STEER, Philip Wilson

1860 - 1942

Philip Wilson Steer - self-portrait

Born at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, Merseyside on 28 December 1860, son of Philip Steer (1810-1871), portrait-painter and teacher, and his wife Emma (1816–1898), daughter of the Revd William Harrison. In 1864 the family moved to Apsley House, Whitchurch, near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire and the children were taught at home by a governess. Between 1875 and 1877 Philip Wilson Steer followed his brother to Hereford Cathedral school and finding the examinations of the British Civil Service demanding, became an artist in 1878, studying at the Gloucester School of Art and at the South Kensington Drawing Schools 1880-1881. After being rejected by the Royal Academy of Art, he studied in Paris 1882-1884, firstly at the Académie Julian, under William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), and then in the École des Beaux Arts under Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), becoming a follower of the Impressionist school. He returned to the UK in 1884, taking a studio in Manresa Road, Chelsea and began the first of his many summer painting expeditions to Walberswick, Suffolk, a favoured location of plein-air painters such as Walter Osborne (1859-1903), at first staying at an inn on The Green and later lodged at Valley Farm on the edge of the village. Until 1887 he spent every summer there alone, formulating his own style of English impressionism and in 1888 he persuaded painter friend, Fred Brown (1851-1941), teacher and future director at Slade to join him, and by 1889 their visits to Walberswick were sandwiched between trips to Montreuil-sur-Mer and Boulogne in France, visiting Walberswick briefly for the last time in 1891. Steer exhibited at the Royal Academy 1883-1885 and in 1886 became a founder member of the New English Art Club, where he continued to exhibit regularly. Living in Chelsea, but in the summers painted in Yorkshire, the Cotswolds and the West Country and on the south and east coasts of Britain and taught at the Slade School of Fine Art, London 1893-1930, where one of his pupils was Anna Airy [q.v.]. During World War I he was recruited by Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Information, to paint pictures of the Royal Navy and in 1931 awarded the Order of Merit. Steer is best known for his landscapes, such as 'The Beach at Walberswick' (1890) and 'Girls Running: Walberswick Pier' (1894) both at the Tate Gallery, London. His paintings played with the handling of light, experimenting with breaking up the colours such as Monet was doing at this same time, particularly in a series of summer holiday scenes painted on the East Coast at Walberswick and Southwold in Suffolk. Besides the French Impressionists’ he was influenced by Whistler also by such old masters as Boucher and with Walter Sickert became a leading British Impressionist. Around the mid to late 1890's he finally kowtowed to the ever present critics when his work started turning more and more towards conventional English style such as Gainsborough, Turner, and Constable. He painted a number of portraits and figure studies including his most notable inter-war pictures of his devoted Welsh nurse and housekeeper, Margaret Jones, later Raynes 'Portrait of Mrs Raynes' (1922). In the 1920s he turned increasingly to watercolours but his sight began to fail in 1935 and had stopped painting by 1940 and died of bronchitis at his Cheyne Walk London home on 21 March 1942, he was unmarried. Maggie Hemingway’s 'The Bridge' is based on the speculation that, on one of his early visits to Walberswick, Steer met and fell in love with a married woman and that it was this forbidden love that both inspired him and, eventually, left him desolate. [D S MacColl, Life, work and setting of Philip Wilson Steer (1945), B Laughton, Philip Wilson Steer, 1860–1942 (1971). Y Holt, Philip Wilson Steer (1992).]




Works by This Painter