W L Wyllie was encouraged by his father, also a skilled genre painter, to sketch and paint, especially during his teens, whilst at their second home in Northern France. The local beaches and fisher folk around Boulogne and the vast shores of Pas de Calais became the main subjects of Bill and his brother Charles and ten year older step-brother Lionel Percy Smythe. Lionel usually led the trio, whilst they roamed the countryside.
Apart from his artistic endeavours, young Bill received some sort of home tuition from his mother and local family friend Alice Gunyon (who was later to become Lionel’s wife). They were taught reading, writing and music. This somewhat erratic schooling was lacking any form of arithmetic, which affected Bill gravely. He had no concept of mathematics throughout his life, although any geometric challenges he would solve without any problem, to the extent that he wrote an important book in 1903 about perspective entitled “Nature’s Laws and the Making of Pictures”.
HEATHERLEY’S SCHOOL OF FINE ART
Wyllie’s formal art education began in 1865 at the Heatherley School of Fine Art on Newman Street in London, where he concentrated on making drawings from antiques, as he was too young to attend the life drawing classes.
Heatherley’s, originally named Leigh’s School of Art after its founder James Mathews Leigh, was founded in 1845 and later renamed Heatherley’s School of Fine Art after its principal Thomas Heatherley. It is one of the oldest independent art schools in London and one of the few art colleges to concentrate on portraiture, figurative painting, printmaking, illustration and sculpture. It counts amongst its illuminati E H Shepard, Sir Edward Poynter, Kate Greenaway, William Russell Flint, Solomon Joseph Solomon, Gregoire Boonzaier, Michael Ayrton, Lionel Percy Smythe (W L Wyllie’s step brother).
Here, fourteen year old Bill teamed up with the even younger John Crompton (1854 – 1927), who later became the Principal of the art college from 1888 until 1908. The Wyllies and the Cromptons established a lifelong friendship and it was during his annual visit to the Crompton family that Bill fell ill and passed away in the arms of Dorothy Crompton (John Crompton’s daughter) at their house in London.
THE ROYAL ACADEMY SCHOOLS
In 1866, at the age of fifteen, Bill was enrolled into the Royal Academy Schools, which he attended until 1869, studying under greats like Edwin Henry Landseer, John Everett Millais, Frederic Leighton and many other highly notable painters of the Victorian era.
At the age of seventeen Wyllie had ‘Dover Castle and Town’, a study in oil, hung in the old Academy in Trafalgar Square.
In 1869, at the age of eighteen, he was awarded the prestigious Turner Gold Medal for his painting “Dawn after a Storm”.
During the following 63 years, two hundred of his paintings were exhibited at the RA’s annual exhibition. Bill or more often referred to as WL by his friends, never stopped learning. Whether it was knowledge related to his art or situations that life threw up at him, however random the subject would be, his enthusiasm never waned, even towards the end of his life.