Having grown up among artists, the Reverend William Purton became an amateur draughtsman of some skill and flair. This is demonstrated by both the caricatures in his published volume, The Dunce’s Dessert (1861), and his unpublished drawings for Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1864).
William Purton was born in Hampstead, Middlesex, on 4 February 1833, the elder surviving son of William Purton of the Woodhouse, Hopton Wafers, Cleobury Mortimer, Shropshire, and his wife and cousin, Sarah Cooper of Hampstead. His grandfather was William Purton of Faintree Hall, Shropshire.
Purton grew up in an artistic atmosphere, as his father was an amateur artist, and one of John Constable’s circle of friends in Hampstead during the last years of his life.
Like his grandfather and father before him, Purton went up to Trinity College, Oxford, in 1851, and gained a BA in Mathematics in 1855, and an MA in 1858. He was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Hereford in 1856, and priest by the same Bishop in the following year. He commenced his ministerial duties, in 1856, as curate of St Leonard’s, Bridgnorth, Shropshire (his uncle, John Purton, being the rector of nearby Oldbury).
Three years later, he married Mary Hamilton Mackenzie, the second daughter of the late Duncan Mackenzie, of Merklands, County Perth.
As a young curate, Purton published two books that he had produced while he was a student, and which indicate his Classical interests: The Dunce’s Dessert; or Horatian Trifles and Homeric Cream (1861) and Gradus ad Homerum; or, The A B C D of Homer: a heteroclite translation of the 1st 4 books of the Iliad into English heroics (1862). The former comprises his one claim to fame as an illustrator, consisting as it does of a series of comic images suggested by Greek and Latin quotations. Some of the images clearly caricature his Oxford contemporaries, while others represent Classical characters in a hand that suggests John Leech reworking John Flaxman.
Purton made his drawings for the first set of Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in 1864, a year after his appointment as Vicar of Stottesdon, Cleobury Mortimer. He responded to Tennyson’s phenomenally popular poem in a style that cleverly emulates the intentionally stiff Medievalism of, for instance, Daniel Maclise and Paolo Priolo (the second of which had illustrated a special edition of the first set of Idylls of the King for the Art Union of London in 1862). While it is not known whether the drawings were intended for publication, he did publish Philocalia: Elementary essays on natural, poetic and picturesque beauty in the same year.
Purton contributed to the religious debates of the day, becoming a priest-associate of the Society of St John the Evangelist, the Anglican religious order that was founded in Cowley, Oxford, in 1866. In 1870, he became Vicar of St Anne’s, Willenhall, Staffordshire, and soon published two theological volumes that caused minor controversy in the press: A Rational and Scriptural Review of the Sacramental System of the Church of England (1870) and The Coming of the Son of Man to Judgment (1873). In 1880, he moved to Hampshire to become second Vicar of St Clement’s, Boscombe, Bournemouth, where, it is said, ‘he held extreme Ritualistic views’, so that ‘the manner in which the services had been conducted at the church have been the cause of many an animated scene at vestry meetings’ (Gloucester Citizen, 11 September 1891).
Purton died in office at the vicarage on 10 September 1891, of paralysis of the pneumo-gastric nerve. His wife, Mary, survived him. A Memoir of William Purton, priest; together with two sermons preached in the Church of S Clement, Bournemouth, on the occasion of his death appeared later the same year while, in the following one, the sculptor, George Frampton, produced a memorial portrait relief of Purton for St Clement’s Church.