Irish born William John Hennessy established himself as a painter and illustrator in New York before settling in England in 1870, and becoming a member of a significant expatriate community. He then became well known for a range of genre scenes set in the open air, in a style that synthesised the precision of Pre-Raphaelitism and the atmospherics of French Naturalism, the latter absorbed through long stays in Normandy.
William John Hennessy was born in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland, on 11 July 1839, the son of John Hennessy and Catherine (née Laffin). John Hennessy’s involvement in the Young Ireland movement led to his forced emigration to Canada in 1848. Following his move to New York in the following year, his family joined him and settled in the city.
Receiving his education from private tutors, William Hennessy made his first drawings from life in his early teens. He entered the National Academy of Design late in 1854, and exhibited there regularly between 1857 and 1870.
In 1854, The New York Times recorded that the Hennessy family was living at 87 Franklin Street, and reported the extraordinary news that John Hennessy there assaulted David Wemyss Jobson, the former Surgeon-Dentist to Queen Victoria, who had settled in the city and become a journalist.
The assault seems to have been a form of revenge, Jobson having apparently insulted Thomas Francis Meagher, a member of Young Ireland, in the Fifth Avenue Journal. Though John Hennessy appeared in court, the outcome is unknown.
From 1860, William Hennessy gave his exhibition address as the studio complex known as the New York University building. He was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1861 and an academician in 1863. On election, he presented The Wood Gleaner, an oil sketch on paper, as a representative example of his work. A founder member of the Artists’ Fund Society in 1859, he was invited to join the private club, the Century Association, in 1864, remaining a member for 12 years. The American Society of Painters in Water Colors, founded in 1866, also made him an honorary member.
Developing a skill in wood engraving, Hennessy soon became sought after as an illustrator, especially of the work of poets, and notably of Tennyson and Whittier (for the publisher, Ticknor and Fields). As a result, he has gained a reputation as ‘the “graphic laureate” of the Victorian period’ (Ben Harris McClary (ed), George Washington Harris, The Lovingood Papers, Athens TN: Sut Society, 1967, page 28). However, ‘his most admired work in graphic design’ during his American period was perhaps Mr Edwin Booth in His Various Dramatic Characters, a volume on the famous actor, which he worked on in 1870 and published in 1872 (Dearinger 2004, page 261).
In the late 1860s, Hennessy rented a house in Hamden, Connecticut, from the Mather family. He began a relationship with Charlotte Amelia Mather, a noted beauty who was then married to John Ward, a prominent New York surgeon, and had two illegitimate children with her (neither of whom survived infancy). Following Charlotte’s divorce, she and Hennessy married on 19 June 1870. They soon left for Europe, and stayed in Loughton, Essex, before settling in London. Travelling with them was Charlotte’s sister, Mary, who would help support them through her articles for The Atlantic Monthly. (Five years later, Charlotte’s younger brother, Thomas, would marry Margaret Linton, the daughter of Hennessy’s friend and collaborator, the engraver and printer, William James Linton. Linton himself lived in Hennessy’s former Hamden home.)
Through the 1870s, Hennessy lived at a number of addresses in Kensington, Chelsea and Chiswick, and developed a social circle that included such expatriate artists as Joseph Pennell and James McNeill Whistler, and also the illustrator, Randolph Caldecott. While continuing to work with American publishers, he established himself in England as both a painter and magazine illustrator. He exhibited landscapes and genre subjects in London, most notably at the Royal Academy (1871-82), and in the provinces, especially in Manchester and Glasgow. He also contributed to The Dark Blue (1871-73), The Graphic (1872-76; 1880) and Punch (1873-75), among other periodicals.
Spending many of his summers painting the rustic life and landscapes of Normandy, Hennessy began to lease Le Manoir de Pennedepie, Pres Honfleur, Calvados, in or before 1877. His work began to appear at an increasing number of venues, including the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin (1879-1907), and the Grosvenor Gallery and the New Gallery, both in London (the last of which opened in 1888). He would become a member of the Pastel Society, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, the Union Internationale des Beaux Arts and des Lettres, Paris, and also the Savile Club, which he often gave as his London address. As an illustrator, he worked mainly for Macmillan and Co, and particularly on the popular novels of Charlotte M Yonge. He also contributed to The English Illustrated Magazine (1884-92) and Black & White (1891).
In 1886, Hennessy moved from Honfleur to Saint- Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, settling at the Pavillon Montespan in the Rue de Fourqueux. During his time there, he also toured Italy. In 1893, he returned to England, living in Susssex, first at Brighton and then at Rudgwick, but continuing to spend much time in France. He died at Rudgwick on 27 December 1917.
The Hennessys’ only surviving child, Nora, trained in Paris, at the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, and also became an artist. She married the painter, Paul Ayshford Methuen, the Fourth Baron Methuen, in 1915, and lived with him at Corsham Court.
Further reading: David Bernard Dearinger (ed), Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design, Manchester VT: Hudson Hills Press, 2004, pages 261-262