William Mulready, R.A.

(1 April 1786 - 7 July 1863)

Genre painter, the son of a leather-breeches maker, was born at Ennis, Co. Clare, on 1 April 1786. His father came to London before he was five years old, and settled in Old Compton Street, Soho. The child had already shown a precocious tendency towards art by copying an engraving of St. Paul's Cathedral, on the boards of the floor under the bedstead, with a piece of chalk. What are supposed to be more or less correct reproductions of some later, but still very early drawings of his illustrate a little book called The Looking Glass; a true History of the Early Years of an Artist, by Theophilus Marcliffe, which was published in 1805. It is said to be a true history of the first fifteen years of Mulready's life, written by William Godwin from information supplied by Mulready himself. A reprint of the rare original, with an appendix by Mr. F. G. Stephens, was published in 1889.

Mulready's parents were Roman catholics, and though very poor seem to have given him the best education in their power. He was first sent to a Wesleyan school, and when ten years old to a Roman catholic school in Castle Street, Long Acre. After this he passed nearly two years with an Irish chaplain, and then some time with one or two other catholic priests. From one or other he learned some French and a little Latin, and developed a love of reading, which he gratified by taking up books at the stalls on his way to and from school. The stallman at Aldrich's in Covent Garden lent him books to take home, and gave him prints to colour. Once when he was chalking letters on a wall in imitation of the advertisements, and holding forth to an admiring group of boys as to the proper treatment of the letters, his handsome and intelligent face attracted the attention of John Graham [q.v.], the historical painter, who engaged him as a model for his picture of "Solomon receiving-the blessing of his father David," which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1797.

He made a few pence occasionally by selling drawings and 'Turks' caps' (geometrical ornaments composed of circles and segments of circles) to his schoolfellows, and with the proceeds bought a few books and a little collection of plays. The engravings to the latter representing actors in their favourite parts he used to copy with great care. He began when about twelve years of age to draw faces and other parts of the human body from nature, and would haunt the stage door in order to obtain a near view of John Kemble, whom he drew in many of his characters. A copy by him of a figure of a harlequin attracted the notice of a young Irish painter named Neill, who recommended him to go to Mr. Baynes, a drawing master. Mr. Baynes recognised the lad's talent, but being a landscape painter would not receive him as a pupil. An application to a Mr. John Corbet, who kept a puppet-show in Norfolk Street, Strand, was more useful. This gentleman gave him drawings and a cast to copy, and recommended him to read Walker's Anatomy. This he did with great diligence, using as a study the space beneath the altar of the Roman catholic chapel, near Buckingham Gate, which adjoined the house of the priest who was then instructing him. Greatly desiring to become a student at the Royal Academy, Mulready, when about thirteen, took courage, and knocked at the door of Thomas Banks [q. v.], the sculptor, with a drawing of the "Apollo Belvedere" in his hand. Banks received him kindly, sent him to a drawing-school in Furnival's Inn Court, and afterwards, the master having absconded, gave him tuition in his own studio, with the result that after one failure Mulready gained admission as a student of the Royal Academy in November 1800, by a drawing from a statue by Michel Angelo.

The lad was not only industrious, but independent, and from the age of fifteen contrived in some way to make his own living without trenching on the small resources of his parents. When sixteen he gained the larger silver palette of the Society of Arts for skill in painting, and about this time he made the acquaintance of John Varley [q. v.] the water-colour painter, who took him into his house (2 Harris Place, Oxford Street) as a sort of pupil-teacher. Varley and he appear to have had many tastes in common, including one for pugilism. While with Varley he improved greatly as an artist, and laid the foundation of his success as a teacher, on which his future livelihood was mainly to depend. Among those artists who benefited most by his instruction were John Linnell [q. v.] and William Henry Hunt [q. v.], who was placed under his especial care. Unfortunately he did not confine his attention to his master's pupils, but fell in love with one of Varley's sisters, and married her in 1803, when he was in his eighteenth year. The union proved a very unhappy one. Mulready's earnings were not sufficient to support a wife and the four children which she soon brought him, and dissensions arose between the young couple, which were terminated, after about six years of married life, by a separation which was deliberate, formal, and final. Mrs. Mulready, who survived her husband by a few months, declared that though they generally lived in the same neighbourhood for nearly fifty years after the separation, she had only once caught sight of him in the street. No explanation is given of this complete breakdown of sympathy, but their poverty probably did not tend to smooth the temper of Mulready, which was naturally violent. 'I remember the time,' said Mulready, 'when I had a wife, four children, nothing to do, and was 600l. in debt.'

His want of occupation was not the result of idleness. He taught drawing, and used to say that he had 'tried his hand at everything from a miniature to a panorama.' The panorama is supposed to have been one by Sir Robert Kerr Porter [q. v.]. His artistic ambition is shown by the subjects of his first compositions. He painted "Ulysses and Polyphemus,""'The Disobedient Prophet," and "The Supper at Emmaus," and made a large cartoon of "The Judgment of Solomon." We are told that none of these works gave any great evidence of talent, and it is probable that his intercourse with Varley moderated his ambition, and turned his attention to landscape. In 1804, he made his first appearance at the Royal Academy with two views of Kirkstall Abbey, and one of a cottage at Knaresborough, the result of a trip to Yorkshire, and he exhibited three landscapes in each of the following years. At this time he was much engaged in designing for children's books, a whole series of which were published between 1807 and 1809. During these three years he exhibited figure subjects; in 1807, "Old Kaspar" at the Royal Academy; in 1808, "The Rattle" at the British Institution, and "The Dead Hare," and a "Girl at Wor" at the Academy. In 1809, he sent to the Academy "Returning from the Alehouse," since called "Fair-time" (now in the National Gallery, with a new background painted in 1840, when it was again exhibited at the Academy), and to the British Institution. This was his first work of any importance, a simple domestic scene, of the class of art to which he subsequently devoted himself, influenced perhaps by the success that Wilkie had just achieved by his. "Blind Fiddler." In 1811, he improved his position by a picture of the Wilkie type called "The Barber's Shop" (a lout brought to have his red locks cropped by the village barber), and continued this success by other humorous pictures of boy life. In 1813, he exhibited "Punch," "Boys Fishing" in 1814, and in 1815, "Idle Boys." In November 1815, he was elected an associate, and in February 1816, a Royal Academician, so that his name never appears as an associate in the catalogues. In 1816, the picture of "The Fight interrupted," in which we see the bully of the school severely damaged by a brave little champion of liberty, justified his rapid promotion, and greatly increased his reputation. His style, which had hitherto shown his very careful study of the Dutch masters and a desire to rival Wilkie now changed to one more original and peculiar to himself.

About this time he again turned his attention to illustration, and published a series of carefully composed and graceful designs to the Vicar of Wakefield, from three of which he afterwards painted pictures. The skill of Mulready as a painter was never more fully displayed than in the imitation of the silks and brocades, the woodwork of the counter, and the coat of the little spaniel lying upon a pile of rich stuffs. It is by some considered his finest work, but Mulready himself preferred "Train up a Child in the way he should go," a boy giving money to some poor Lascars. This, as well as "Crossing the Ford," another of Mulready's most popular compositions, was exhibited before the Vicar of Wakefield series, and afterwards Mulready did no better work. His health had been much impaired, but neither age nor ill health diminished the ardour with which he worked. He was one of the most careful and conscientious of artists, and made separate studies for every part of his pictures down to the smallest details. To the last, like Etty, he was a constant attendant at the Royal Academy Life School, drawing from the nude, and he commenced some larger pictures with life-size figures, as though his career was commencing instead of drawing to its close. "When over seventy-five years of age he set himself to practise drawing hands and heads rapidly in pen and ink, at a little life school held by the painters in the neighbourhood of Kensington." "I had lost somewhat of my power in that way," he said, "but I have got it up again. It won't do to let these things go."

Mr. F. G. Stephens, his biographer, who knew him well in his later life, tells us that his society was pleasant, that he was full of humour, very kind of heart, considerate and helpful to those in need, loving children, and loved by them in return. He was devoted to the Royal Academy, and his attention to its affairs was once recognised by the present of a large silver goblet by seventy-three of his brother artists. He nevertheless seems to have lived a solitary and reticent life, and had few friends. Among these were Sir John Swinburne, with whom he used to stay at his seat at Capheaton, near Newcastle, and Mr. Sheepshanks, at whose house at Blackheath he was a frequent visitor. Mr. Sheepshanks was also a constant purchaser of Mulready's pictures. His loss was severely felt by the artist, to whom was consigned the task of hanging his magnificent bequest of pictures at South Kensington. Among them are many of Mulready's finest pictures, and studies of Mr. Sheepshanks himself, his house, and a view from its windows.

Mulready resided at Kensington Gravel Pits from 1811 to 1827, but he moved to Bayswater in 1827, and lived at 1 Lindon Grove for the rest of his life. Though subject to attacks of the heart, he remained active to the end, and on the last day of his life he attended a committee meeting of the Royal Academy. He died on 7 July 1863, in the seventy-eighth year of his age, and was buried at Kensal Green.

Mulready was one of the founders and most active members of the Artist Fund, to which he gave the right of engraving his popular picture of "The Wolf and the Lamb" which brought that charity the sum of 1,000l. Among his numerous works was the first penny postage envelope issued by Rowland Hill in 1840. It was adorned with a design emblematical of Britannia sending winged messengers to all quarters of the globe. This design was the subject of a celebrated caricature by John Leech in Punch. Mulready was often painted by his brother artists, and sat for "Duncan Gray" in Wilkie's picture of that name. One of the best of his portraits was painted and engraved by John Linnell. "The Wolf and the Lamb" belongs to the queen, but most of Mulready's best works are now at South Kensington Museum, and the National Gallery, having been bequeathed to the nation by Mr. Vernon and Mr. Sheepshanks. A large number of his drawings, including many of his carefully executed chalk studies of the nude, are also at South Kensington.

[Stephens's Masterpieces of Mulready; Stephens's Mulready, in Great Artist Series; Redgraves' Century of Painters; Redgrave's Dictionary; Bryan's Dictionary (Graves and Armstrong); Cunningham's Lives (Heaton); Richard Redgrave a Memoir; Nollekens and his Times (article Banks); The Looking Glass (ed. Stephens, 1805); Catalogues of National Gallery and South Kensington Museum; Life of John Linnell; Pye's Patronage of British Art, which contains engravings of some portrait sketches by Mulready; The Portfolio, 1887; Griffin's Contemporary Biography, in Add. MS. 28511.]


William Mulready was born in Ennis, County Clare. Early in his life, in 1792, the family moved to London, where he was able to get an education and was taught painting well enough so that he was accepted at the Royal Academy School at the age of fourteen.

In 1802, he married Elizabeth Varley (1784-1864), a landscape painter. Their three children, Paul Augustus (1805-1864), William (1805-1878), and Michael (1807-1889) also became artists. His relationship with his wife however deteriorated gradually over the years, which is detailed in papers stored at the library of the Victoria and Albert Museum. His strong Catholic beliefs prevented any chance of a divorce but they separated. He accused her of "bad conduct" but shied from providing details. In a letter to him in 1827, she blamed him entirely for the collapse of their marriage, suggesting cruelty, pederastic activities and adultery were the reasons.

His son, William Mulready Junior (1805-1878), lived in London and maintained a career of a portrait painter and picture restorer. He had five children (Ellen, Mary, Augustus Edwin, Henry William, and John). They also were trained as artists, but not all of them pursued the artistic career: Henry William and John described themselves as 'house painters'. Augustus Edwin Mulready (1844-1904) was the most successful of them and became known as a member of the Cranbrook Colony of artists.

Many of his early pictures show landscapes, before he started to build a reputation as a genre painter from 1808, painting mostly everyday scenes from rural life. Besides this, he also illustrated books, including the first edition of Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare in 1807. His paintings were very popular in Victorian times. His first painting of importance, "Returning from the Ale House", now in the Tate Gallery, London, under the title "Fair Time", appeared in 1809.

In 1815, he became an Associate of the Royal Academy (A.R.A.) and R.A. in 1816. In the same year, he also was awarded the French "Légion d'honneur". Mulready's most important pictures are in the Victoria and Albert Museum and in the Tate Gallery. In the former are 33, among them "Hampstead Heath" (1806); "Giving a Bite" (1836); "First Love" (1839); "The Sonnet" (1839); "Choosing the Wedding Gown" (1846); and "The Butt" (Shooting a Cherry) (1848). In the latter are five, including a Snow Scene. In the National Gallery, Dublin, are "Young Brother" and "The Toy Seller". His "Wolf and the Lamb" is in Royal possession.

In 1840, Mulready designed the illustrations for the postal stationery, known as Mulready stationery were introduced by the royal Mail at the same time as the Penny Black in May 1840, They were issued in two forms; one variant was precut to a diamond or lozenge shape and folded to form an envelope that could be held together by seal at the apex of the topmost flap; and lettersheets that were cut in rectangles, folded over and sealed or tucked in.

Stationery manufacturers, whose livelihood was threatened by the new lettersheet, produced many caricatures (or lampoons) of Mulready's design. Only six days after their introduction, on May 12, Rowland Hill wrote that; I fear we shall have to substitute some other stamp for that design by Mulready ... the public have shown their disregard and even distaste for beauty, and within two months a decision had been made to replace the Mulready designed stationery. Essentially Mulready's designs were a folly.

Funerary monument, Kensal Green Cemetery, London. He died at the age of 77 in Bayswater, London and is buried in the nearby Kensal Green Cemetery where a monument to his memory was erected.

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885–1900; Censuses 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891; Lamb, Charles (1807). Tales from Shakespear designed for the use of young persons. London: Thomas Hodgkins; Melville, Fred J, Postage Stamps in the Making, Stanley Gibbons, 1916; The Walters Art Museum; Mulready stationery: Caricatures; The Queen's Own: Stamps That Changed the World., National Postal Museum; Mulready Letter Sheets.

View artist's work: William Mulready, R.A.(1786-1863)

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