Third son of William Dyce, M.D., F.R.S. (Edinb.), of Fonthill and Cuttlehill, co. Aberdeen (lineally descended from William Dyce of Belhelvie, co. Aberdeen, in 1565), and cousin of the Rev. Alexander Dyce [q. v.], was born in Marischal Street, Aberdeen, on 19 Sept. 1806. His mother was daughter of James Chalmers of Westburn in the same county, and belonged to a family which had been honourably connected for centuries with the town and county of Aberdeen. Dyce was educated at Marischal College, university of Aberdeen, and took the degree of M.A. at the age of sixteen. His father, who was a noted physician and of great scientific attainments, wished him to adopt either medicine or theology, both of which he had studied, in preference to painting. Dyce, however, secretly pursued his studies in art, and by selling his productions at last earned a sufficient sum to enable him to embark on a trading smack for London.
He procured an introduction to the president of the Royal Academy, who immediately discerned Dyce's talent and obtained his father's permission for him to study art. Dyce set to work making drawings at the Egyptian Hall, and was soon after admitted a probationer in the school of the Royal Academy. Not being satisfied with the system there, he eagerly embraced a chance of visiting Rome offered to him by Alexander Day [q. v.], with whom and with William Holwell Carr [q. v.] he had made acquaintance. He started in the autumn of 1825 with Day, and remained in Rome nine months, paying special attention to the study of the works of Titian and Nicolas Poussin.
In 1826 he returned to Aberdeen, and, besides decorating a room in his father's house, he commenced his first picture of importance, ‘Bacchus nursed by the Nymphs of Nysa,’ which he exhibited in London at the Royal Academy in 1827. In the same year Dyce returned to Rome, and now developed his tendency to that form of art which was at first styled ‘pre-Raphaelite.’ Dyce may be said to have been the originator of the movement in the English school of painting. In 1828, he painted a ‘Madonna and Child.’ Mr. Severn brought the German painter Overbeck to see it, who was followed by numbers of the German artist-colony then working in Rome.
They were astonished to find that so young a painter had unaided produced so excellent a work, painted on the principles which they had for years been striving to establish; their admiration went so far, that, hearing of Dyce's approaching departure from Rome, and ascribing it to pecuniary reasons, they subscribed among themselves a considerable sum of money to purchase the picture and enable him to prosecute his studies longer in Rome. Their kind assistance was not needed, and Dyce carried out his intention of returning, reaching Aberdeen late in 1828, and set to work painting Madonnas and other similar subjects. Finding that they did not meet with appreciation, he laid aside his brush and devoted himself to scientific pursuits; not long afterwards he gained the Blackwell prize at Marischal College for an essay on ‘Electro-magnetism.’ Shortly after this he accepted an offer from the Hon. Mrs. Mackenzie to make a copy of a portrait of her father, Lord Seaforth, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. This was so successful that he was induced to turn his thoughts to portraiture. In 1830, he settled in Edinburgh, where he remained for about seven years, during which time he painted over one hundred portraits; these were executed in a simple and vigorous style that brought out some of the finest qualities of his work, which remain hitherto almost unknown to the world in general.
His portraits of ladies and children were much admired. In 1832 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society at Edinburgh, and in 1835, an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy; this latter distinction he resigned on settling in London, when the honorary rank was conferred on him. He exhibited during these years in Edinburgh the ‘Golden Age,’ the ‘Infant Hercules,’ ‘Christ crowned with Thorns,’ the ‘Dead Christ’ (an altarpiece), etc., besides portraits; and also in London at the Royal Academy numerous portraits and a ‘Descent of Venus’ (from Ben Jonson's Triumph of Love), which attracted some attention. During his residence in Edinburgh, Dyce became intimately acquainted with several members of the board of trustees for manufactures; he was frequently consulted by them as to the best means of applying design to manufactures, and at last he matured and proposed a scheme for the improvement of their schools, which he published in the form of a letter to Mr. Maconochie Wellwood (Lord Meadowbank). This pamphlet came into the hands of the newly formed council of the school of design at Somerset House. Dyce was sent for, and eventually was requested by the president of the board of trade, Mr. Poulett Thomson, to proceed to the continent on a mission of inquiry into the working of schools established with a similar object in France, Germany, and elsewhere.
Dyce returned in 1840, and presented a report, which was printed by order of the House of Commons and led to the remodelling of the school of design, of which Dyce became director and secretary to the council. These posts he held till 1843, when he was appointed inspector of the provincial schools, which had been established on his proposal, retaining a seat on the council. These posts he resigned after about a year and a half. In 1844, he was appointed professor of the fine arts in King's College, London, where he delivered a lecture on The Theory of the Fine Arts, which attracted some notice, and which he published. In the same year he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, of which he became a full member in 1848. In the latter year it was found that by mismanagement the affairs of the school of design had been brought to a deadlock. Dyce's services were again called into requisition, and he was appointed master of the ornamental class, and master of the class of design. Being, however, thoroughly dissatisfied with the scheme of management, and finding his views not accepted, he resigned these posts, and severed his connection with an enterprise which owed much of its success to his profound knowledge of principles and his administrative ability. During his connection with the school of design Dyce had but little time for painting; he painted a ‘Madonna and Child’ (Royal Academy, 1846, purchased by the prince consort, and engraved by T. Vernon in the Art Journal, 1855), ‘St. Dunstan separating Edwy and Elgiva’ (Royal Academy, 1839), ‘Titian teaching Irene da Spilemburgo’ (Royal Academy, 1840), and ‘Jessica’ (Royal Academy, 1843). At this point Dyce, feeling that his powers of painting had grown rusty, and never having studied seriously from the life, went through a course of study in Mr. Taylor's life school in St. Martin's Lane. This laudable action was shared by his friend W. Etty, R.A. [q. v.] The result was the production of one of his most successful works, ‘King Joash shooting the arrow of deliverance,’ and of his cartoon for the competition in Westminster Hall.
The destruction of the Houses of Parliament by fire in 1831, and the consequent erection of the present buildings, offered an opportunity for the long-cherished idea of the encouragement of national art at the national expense. In April 1841, a select committee of the House of Commons was appointed, and the evidence was taken of various artists, including Dyce. This committee recommended the employment of fresco-painting to decorate the vacant wall-spaces in the new buildings, and it was implied that the style of the Munich artists was the best to be adopted. In November 1841 a royal commission was appointed, with the prince consort as chairman and Mr. Eastlake as secretary. In 1843, a cartoon competition was held in Westminster Hall, and in 1844, a fresco competition. This latter exhibition disposed of the objections of some persons who alleged that no Englishman was capable of painting in fresco, and that Cornelius must be brought over to execute them. Cornelius is stated to have himself said that it was needless to bring him over from Germany when Dyce's services were available. Dyce, who enjoyed the confidence of the prince consort, was one of the competitors, though he never concealed his opinion that fresco was unsuited to the English climate. In the meantime Dyce completed his first fresco of ‘The Consecration of Archbishop Parker’ in Lambeth Palace, two heads from which he had sent to the fresco competition. This caused him to be one of the six artists selected for the frescoes in the House of Lords, and eventually the commissioners decided that Dyce should complete a fresco in the House of Lords representing the ‘Baptism of Ethelbert’ before any other commissions were given. This was completed in 1846, and was so successful that the commissioners gave five further commissions to other artists, with instructions to adapt their frescoes to suit Dyce's design and colouring. Before executing this fresco Dyce visited Italy in order to renew and perfect his studies in fresco-painting, and addressed a paper on the subject to the fine arts commission, which was printed in one of their reports.
Dyce was next employed by the prince consort to paint a fresco at Osborne of ‘Neptune giving the Empire of the Sea to Britannia,’ and also to paint one of the frescoes from the masque of ‘Comus’ in the garden pavilion at Buckingham Palace. While painting the former Dyce suggested to his royal highness the suitability of the Arthurian legends as decorations typifying ‘Chivalry’ for the queen's robing-room in the House of Lords, remarking that they should be treated in the way that the German fresco-painters had treated the Nibelungenlied, and that Maclise was a fitting painter for the task. The subjects were adopted by the commissioners, but the execution was entrusted to Dyce, who agreed to paint in fresco seven compartments in the queen's robing-room, together with smaller compartments in the frieze, twenty-eight in all, to be completed in seven years from 1 July 1848, at a total cost of 4,800l. This contract, subsequently modified in some particulars, turned out to be an unwise one, owing to the limited portion of the year during which work in fresco is possible in this climate, and the excessive amount of research and study necessary for the correct representation of the details in the Arthurian legends. Another opportunity for indulging what was perhaps his chief predilection in art occupied much time; he was asked to undertake the interior decoration of the church of All Saints, Margaret Street, an offer he was unable to refuse, which included a series of frescoes from the life of Jesus Christ. This he completed during 1858–9, while the House of Lords' frescoes remained unfinished. Dyce did not escape censure for accepting a second commission before the previous contract had been fulfilled, and he himself admitted that to some extent he had laid himself open to it.
In 1860, his health began to fail him, and his sufferings were increased by his acute sensitiveness to the complaints made from time to time in the houses of parliament as to the non-completion of the frescoes. Finally, feeling that he would not live to complete them, he wished to return all the money he had received for them. He died in his house at Streatham on 14 February 1864, having completed but five of the frescoes in the queen's robing-room, viz. those typifying ‘Hospitality,’ ‘Religion,’ ‘Mercy,’ ‘Generosity,’ and ‘Courtesy,’ as component parts of ‘Chivalry’ which the whole series was intended to depict. Dyce was buried in St. Leonard's Church, Streatham, which had been enlarged from his designs. He married 17 January 1850, Jane Bickerton, eldest daughter of James Brand of Milanthort, Kinross-shire, (who died 29 December 1885, aged 55) by whom he left two sons and two daughters. Dyce's time was fully occupied during the later years of his life, and his easel-paintings are not numerous; among those exhibited by him at the Royal Academy may be noticed ‘The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel’ (1850), ‘King Lear and the Fool in a Storm’ (1851), ‘Christabel’ (1855), ‘Titian preparing to make his first essay in Colouring’ (1859), ‘St. John leading home his adopted Mother’ (1860, commenced in 1844), ‘George Herbert at Bemerton’ (1861) and ‘Eleazar of Damascus’ (1863).
Dyce, who was deeply learned in theology and patristic literature, was one of the leaders in the high church movement. He was also an accomplished musician, both as organist and composer, and composed a ‘Non nobis’ anthem, sometimes sung at the Royal Academy banquets. He founded the Motett Society, for the study and practice of the church music of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and in 1842–3, he published, in two quarto volumes, The Book of Common Prayer with the ancient Canto Fermo set to it at the Reformation, with two dissertations on that kind of music. For this he received the Prussian gold medal of science and art from the king of Prussia, who was then interested in framing a liturgy for his national state church. Dyce published numerous pamphlets on art and other subjects, among them being one entitled ‘Shepherds and Sheep,’ in answer to Mr. Ruskin's ‘Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds.’ In 1853, he published a pamphlet on the National Gallery. His administrative abilities were highly thought of, and he drew up a set of statutes for Dulwich College.
In 1851, he was appointed a juror of the Great Exhibition, and published a report on ‘iron and general hardware;’ in 1862, he was again a juror of the International Exhibition appointed to judge on ‘stained glass and glass used in building and decoration.’ This was a subject to which Dyce had given great attention. His mastery of it was shown in his cartoon for the memorial window to the Duke of Northumberland in St. Paul's Church, Alnwick, and in the so-called choristers' window in Ely Cathedral. In these Dyce carried out theories of his own in colour and execution; nothing was left to the discretion of the workmen, as the artist had already thought out every detail. He often employed himself in architectural designs. Dyce also designed the florin which is now in use, and was originally intended for a four-shilling piece. He declined to stand for the presidency of the Royal Academy on the death of Sir Martin Shee; he always took a prominent part in the deliberations of that body, and it was on his proposal that the class of retired academicians was established. He was also a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. His works were rather those of a learned student than an original artist, and were marked by a refinement of taste, rather than by any appeal to the feelings of the spectator. Some of his pictures are in the Scottish National Gallery at Edinburgh. Twelve of his later paintings were exhibited at Manchester in 1887, but were inadequate examples of his art. Some of his studies are at the South Kensington Museum and at Owens College, Manchester. During his residence in Edinburgh he etched the illustrations to Sir Thomas Dick Lauder's The Morayshire Floods (published 1830), and Highland Rambles (published 1837). In all his manifold accomplishments he attained a high degree of proficiency. At the Royal Academy dinner of 1864, Mr. Gladstone, speaking of Dyce's recent death, said he believed that the very ideal of the profession of an artist had rarely been more honourably exhibited than in Dyce's character.[Information from Mr. J. Stirling Dyce, F.S.A.; Memoir by J. Dafforne in the Art Journal for 1860; Encycl. Brit. (9th ed.); Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Redgraves' Century of Painters.]
Dyce, William, R. A. (Brit.) Born in Scotland (1806- 1864). Entered the schools of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1823. Studied for some time in Rome. First exhibited at the Royal Academy, in 1827, "Bacchus nursed by the Nymphs"; in 1836, "The Descent of Venus"; in 1838, "Madonna and Child"; in 1843, "Jessica"; in 1844, "Joshua shooting the Arrow of Deliverance"; in 1850, "The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel "; in 1857, "Titian's First Essay in Coloring "; in 1860, "The Man of Sorrows." He was made Associate of the Royal Academy in 1844, and Academician in 1849. In 1835 he was elected Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy, and Member some years later. He was one of the artists engaged in the decoration of the Houses of Parliament, executed frescos in Osborne House and Buckingham Palace, and was Professor of Fine Arts at Kings' College, London. He wrote several pamphlets on art subjects.
"As typical specimens of this painter, three oil-paintings, amongst those shown at the Academy, may be quoted: 'Madonna and Child,' in 1846; 'Jacob and Rachel,' in 1853; and 'Jacob shooting the Arrow,' in 1844. These are thoroughly and firmly drawn, and soberly colored, while the list named rises to great force in expression and in archaeological troth. There is also a peculiar tenderness about his style, severe as it is, a kind of reserved grace, a modesty which wins its place in the beholder's mind and retains it. It is, however, as an histories painter in fresco that Mr. Dyce is likely to be best remembered. Here his work has the merit of leading the way in a style which the French artists have brought to noble results in the churches of Paris." -- Palgrave's Essays on Art.[Artists of the Nineteenth Century, Clara Erskine Clement and Laurence Hutton, 1879.]
The Honiton lace used for Queen Victoria's Wedding Dress was designed by William Dyce, head of the then Government School of Design (later known as the Royal College of Art), and mounted on a heavy silk satin dress made by Mary Bettans.