On this day in 1860, a day of heavily falling snow, a baby boy was born in Birkenhead. His name was Philip Wilson Steer and he grew up to become one of the era’s most renowned British artists.
He was a painter of landscapes, seascapes, portraits and figure studies. He was also an influential art teacher. His sea and landscape paintings made him a leading figure in the Impressionist movement in Britain but in time he turned to a more traditional English style, clearly influenced by both John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, and spent more time painting in the countryside rather than on the coast. As a painting tutor at the Slade School of Art for many years, he influenced generations of young artists.
He was the son of portrait painter and art teacher, Philip Steer (1810–1871) and his wife, Emma Harrison (1816-1898.) He was born while his parents lived at 39 Grange Mount in Birkenhead. At this address, his father held a ‘School of Fine Art for Ladies’, with a ‘class for Gentlemen on two evenings of the week.’
Young Philip was wholly in the care of a children’s nurse Margaret Jones (known as Jane), due to the serious illness of his mother. When the boy was two years old, Jane presented him with a paint-box for his birthday, which he always took to bed with him and slept with it under his pillow.
In the book, ‘Life, Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer’, by D. S. McColl, the Scottish watercolour painter, art critic, lecturer and writer, and lifelong friend of Steer, says; ‘He could be safely left alone in the nursery if she [Jane] gave him a cup of ink and water, a paint brush and piece of paper, and would sit on the floor absorbed and happy till her return.’
Jane was in service for the Steers most of her life – she only left when she married and returned to the family on the death of her husband. She herself died in 1929, aged 91 while still in service (at this time for Philip Wilson Steer) having cared for him as a baby and also considerable later in life.
The Steers moved from Birkenhead to Whitchurch, near Ross-on-Wye in 1864 and despite only living at Grange Mount for only a few short years, his life’s dedication to art was clearly already determined.
He studied at the Gloucester School of Art and then from 1880 to 1881 at the South Kensington Drawing Schools. He was rejected by the Royal Academy of Art, and so studied in Paris between 1882 and 1884, firstly at the Académie Julian, and then in the École des Beaux Arts under Alexandre Cabanel, where he became a follower of the Impressionist school. In Paris he was greatly influenced by seeing works by Édouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler and the French impressionists.
He became a leading British Impressionist, showing works at the London Impressionist exhibition held at the Goupil Gallery in 1889. Besides the French Impressionists, he was influenced by Whistler and, later, such old masters as François Boucher, Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable and J. M. W. Turner. Steer was frequently criticised by conservative British critics for his impressionist works such as Boulogne Sands, so much so that for a period he stopped showing his more adventurous works.
In 1927 Steer began to lose the sight in one eye but he continued to paint, although mostly in watercolours rather than in oils, and his compositions became much looser, at times almost abstract but by 1940 he had stopped painting. In 1931 he was awarded the Order of Merit and died in London, 18 March 1942.
Steer never married and throughout his life was a hypochondriac but was also benign, modest, amusing and held in great regard by those who knew him.
Philip Wilson Steer
Photographed in the 1880s
Girls Running, Walberswick Pier
Painted on one of Steers visits to Walberswick between 1888–94
Mrs Cyprian Williams and her Two Little Girls
Storm Clouds, Poole Harbour, Dorset
Philip Wilson Steers childhood nurse, Jane, 1922
Distant view of Bridgnorth