The Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis (1830–1916) received much critical acclaim during his own lifetime, yet he remains comparatively little known today. From 1854 to 1877 he exhibited at the Royal Academy almost every year, before becoming a leading member of the Old Water-Colour Society, where some of his works were praised for ‘their striking truth of local colour, their admirable keeping, and finished workmanship’. He was the friend and confidant of leading members of the art world.He was an expert adviser to public institutions. He has been entirely sidelined in the history of late 19th-century British art.
Today Wallis is best remembered for two successful paintings: The Death of Chatterton (1856), a meticulous representation of the suicide of the 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton, and The Stonebreaker (c. 1857), a depiction of a working man slumped in the fading light, crushed as much by his poverty as his back-breaking labour.
These works propelled Wallis into the heart of the British art scene. Yet from this point on it was generally accepted that he produced nothing.
He was born out of wedlock and when his mother married Andrew Wallis, a wealthy property owner, the family was able to support Henry’s artistic education, initially at the Royal Academy Schools and then at the atelier of Charles Gleyre in Paris.
Wallis’s desire for historical accuracy is found throughout his paintings, from the impressively rendered textiles in a scene with Samuel Johnson that has echoes of Vermeer to the representation of a gondola in an Italian Renaissance scene, drawn from sketches sent by a friend in Venice. His talent for acute observation became especially clear from the mid 1870s onwards, when, coinciding with frequent trips to Italy and Egypt, he turned to watercolour painting. Armed with this portable medium, Wallis recorded scenes of everyday life, in Egypt.
Wallis’s close study of historical objects led him to a second career as a collector, scholar and art dealer. His real passion was for Italian and Islamic ceramics but he also collected oriental rugs, manuscripts, metalwork, glassware and fine art. he also donated objects from his own collection. It is thanks to Wallis that these museums formed large parts of their collections of maiolica and Islamic pottery, which visitors can still see today.