During his lifetime, William Henry Fisk was equally appreciated as painter, draughtsman and teacher. Though his initial exhibits were landscapes, he became better known for the history subjects that he showed at the Royal Academy, including an arresting group inspired by the events of the French Revolution. William Henry Fisk was born in Homerton, Middlesex, the eldest of four children of the painter, William Fisk, and his wife, Sophia (née Austin) (not Margaret, née Thomas, as is stated in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). He grew up at 13 Howland Street, Fitzroy Square, and initially studied art under his father before attending the Royal Academy Schools. A skilled draughtsman, he was appointed to two highly responsible positions at an early age: he became anatomical draughtsman to the Royal College of Surgeons by 1843, and a drawing master at University College School, in Gower Street, in 1846. He rose to become head drawing master at UCS in the 1860s, and remained in that post almost until his death.
He was also a popular public lecturer in London and the provinces and an occasional writer on art.
Fisk began to exhibit from 1846, initially showing landscapes at the Society of British Artists. In 1849, he was invited to Balmoral to paint watercolours of the area for Queen Victoria, and she selected four of the resulting works (which remain in the Royal Collection). Then, in 1850, he began to show at the Royal Academy, again beginning with a landscape. He also produced portraits, including one of George Catlin, the American painter of Native Americans (1849, National Gallery of Art, Washington).
On 12 August 1851, Fisk married Angelina Charlotte King, of Mile End, London, at St Nicholas, Aberdeen. They moved into 18 Camden Street North, Camden Town, which had been his home from the late 1840s. In 1852, Angelina gave birth to Ann Isabella Sophia, possibly the couple’s only child. By the end of the decade, the family had settled at 38 Queen’s Terrace, Haverstock Hill. Later addresses include Perth Villa, Bartholomew Road North, Kentish Town (in the mid 1860s) and 4 North Villas, Camden Square, St Pancras (from the late 1860s).
Between 1856 and 1863, Fisk exhibited at the British Institution, mainly contributing landscapes and still life compositions. However, by the late 1850s, he was following more closely in his father’s footsteps by turning increasingly towards historical and Biblical subjects, which he showcased at the Royal Academy. In so doing, he aligned himself with the Pre-Raphaelites, and became friends with members of its circle, including Frederick George Stephens (whose portrait he painted in about 1882). His most Pre-Raphaelite work is probably the genre scene, The Secret (1858), though his illustration to Harriet Kimball’s ‘The Guest’ for The Illustrated Book of Sacred Poems (1867) shows the influence of William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (1853). In 1867, two of his works were included in the ‘Galerie Anglaise’ at the Champ-de-Mars, Paris, an exhibition that revealed the achievements of the Pre-Raphaelites fully to the French. Two decades later, the prominent critic, Ernest Chesneau, would cite one of these works in his book, Le Peinture Anglaise (1885).
During the 1860s, Fisk designed mosaics of Lorenzo Ghiberti and Albrecht Dürer as contributions to a series of portraits of great European artists to be placed in the niches of the upper arcade of the South Court of South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). Though only the oil design of Ghiberti was translated into mosaic, both the designs and the mosaic remain in the museum.
Fisk’s exhibiting career seems to have come to an end with his last submission to the Royal Academy in 1873, a year after the death of his father. However, he continued to teach and lecture, including stints as an instructor to the Society of Lady Artists. By 1881, he was living mainly in Margate with his wife and daughter : first at Aberdeen House and then at Seymour House, both in Northdown Road.
William Henry Fisk died in Hampstead on 13 November 1884, aged 58.
Further reading: Jessica Kilburn, ‘Fisk, William Henry (1827–1884)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, Vol 19, Pages 732-733