); hospitality (Sir Tristram’s admission to the Fellowship of the Round Table); generosity (Arthur spared by the victor); religion (the vision of Sir Galahad); and courtesy (Sir Tristram harping to la Belle Yseult). Two proposed frescoes, courage and fidelity, were never executed as ill-health led to Dyce’s collapse in 1863. These frescoes are his finest productions and a lasting tribute to a great Scottish artist.
William Dyce is sometimes described as a precursor of the Pre-Raphaelites, but a website dedicated to that clique describes him as “a liberal-minded artist …who recognised the Brotherhood's purpose and potential, and who adopted certain aspects of the group's style.” Whatever the accuracy of those views, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was not formed until 1848. Dyce was certainly a sympathiser, who shared many of their principles and used primed white canvases in true Pre-Raphaelite fashion. His individual style is a blend of Nazarene and Pre-Raphaelite ideals and is characterised by an innate religious feeling. His primary known works, such as 'Titian's first Essay in Colour' and the startlingly illusionistic 'Pegwell Bay', show Pre-Raphaelite influences in their highly realistic detail and bright colours. The latter drew praise from John Ruskin, the most important and influential writer on Victorian era art, whose interest Dyce had secured on behalf of the Brotherhood in 1851. “Well done, Mr. Dyce! and many times well done!” said the impressed art critic in 1857.
Pegwell Bay is Dyce’s most renowned work of art, but is atypical of his paintings. His carefully detailed seaside landscape was the product of an 1858 trip to the popular holiday resort of Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate in Kent. It shows his family gathering shells, but looking beyond the obvious, Dyce’s interest in geology is shown by his careful recording of the flint encrusted strata and eroded faces of the chalk cliffs. In addition, there is the barely visible trail of Donati’s comet, which is a subtle touch. Pegwell Bay is in the Tate Gallery, however, the greatest single collection of his art is in Aberdeen.
William Dyce was born in Aberdeen on the 19th of September, 1806, and in 1823, at the age of seventeen, he gained an M. A. from Aberdeen’s Marischal College. He was destined for one of the learned professions after studying medicine and theology, but instead turned to painting. At first, he studied in the school of the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, then as a probationer in the Royal Academy of London under the patronage of Sir Thomas Lawrence. Having made a change of career and moved to London, he then made another change of scenery and decamped to Rome in 1825. In Rome, he became impressed with the aims and ideals of the Nazarenes, Friedrich Overbeck and Cornelius, and also by Italian Renaissance painting, particularly Raphael. Dyce had strong beliefs in presenting moral code through art and aspired to become a serious religious painter. From the mid-1840s, he was labelled as ‘the British Nazarene’ and many of his works are characterised by a neo-classical yet contemporary approach to biblical history. As an example, his Gethsemane is located in a Scottish glen – where else.
In 1837, Dyce was appointed Master of the School of Design of the Board of Manufactures in Edinburgh and in 1838, he transferred to London as Superintendent of the new School of Design at Somerset House, which would later become the Royal College of Art. In 1840, the year he became Director, he produced a report on the systems of training in France and Germany, which led to a remodelling of the English system. Dyce resigned in 1843, to take up the post of Professor of Fine Art at Kings College in London. He pioneered the teaching of art education in state schools and was the ‘father’ of the ‘South Kensington School’ system of art teaching that prevailed for the remainder of the 19th Century. Dyce had interests broader than art as in 1828, he obtained the Blackwell prize at Aberdeen for an essay on electro-magnetism and later published an edition of the Book of Common Prayer, with a dissertation on Gregorian music. He was an accomplished organist and composer, who also founded the Motett Society for the revival of ancient church music. William Dyce died in Streatham, London, on the 14th of February, 1864.