Wilson Steer was one of the most interesting and significant British painters working at the turn of the twentieth century. His career subsumed early Impressionist experimentation within a developing traditionalism that emulated Constable and Turner. Philip Wilson Steer was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, on 28 December 1860, the youngest of three children of the painter, Philip Steer, and his wife, Emma (née Harrison). In 1864, he moved with his family to Apsley House, Whitchurch, Herefordshire, and was initially educated at home by a governess. In 1871, the year that his father died, he began to attend a local preparatory school, and, in 1875, advanced to Hereford Cathedral School, remaining there for two years. While there, he obtained a nomination to join the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, as he had an interest in coins.
In order to gain that position, he spent some months in Whitchurch with Dr Purcell, a private tutor from whom he learned more than from any other teacher. Then, from January 1878, he undertook an intensive course in London in order to prepare for the rigorous Civil Service examination. Not naturally academic, this proved to be too much for him, so he gave up the idea and turned instead to painting.
Having started to draw and paint at about the age of 16, Steer went to Gloucester School of Art two years later, in 1878, and there studied under John Kemp. Once his mother had sold their house in Whitchurch, and moved her household to 23 Brunswick Road, Gloucester, he became a full-time student. In April 1881, he gained a second class certificate in perspective from the National Art Training School, South Kensington, and this led him to attempt to enter the Royal Academy Schools, but without success. As a result, he decided to go to Paris, a city he had first visited in 1876, on the return journey from a holiday in Germany.
So, in the autumn of 1882, Steer settled at the Hôtel du Beau-séjour, in the boulevard Poissonnière, soon moving to the even more central Britannique, in the avenue Victoria. Enrolling at the Académie Julian, he studied ostensibly under William-Adolphe Bouguereau, though really worked harder on his own. Among his fellow students, he developed close friendships with James Christie and T B Kennington, and would remain within a circle of English and American artists. In January 1883, he transferred to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he ‘received a more strict and effective training’ (The Studio, 1930, Page 254) under Alexandre Cabanel, and alongside students that included the outstanding Edward Stott. That spring, he returned briefly to London, where he may have seen the exhibition of Impressionism at the Dowdeswell Galleries, and certainly exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy of Arts. (He showed again at the RA in 1884 and 1885, but, on being skied and rejected in successive years, he chose not to submit to its exhibition again until 1940.) Visiting the posthumous exhibition of Manet’s work at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in January 1884, he remained in the French capital until the summer, and exhibited at the Paris Salon. He left after he failed an examination in the French language which had been newly introduced at the Ecole.
On his return to England in 1884, Steer made the first of many painting expeditions to Walberswick, on the Suffolk coast, making many studies from nature, and so instigating a series of seaside subjects. In the following year – when he acquired a London studio at 6 Trafalgar Studios, Manresa Road, Chelsea – he made the first of several visits to towns on or close to the north French coast, including Etaples, Dannes, Boulogne and Montreuil-sur-Mer. Initially, the paintings that he produced, such as At the Well, Walberswick, reflected the influence of the rural naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage. However, by the end of the 1880s and into the next decade, they revealed an interest in various styles of Impressionism, including those of James McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet and the Divisionists.
In 1886, Steer helped to found the New English Art Club with artists of a similarly innovative character, including his friend, Walter Sickert, and also sold work through dealers. Exhibitions of his seaside subjects at such venues as the Goupil Gallery (notably ‘London Impressionists’ in 1889 and a solo show in 1894) were particularly helpful in developing his reputation as both the leading follower of French Impressionism in England and a figure of great originality. In turn, from 1893, he conveyed his approach to art to the younger generation through his teaching at the Slade School as an assistant to Professor Fred Brown. If his early work was continually attacked by conservative critics, he gradually gained support from such enlightened individuals as his friends, D S MacColl and George Moore, who were then writing in The Spectator and The Saturday Review, among other journals.
Following the death of his mother in 1898, Steer moved to 109 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, and would remain there, as a bachelor, for the rest of his life. By this time, he had begun to react to his growing success by looking to the more established native tradition of landscape painting, as represented by Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable and J M W Turner. He rehearsed the eighteenth-century picturesque tour by working in Yorkshire, North Wales and the West Country, and favouring river and coastal scenes. He exhibited the large, impressive canvases that resulted mainly at the New English Art Club. In 1906, he was elected an honorary member of the Liverpool Academy of Arts.
From the turn of the century, Steer also produced independent watercolours, having previously used the medium only for preliminary studies. In 1918, as an Official War Artist, he produced masterly watercolours of the manoeuvres of the British fleet. Owing to his failing eyesight, he worked increasingly in this medium and, in the process, emulated Turner’s late, near abstract achievements.
In 1929, Steer was given a major retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, becoming the first artist in his lifetime to receive this honour. The exhibition included a portrait of Margaret Raynes (Tate, 1922), who had been his childhood nurse and had remained his housekeeper until her death at the age of 91 in 1929.
Steer retired from the Slade in 1930, after teaching there for nearly 40 years, and in 1931 reluctantly accepted the Order of Merit. For a few years, he continued to produce refined watercolours during excursions to Kent and Essex, and exhibited them in a series of solo shows at Barbizon House and other venues. However, he was forced to give up painting in 1938, as the result of near blindness. A number of memorial shows followed his death at home in London on 21 March 1942.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, Tate and the V&A; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), Birmingham Museums, Christchurch Mansion (Ipswich), The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), Leeds Art Gallery, Lotherton Hall (Leeds), Manchester Art Gallery, Museum of Gloucester, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Southampton City Art Gallery, Williamson Art Gallery & Museum (Birkenhead) and York Art Gallery; National Museum Wales (Cardiff); Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane; and Yale Center for British Art (New Haven CT).
Further reading: Ysanne Holt, Philip Wilson Steer, Bridgend: Seren, 1992; Ysanne Holt, ‘Steer, Philip Wilson (1860-1942)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36264; Robin Ironside, Philip Wilson Steer, Oxford: Phaidon, 1943; Bruce Laughton, Philip Wilson Steer 1860-1942, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971; D S MacColl, The Life and Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer (with a Full Catalogue of Paintings ... by Alfred Yockney), London: Faber and Faber, 1945; Jane Munro, ‘Steer, Philip Wilson (b Birkenhead, Dec 28, 1860; d London, March 18, 1942)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 2003, https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T081168