Through his landscapes, figurative scenes, portraits and still lifes, in oil and watercolour, William Bowyer sustained a fine traditional strand in British painting. He became particularly associated with brightly-hued scenes of the Thames at Chiswick and the Blyth Estuary in Suffolk. For many years, these were among the highlights of the exhibitions of the New English Art Club, of which he was the Honorary Secretary, and the Royal Academy, of which he became a Senior Academician. William Bowyer, generally known as Bill, was born in Leek, Staffordshire, on 25 May 1926, the son of Arthur Bowyer, a union official, and his wife, Emma (née Fitch). The family’s main income was derived from a hat shop that was run by his mother, and in which worked his sister, Elaine, who was 14 years his elder.
Bowyer received much encouragement in his talent for art from both his parents and his school art teacher. As a result, in 1943, he entered Burslem School of Art on a scholarship.
In the following year, as the Second World War intensified, he readied himself for military service, and hoped to join the Royal Navy. Instead, he was conscripted by ballot to work at Sneyd colliery, near Burslem, as one of Ernest Bevin’s ‘Bevin Boys’. Though he initially worked at the coalface, he was transferred to the office when it was discovered that he was a talented cricketer, and should be readily available to play for the colliery XI. At the same time, he took evening classes at the art school.
In 1945, Bowyer moved to London in order to study painting at the Royal College of Art. He befriended his teachers, Ruskin Spear and Carel Weight, and met his future wife, Vera Small, who was studying sculpture. They would marry in 1951, settle in Chiswick, and have two sons and a daughter. Though Vera did not pursue sculpture, she successfully made and sold soft toys in order to help support the family. Balancing painting and teaching, Bowyer worked at Gravesend School of Art and Crafts through the late 40s until 1951, and there numbered Peter Blake among his students. He then held a similar position at Walthamstow School of Art. Aligning himself with social realism of the ‘Kitchen Sink School’, he painted street markets and circus animals, among other subjects. However, though he won the City of London Art Award in 1963, few of his early works survive. Some were destroyed in a fire at a store, while others disintegrated under a tarpaulin in the garden of 12 Cleveland Avenue, Chiswick, his home from 1963 until his death.
In 1968, Bowyer became the Honorary Secretary (in effect the President) of the New English Art Club, a position that he retained for 30 years, during which time he led the ambition for financial, as well as artistic, success. Between 1971 and 1982, Bowyer was also of Head of Fine Art at Maidstone School of Art. Despite this responsibility, he developed his style during this decade, heightening his palette and loosening his handling, so combining the influence of English Romantics, such as Constable and Turner, and the Post-Impressionists. He applied this particularly to landscape and urban motifs, including river scenes of the Thames at Chiswick, and coastal scenes of Walberswick, in Suffolk, where he regularly holidayed. Beginning to exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy, he was elected an Associate in 1974 and a full Royal Academician in 1981. This recognition encouraged him to leave Maidstone and paint full time.
Though best known as a painter of landscapes in oil, Bowyer also worked in watercolour and produced portraits. He was a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. His portraits include those of Arthur Scargill, the President of the National Mineworkers, and Viv Richards, one of the greatest cricketers of all time, both of which were acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1988, and touch on important and lasting experiences. In the same year, the MCC commissioned him to paint the bi-centenary game at Lord’s cricket ground. He himself played cricket for the Chiswick and Old Meadonians Cricket Clubs.
In 1993, Bowyer bought a cottage in Walberswick on the Suffolk coast, and this gave him the opportunity to increase his output of seascapes and coastal scenes, and so confirm his status as a master of British landscape. In 1997, a stroke affected his mobility, but did not halt his artistic activity; rather it ushered in a gentler, more poetic phase of painting. Elected a Senior Royal Academician in 2001, he received a major retrospective at Messum’s Gallery, in Cork Street, in 2003. This was actually his first solo show, he having managed his career through group exhibitions, private sales and major commissions up until this time.
Bowyer died on 1 March 2015, and was survived by his wife and children. His two sons, Jason Bowyer RP PNEAC PS and Francis Bowyer PRWS NEAC, are also artists.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Royal Academy.
Further reading Christopher Masters, ‘William Bowyer’ [obituary], Guardian, 19 March 2015; [obituary], The Times, 20 March 2015