William Etty, Artist

The statue of Etty in front of York Art Gallery.

1787AD - 1849AD

William Etty is York’s best known artist, his statue has pride of place outside York Art Gallery.  He was famous for his paintings of historical and mythical scenes but, in his day, Etty was also infamous for his paintings of nudes. 

Etty - a son of York

Etty was born in 1787 in Feasegate in York, his father was a baker and confectioner.  He received an average education and had no artistic guidance in his early life.  Etty recalls in his autobiography: “My first panels, on which I drew, were the boards of my father’s shop floor; my first crayon, a farthing’s worth of white chalk”.  

In 1798, his mother got him an apprenticeship at a busy printers in Hull.  Etty clearly had greater ambitions and in 1805 he moved to London to try his luck as an artist.

Etty’s life in London

Just two years later, in 1807, Etty became a student at the Royal Academy, the premier training institute for aspiring artists.  His uncle also paid for the well established artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence, to take Etty as a pupil for a whole year.  Still success did not come easily to Etty and he repeatedly submitted work to the Royal Academy’s exhibitions, only to have them rejected.  He later wrote of this time: “I began to think I was not half the clever fellow I had imagined”.  

But he continued to dedicate himself to his studies, indeed he attended life drawing classes throughout his life.  Etty wrote: "I worked with such energy and perseverance to conquer my radical defects".  The hard work paid off and in 1811 he had his first piece accepted by the Royal Academy.  The first of his paintings to receive wider public recognition was ‘Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cicilia’.

In the 1820’s, in his early career, Etty received critical acclaim.  An 1826 review for his ‘Choice of Paris’, described him as having talent that “no artist of the present day can equal”.  Etty continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy throughout his career but his work was not universally popular. His nudes were a particular source of criticism.  A review in the Times newspaper said, “nakedness without purity is offensive and indecent, and in Mr. Etty’s canvas is mere dirty flesh”.  Etty was seen by others as the best English painter of the nude, but he has never become a household name.

Etty’s legacy to York

Etty didn’t forget his home town.  In 1842 he established the York School of Design, which later became the York School of Art.  He also played a role in the conservation of the City walls, and the preservation of much of medieval York is sometimes attributed to him.  This is something of an exaggeration.  Etty did support the preservation of the City walls, and wrote from London in 1825 in defence of Clifford’s Tower, but in reality, the walls were saved by public opinion and the actions of certain councillors and key figures within York.

Despite his long absence from the city, Etty was buried in York.  His grave is in the yard of St Olave’s Church and can be viewed from within the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey.  Etty’s other legacy to York is the substantial collection of his works held by York Art Gallery.


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