PortCities London

William Lionel Wyllie and the Thames


First-hand knowledge

The Thames from Tilbury to London
View full size image The Thames from Tilbury to London.
William Lionel Wyllie (1851-1931) had first-hand knowledge of the River Thames. He sailed its length from London to the sea and painted, drew and etched most of its features – its craft, people and landscape.

When Wyllie died in Portsmouth in 1931, he was the country's most famous marine painter. He was known for:

  • his paintings of the Navy
  • his late work, the Panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar
  • his watercolours
  • his drypoint etchings.

But nearly 50 years before, in the early 1880s, Wyllie had made his name with his unconventional paintings of the River Thames.

Family of artists

Engraved portrait of William Lionel Wyllie
View full size image Engraved portrait of William Lionel Wyllie.
Wyllie was born into a family of artists in 1851. The rather bohemian family spent their summers on the coast of northern France. Wyllie recalled the journey by steamer down the crowded Thames from London on their way to Boulogne.

When he was about 12 he went to art school in London, and in 1866 he started at the Royal Academy Schools. In 1869 he won the Turner Gold Medal for landscape.

In 1870 one of the first pictures he exhibited at the Royal Academy was London from the Monument, a panoramic view of the city and the river.

Wyllie's Thames pictures led him to be elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1889. By 1907, when he became a Royal Academician, he had moved to a house at the entrance of Portsmouth Harbour. He had largely turned to painting naval and historical subjects. Nevertheless, he continued to make prints of London and the Thames to the end of his life.

   Back to London and the artist at work