Stone inscription in Feasegate, York.

William Etty was born above his father’s bakery shop in 20 Feasegate on 10 March 1787. His parents were Matthew Etty (1743-1818) and his mother Esther Calverley (1754-1829). He was one of a large family and was baptised at All Saints Pavement and Saint Peter The Little.

Plaque page
“Portrait on stone from Life by John Sutcliffe”

From an early age, he showed an active interest in drawing but, in 1798 when he was just 11 years old, he was apprenticed for seven years to Robert Peck of Scale Lane, Hull, the printer and publisher of the Hull Packet. His indentures expired in 1805 and he became a journeyman printer. However, only three weeks later, he set off to London where he stayed with his older brother Walter in 31 Lombard Street in the City. Walter was working for Bodley, Etty and Bodley, the successful gold-and-silver lace manufacturer of braid and epaulettes for the military, in which their father’s brother, also named William Etty, was a partner.

Etty’s statue outside the City of York Art Gallery in Exhibition Square

Royal Academy training

The younger William arrived in London in November 1805 with the intention of gaining admission to the Royal Academy Schools at Somerset House. Eventually, in 1807, he became a private a private pupil, studying for a year under Thomas Lawrence for which his uncle paid 100 guineas. Aspiring students were expected to pass stringent ability tests, and, on his arrival in London, Etty set about practising drawing ‘from prints and from nature’. Aware that all successful applicants were expected to produce high-quality drawings of classical sculptures, he spent much time ‘in a plaster-cast shop kept by Gianelli in that lane near to Smithfield immortalised by Dr Johnson’s visit to see “The Ghost” there’, which he described as ‘my first academy’.

Entry to the Summer Exhibition

In 1809 William’s uncle, also called William, with whom he had been staying died. William was forced into an inconvenient transient lifestyle moving from lodging to lodging. However he had been left a significant sum in his uncle’s will and his brother Walter now took over their uncle’s position at Bodley, Etty and Bodley giving Walter the means to support the younger William’s work financially. In 1811, when he was just 24, Williams persistence paid off. He finally had two of his paintings accepted for exhibition: Telemachus Rescues Antiope from the Fury of the Wild Boar at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and Sappho at the British Institution. The latter sold for the respectable sum of 25 guineas. Although from now on he would have at least one work accepted for the Summer Exhibition each year, he had little commercial success and generated little interest over the next few years. Between 1821 and 1823 he travelled to France and Italy to further his knowledge of painting. When he returned he became a respected member of the Royal Academy earning substantial sums for his work.

Batchelor life

William was considered extremely unattractive, described by his 1855 biographer Alexander Gilchrist, a great admirer, as ‘slovenly in attire, short and awkward in body, large head, large hands, large feet, a face marked with the smallpox made still more noticeable by length of jaw, and a quantity of sandy hair, long and wild: all, conspired to make him “one of the oddest looking creatures” in a Young Lady’s eyes, what she would call “a sight”; one, not redeemed (to her) by the massive brow, its revelation of energy and power, the sign-manual of Genius there legible.’ It is therefore not surprising that he never married.

Jonathan Martin’s arson attack on York Minster in 1829 caused major damage and there were proposals by the Dean and Chapter to take the opportunity of the destruction to restructure the interior of the building. William was prominent in the effort to resist the redesign and to restore the building to its original state. A campaign led by William and other York luminaries was successful and the plans were eventually defeated in February 1831.

Saving the city walls

By the time of the Minster fire, the Corporation of York was already engaged in a debate about the future of the city’s defensive walls. The walls no longer served any practical purpose and were expensive to maintain and, with the population of the city rising rapidly, the city was becoming cramped and dangerous. The city gates had become a public health hazard given the number of locals using them as toilets and theft of stone for other building works had left parts of the walls dangerously unstable. The Bars restricted stagecoaches meaning that York was unable to capitalise on its strategic position halfway along the lucrative London to Edinburgh route. Faced with the need to clear the city’s slums, in 1800 the Corporation sought permission from Parliament to demolish the Bars and much of the walls. Owing to opposition from York Minster, the scheme was abandoned but, by 1826, the barbicans of four of the gates had been demolished. In the face of this, a public campaign to save the walls was launched in 1824 but attention on both sides of the debate was diverted by the Minster fire. By 1831 the Corporation had decided to demolish the barbicans but to retain and restore the walls.

In February 1832 William began a campaign of writing to local York newspapers urging the preservation of the walls and sending donations to various campaigns associated with their retention. Although some local newspapers were now supporting preservation as their demolition would damage the tourist trade, many locals whose lives were made more difficult by living in a walled city with few points of entry remained hostile to the preservation campaigns. An 1838 proposal by the York and North Midland Railway to cut an archway through the walls to allow access to a railway station within the walls galvanised William and he delivered two lectures on the preservation of the walls during visits to York in 1838-9. His words went unheeded and, much to his dismay, the archway was duly cut, although the station was soon moved to its current location outside the walls to allow through running of trains to both north and south.

While the walls were eventually saved in 1889, many years after William’s death, he is credited with their salvation. It is open to debate how significant his part was. Some authors feel that his interventions had no impact and the preservation of the walls was the result of decisions made by the Corporation and lobbying by local newspapers, while others feel that the Corporation would not have made these decisions had William and other like-minded dignitaries not put pressure on them to do so.

York School of Design

In 1838, William started lobbying for the establishment of an art school in York. He proposed that the Hospitium of St Mary’s abbey be used for this purpose, with the lower floor becoming a museum of sculpture and the upper floor becoming a school and exhibition hall. The Hospitium scheme was abandoned but the York School of Design duly opened on a different site in 1842. Although the school was created by an artist who had built his reputation on nudes, the painting of naked figures remained controversial. In 1847 following a complaint from a female student about a display of replicas of Ancient Greek sculptures, ‘the master was requested to have the penis of each of the offending statues cut off … a proceeding that called forth the indignation of the male students and the remonstrances of even the lady students.’

Etty’s legacy

Etty’s tomb is in St Olave’s churchyard, seen from St Mary’s Abbey.

William Etty died on 13 November 1849 and had planned for a burial in York Minster, but neglected to cover the necessary costs in his will. With Yorkshire local government in political and financial chaos in the wake of the bankruptcy of George Hudson, there was no political will to organise a public subscription or to waive the fees and, as a consequence, William was buried in the churchyard of St Olave’s Church in Marygate, his local parish church. He left some £17,000 along with a house in Stonegate and many paintings which are in York Art Gallery. On 6 May 1850 the contents of his studio were auctioned in a total of 1,034 lots including around 900 paintings. A number of these paintings were incomplete studies later completed by other artists to increase their value.

In the years following his death William Etty’s work became highly collectable, his works fetching huge sums on resale. He continued to be regarded as a pornographer by some, with Charles Robert Leslie observing in 1850, ‘It cannot be doubted that the voluptuous treatment of his subjects, in very many instances, recommended them more powerfully than their admirable art; while we may fully believe that he himself, thinking and meaning no evil, was not aware of the manner in which his works were regarded by grosser minds.’

A statue of William Etty by G.W. Milburn stands in Exhibition Square outside the City of York Art Gallery where it was unveiled on 1 February 1911.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 909, ‘William Etty, Artist’, York Museums Trust Will of William Etty (uncle), d. 1809 Will of William Etty, d. 13 November 1849

© Sue Grace