Revealed in his own words: York’s controversial artist

William Etty was the first major British painter to specialise in the nude and was criticised for indecency. But as York Art Gallery’s major exhibition on Etty draws to a close, William Dixon Smith explains how the artist’s letters reveal a very different man to the public figure

Sketch of William Etty at work by Holman Hunt

In 1925, the celebrated auction house of Christie’s decided to clear out from its vaults the discarded accumulation of years. The officer entrusted with this task discovered one old bundle which contained several hundred letters, and which he recognised as the correspondence of an almost forgotten early 19th century artist, William Etty.

Knowing that Etty was a York citizen, it occurred to the officer that rather than consign the documents immediately to the flames, he would first offer them to York Central Library.

The library gratefully accepted the offer, and so these 367 documents came to form the nucleus of what is now the most important collection of Etty letters extant.

As one would expect, the letters chronicle Etty’s public life, from his early struggles as an ambitious unknown artist until his ultimate triumph as a celebrated Academician. We read at first hand of his efforts to preserve the antiquities of York, his championing of the campaign to halt the moving of the rood screen in his beloved Minster, and his founding of the York Branch School of Design.

In view of William Etty’s reticence, without the letters we should be forced to judge his character from the observations of acquaintances: a shy bachelor, unprepossessing in appearance and awkward in company. How very different is the portrait produced by the letters!

Most astonishing was his courage, both moral and physical. Visiting Paris in the hot summer of 1830, he was caught up in the July revolution of that year. His first concern was the welfare of his female travelling companions; the second was the completion of his painting and its protection from the attentions of marauding revolutionists. The events are vividly recorded in three letters to his cousin Thomas Bodley.

No less remarkable was his fortitude. Chronic respiratory problems interfered with neither his unremitting toil, nor his travelling. Unwisely, he preferred travelling by coach, and as an outside passenger. Roads were poor, journeys long, and frequently undertaken in bad weather. A particularly stressful journey is recorded in a letter to his beloved niece Betsy.

Sometimes we see courage, fortitude and native stubbornness carried to the point of recklessness, as when travelling alone in Italy William risks discomfort and delay rather than submit to the wiliness of a predatory peasantry.

Etty’s helpfulness towards colleagues and students was legendry, but without the evidence of the letters it might well be questioned by the sceptical. The affection he inspired in others, colleagues, friends and their children, is witnessed time and again; but perhaps the most moving are the emotionally charged letters he exchanged with his niece and lifelong companion, Betsy.

However, the correspondence is not merely the portrait of a single remarkable life, but of an age. Among Etty’s patrons and friends were some of those who transformed England from a mainly rural society to that of the industrial giant which was to dominate the world for almost a century. Men such as Francis Freeling, who reorganised the post office and gave British commerce fast and reliable communication, Joseph Gillott, the inventor of the flexible steel pen, which banished the quill to a museum curiosity, and the rags-to-riches Lancashire industrialists, William and Daniel Grant (the Cheeryble brothers of Charles Dickens).

All this to the background of events such as the coronation of Victoria and her attempted assassination, the assassination of Edward Drummond, the social unrest of the 1830s, and the coming of the railroad.

The York Collection of the Letters of William Etty, so long neglected and subject to abuse, has at last been saved and catalogued, and is in the process of being transcribed and annotated. It is hoped that they will soon be available not only to the scholar and student but to all who care for the social history of those times.