Image: “Venus and Anchises” (1889-90). The principal early narrative of Aphrodite’s seduction of Anchises and the birth of Aeneas is the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.
William Blake Richmond was born on 29 November 1842 in Marylebone. His father, George Richmond RA, was an important portrait painter; his mother was Julia Tatham (1811–1881). He was named after a close friend of his father, the poet William Blake.
Richmond was tutored at home due to health problems as a child. In 1858, at the age of 14, Richmond enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art where he studied drawing and painting for three years. He also spent time at John Ruskin’s house, where he was given private art lessons by the prominent artist. In 1859, Richmond painted his first picture, Enid and Geraint. He sold the painting for £20, spending the money to tour Italy for six weeks with a tutor. His time spent viewing the Old Master paintings in Italy had a major impact on Richmond’s development as an artist and later career. His favourite Italian painters were Michelangelo, Tintoretto and Giotto.
Richmond became a successful portrait painter at an early age. In 1861, at the age of 19, he exhibited his first major work for the Royal Academy. The painting, a portrait of his two brothers, was highly praised by Ruskin. That year, Richmond continued to work in portraits, and study anatomy at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Richmond’s widely regarded portraits led to several commissions, a few of which took him to the north of England for several months.
Richmond was elected to the Royal Academy in 1861, where he continued to exhibit his work until 1877. In 1865, Richmond returned to Italy, where he lived in Rome for four years and studied art. While in Italy, he met the painters Frederic Leighton and Giovanni Costa, both of whose work he admired. When Richmond returned to England, he exhibited A Procession in Honour of Bacchus at the Royal Academy in 1869.
In 1877, Richmond left the Royal Academy and began exhibiting his paintings with the Grosvenor Gallery, where he exhibited until 1878. In 1878 Richmond became Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, succeeding Ruskin. During his tenure, Richmond was responsible for twelve lectures a year at the school. A few lectures Richmond gave on his favourite artist Michelangelo led to a conflict with Ruskin, who had little regard for that artist. The disagreement between the two men led Richmond to resign his position after five years, although he and Ruskin were able to continue their long-standing friendship.
Richmond travelled often to Italy, Greece, Spain and Egypt in the 1880s. He would spend a few months each year exploring new areas, absorbing the history and mythology of the region, and making numerous drawings and coloured sketches.
In 1888, Richmond resumed his relationship with the Royal Academy …He was elected Senior RA at the Academy in 1920.
Attaining financial success as a portrait painter led Richmond to explore new areas of interest. He began working on large, allegorical paintings, and developed an interest in the design of stained glass and mosaic. In 1882, Richmond gave a lecture on monumental decoration in which he criticised the bland decorations in many British churches. He viewed the churches as “caves of white-washed sepulchres, uncoloured, or if coloured at all, only in parts, patchily, and with little general idea of design.”
Nine years later, in 1891, Richmond put his theory into practice when he started work on the quire and apse of St Paul’s Cathedral. Richmond worked on the interior decorations, as both designer and craftsman involved in the installation of the mosaics, from 1891 to 1904.
Influenced by the vibrant colours of Byzantine and early Christian work in Italy, Greece and Egypt, Richmond designed bold, colourful mosaics for the Cathedral quire and apse; over seventy allegorical mosaic panels were installed, along with spandrels and ornamental mosaic ceiling decoration. Richmond’s work was a complete renewal of the quire, the decorations painted directly onto the existing architectural ornaments and stained-glass windows.
When completed, the newly remodeled quire and apse, met with public controversy. Several people criticised the mosaics as not being traditionally British and did not belong in a Cathedral. There was a continual debate throughout the 1890s, “partly reflecting a High-Low church debate between ornament and plainness.”
Richmond collaborated with Harry James Powell of James Powell and Sons, glassmakers, in developing new colours for the mosaic glass to be installed in St Paul’s Cathedral. The new colours and combinations of those colours began to be offered in the standard Powell glass palette from the early 1890s. The expanded glass selection inspired artists in the early stages of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The new, heavier glass, often with light streaks of colour was used by artists in newly commissioned stained-glass windows and decorative work.
The influence of the mosaic work done at the Cathedral and the invention of new medieval-like colours by Powell, influenced Richmond in the stained-glass windows that he designed for St Mary’s, Stretton, Staffordshire.
Richmond designed three large windows (1904—1910) in the Lady Chapel of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, London.
Richmond created a number of highly acclaimed sculptures, including a piece titled An Athlete exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1879, a bronze sculpture of a Greek runner donated to his village of Hammersmith, and an Arts-and-Crafts style monument of William Gladstone in St Deiniol’s Church in Hawarden, Flintshire.
Richmond was an early advocate for clean air in London. He founded the Coal Smoke Abatement Society (CSAS) in 1898 and was a member of CSAS for a number of years. He decided to form the organisation after becoming increasingly frustrated with the low light levels in winter caused by coal smoke. Richmond penned a letter to The Times in 1898 with a request for action, stating that “the darkness was comparable to a total eclipse of the sun”.
Richmond wrote magazine articles and gave public lectures on the danger of coal smoke. CSAS was the oldest environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the United Kingdom and became Environmental Protection UK.
Richmond married Charlotte Foster (1841–1865) at Marylebone in 1864. Charlotte died a year later on 31 December 1865. He subsequently married Clara Jane Richards (1846–1915) at Ryde, Isle of Wight in 1867. Their first two children were Francis, born in Italy in 1868, and Helen, born in Algiers in 1870. The family returned to England in 1870 and moved to Beavor Lodge, Hammersmith, where their sons Herbert, Julius, Ernest, John, and Arthur were born between 1871 and 1879.
Richmond died at his home, Beavor Lodge, in Hammersmith on 11 February 1921.”