Sir William Blake Richmond KCB, RA, PPRBSA was an English portrait painter, sculptor and a designer of stained glass and mosaic. He is best known for his portrait work and decorative mosaics in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
He was the son of the portraitist George Richmond RA and studied at the Royal Academy Schools in the early 1860s. Influenced by his father and by Sir John Everett Millais, he is best known for his mosaic decorations below the dome and in the apse of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
His father, George Richmond, was one of ‘the Ancients’ who were a group of artists who formed around the visionary artist and poet William Blake. Samuel Palmer was an other of the ancients and a close friend of the family.
Our painting could have been inspired by George Richmond’s engraving ‘The Shepherd’, 1827, but in our panel the shepherd is turned round facing away, and is playing a flute instead of resting on a staff. But the sheep and other elements are there.
It is also suggestive of Welby Sherman’s engraving after Samuel Palmer of the same name and date, but here the shepherd is sitting but like ours turned away. William Blake’s is an altogether happier image given the figure is playing to his sheep.
Our painting is playing with some of the same ideas and feels like the same sort of period, and the ‘fresco’ like chalk ground is interesting, as is the pen and ink finishing on the tempera. All three are strongly influenced by Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s ‘Virgil’. The shepherd and his flock are clearly based on Thenot and his sheep in the Frontispiece to Thornton.
Blake Richmond wrote:“If there be the least value in my pictures, it is due to such lovely early impressions derived from the sweet poetic work of many of my father’s contemporaries, Calvert, Blake and others, whose shadows are substance still to me” [Sir William Blake Richmond, letter to his father, 50 years after the death of William Blake, from Stirling op. cit p. 28].
Richmond was given private art lessons by John Ruskin before attending the Royal Academy for three years. After that he spent a number of years in Italy, where an encounter with a shepherd called Beppino, ‘a splendid speciman of a Sabine Shepherd’, could also have gave him the inspiration for the painting we show here. Richmond recalls how he met Beppino on the hillside, and was invited to share the shade of the shepherd’s capanna, a wooden hut. ‘What a place! In an instant of time I was back into the age of kings, and I knew Romulus had lived and am sure that he lived in a hut exactly like this one’.
That night Richmond dined at Beppino’s hut ‘on roast kid, hard bread dipped in Roman wine, goat’s cream and white ricotta’. The shepherd had such an impression on Richmond that he sought him out on a return visit to Italy some years later, but was saddened to hear that Beppino ‘had joined his fore-fathers in the shades’.
He was moved to write the following, which perfectly expresses the mood of this painting and his tribute to a fleeting companion:
‘Little events of this kind unite past times with present, create and emphasis continuity of human instincts, which seem to defy time and make travel so intensely interesting and invigorating to a citizen of this world. One need not go to the palace, far otherwise, or to cities and towns to discover the kernal of enduring civilisations. One finds it, if one wills to do so, in the backbone of the world, an ancient peasantry who have watched and still watch the progress of the stars’.
Richmond was influential in the early stages of the Arts and Crafts Movement in his selection of bold colours and materials for the mosaics in St. Paul’s Cathedral and in his collaboration with James Powell and Sons, glass makers. This new material expanded the glassmaker’s palette and was favored by artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, primarily in the creation of stained glass windows and decorative art work. Richmond was the Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford from 1878 to 1883, succeeding his friend and mentor John Ruskin.