Alfred William Parsons, RA PRWS RSW RI HRMS ROI NEAC (1847-1920) Alfred Parsons became an expert in various branches of the art of the garden. He used watercolour to produce fresh portraits of gardens and accurate illustrations of botanical specimens. Having collaborated on books with the famous gardener, William Robinson, he went on to become a designer of gardens in Britain and the United States. His transatlantic connections were strengthened through his membership of the Anglo-American ‘Broadway Group’ of artists and writers that included Henry James and John Singer Sargent. He further broadened his horizons and deepened his knowledge through trips to Japan in the period 1892-94.
Alfred Parsons was born in Beckington, Somerset, on 2 December 1847, the son of a surgeon, and educated at private schools.
He was employed as a clerk in the Savings Bank Department of the Post Office (1865-67), and then studied at the National Art Training School in South Kensington (which later became the Royal College of Art). Specialising in pastoral landscapes, garden scenes and flowers, he exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1871 and at other leading London galleries, including the Fine Art Society, which mounted five solo shows of his work between 1885 and 1894. The show held in June 1893 comprised ‘Watercolours illustrating Landscapes and Flowers in Japan’, the fruits of his first visit to the country from March to December 1892. Three years later, in 1896, he relayed details of his visits in Notes in Japan.
Parsons was elected to the associate membership of the Royal Academy in 1897 (becoming a full academician in 1911) and to the associate membership of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours in 1899 (RWS 1905, PRWS 1913). He was also a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours (1882, resigning 1898), the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils (1883), the New English Art Club (1886), the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Water-Colours, the Imperial Arts League (1910) and an honorary member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters (1919).
As an illustrator of books and magazines, Parsons worked in pencil and pen and ink in addition to watercolour. Through his contributions to Harper’s Monthly Magazine, he befriended the American artists, Edwin Austin Abbey and Francis Davis Millet, and encouraged them to settle in the Worcestershire village of Broadway, becoming central to an informal group of artists and writers. The Quiet Life (1890), illustrated by Parsons and Abbey, is the most lasting record of this relationship. Parsons designed several gardens in the village, including that of Luggershill, the house that he had built in 1911, from a design by A N Prentice. He died there on 16 January 1920.
His work is represented in the Royal Academy of Arts and numerous public collections.
Further reading Tancred Borenius (rev Anne Helmreich), ‘Parsons, Alfred William (1847-1920)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 42, pages 907-908