Also known as
Mrs Alfred Williams,
F. E. W.,
F. E. Williams,
Florence Elizabeth Thomas,
Mrs A Williams
Although Florence received little formal training she was exhibiting at the Royal Academy, London, by her late teens. Migrating permanently in 1873, Florence's paintings seem unique for Australia at the time when domestic genre paintings are almost unknown.
painter, was born in London on 17 May 1833, eldest of the six children of Ralph Thomas, a barrister, and Ann, née Mallett. As Florence later recollected, she learnt much from the child prodigy John Everett Millais (1829-1896) in about 1845 when he was employed for £100 a year by her father-Millais’s first patron-to draw pictures and paint in figures and backgrounds on old oil paintings that Thomas sold. Both had short tempers and Millais abruptly broke the contract after a year, only too conscious that the work was beneath his talents. While he was employed, however, Florence ('Pobby’), aged about twelve, regularly saw 'Johnny’ at work at her home and was taken to visit him in his studio. He drew in her sketchbook and corrected her drawings. Her first oil painting, a copy after 'a small Collins’ (probably Charles Collins, another Pre-Raphaelite), was done with Johnny’s paints. He made her a model stage with a front depicting Apollo in his chariot flanked by the muses of Comedy and Tragedy for which she made the scenery and costumed a tiny articulated wooden lay figure he gave her (which she kept all her life).
Many years later, J.G. Millais claimed in his biography of his father (1899) that the young artist had been exploited by his greedy, ignorant patron 'Serjeant Thomas’. But 'Serjeant’ was then a title for a senior barrister, Florence pointed out when she joined battle to defend her long-dead father. She contributed 'Recollections of Johnny Millais by an early friend’ and a commentary on the biography to Serjeant Thomas and Sir J.E. Millais (London 1901), a pamphlet published privately in brother Ralph’s name. As well as recording her childhood memories, she mentioned that the Thomas and Millais families remained on intimate terms and that she visited Millais’s studio to see Ophelia and A Huguenot before they were sent to the Royal Academy in 1852.
Apart from these lessons Florence had little art training, yet she was painting and selling oil paintings and exhibiting at the Royal Academy [RA] while still in her teens, showing Goat in an Orchard at the RA from 68 Wimpole Street, London in 1852. The following year she showed Juliet and Leonora with the Royal Society of British Artists (Suffolk Street) and Rosa.- Vide Bleak House at the British Institution [BI], the latter for sale at five pounds. From 1 Sergeant’s Inn in 1854 she showed two fruit paintings at the BI, one for sale at five pounds the other at ten, while the following year from 19 Arundel Street she showed at Suffolk Street “Who can have sent me these flowers?” (2 guineas) and A Farm Yard, Westbrook (6 guineas). That year a fruit painting was on offer at the BI for the extremely high price of thirty-five guineas. In 1856, from 36 Norfolk Street, The Strand, another fruit picture was sent to the BI for sale at twenty guineas, along with A Labourer’s Shed, Westbrook , more modestly price at six guineas, and she also had an untitled painting at Suffolk Street for sale at five guineas. At the same venue in 1857 she had A study from nature (six guineas) and Dressed Up (six guineas). She continued to exhibit with the Society of British Artists until 1868, although Dessert (6 guineas) in 1858 was her last exhibit at the British Institution.
On 13 September 1862, Florence Elizabeth Williams married the civil engineer Alfred Williams, a son of (Sir) Edward Leader Williams, an eminent English engineer and member of the well-known Williams family of painters [see F. Reynolds, The Williams Family of Painters , 1975], in St George’s, Leicester Square. They had two children – Edith Florence, known as Edie (1863-1943), and Reginald (1877-1942) – and adopted Minnie (Rozzie) Philpotts (1874-1956). Florence continued to paint after her marriage. In 1863 Mrs Alfred Williams (as she was henceforth catalogued) of Ponfield Villa, Bristol Road, Gloucester showed Lie still, sailor at Suffolk Street for sale at fifteen guineas (the mind boggles, but it was presumably a child admonishing a toy or pet in the light of her other works). She showed The Pets at the Royal Academy in 1864. In 1865 the family came to NSW, Alfred having been put in charge of erecting the Nepean River railway bridge at Penrith after a design by John Whitton, chief engineer of the NSW Railways, who wrote a testimonial for him on 18 January 1867 praising the completed work. Florence Williams’s undated oil view of the Penrith railway bridge (Mitchell Library) was evidently done at this time, since the family returned to England soon after the bridge was completed.
They settled at Farncombe Villa, Godalming, Surrey, from which address Mrs Alfred Williams sent three paintings to Suffolk Street in 1868: Flowers and Parrot (15 guineas), The new book (15 guineas) and A peep at Australia (10 guineas). The last may have been the conventionally composed but vibrantly coloured watercolour view of Sydney Harbour from Hyde Park, initialled 'F.E.W.’ and dated June 1866, auctioned by Deutscher-Menzies in Melbourne on 24 November 1999 (lot 44). It was the last time Florence was to exhibit in London; henceforth she showed her paintings in Sydney and Hobart. The Williams came back to Australia in 1873, this time to Tasmania.
From their home at New Town, outside Hobart, Mrs Alfred Williams sent two oils to the 1874 exhibition of the NSW Academy of Art. Both were for sale when they were included among the Academy exhibits at the Agricultural Society of NSW’s Metropolitan Intercolonial Exhibition at Sydney in April 1875. The Dessert (cat.31), a 'well grouped fruit piece, harmonious in colour, clear and juicy’ (which may have been the work shown with the BI in 1858, although she did different versions of the same subject), won a silver medal and was reported as making the mouth of every fruit-loving visitor water at the sight of it. The other (cat.18), The Lory at Home (1874, private collection, Hobart, initialled 'F.E. W.’) was a new version of Flowers and Parrot shown in 1868 (which was destroyed in a family fire and is known only from a photograph). It had the same brightly painted bird and local wildflowers in the foreground with an added view of Hobart’s Mount Wellington behind. Praised by the Sydney Mail critic, it was nevertheless considered inferior to the still life: 'The parrot, perched on a twig, is however wanting in “life” although most carefully painted. The wildflowers in the foreground (Epacris, &c.) are very well done.’ That year at Hood’s Picture Gallery, a commercial gallery in Hobart, 'an acknowledged connoisseur’, the lawyer and amateur photographer Morton Allport (son of Mary Morton Allport ), purchased a pair of Mrs Williams’s flower paintings, Primroses and Roses .
In 1875 the family returned to Sydney, Alfred having been appointed engineer with the Harbours and Rivers Department. Mrs A. Williams’s Waratah , The Laughing Jackass , The Dessert which won only a certificate of merit this time, Fruit , Love in the Bush and The Doll’s House were among the oil paintings from the NSW Academy of Art shown in the Fine Arts section of the Metropolitan Intercolonial Exhibition organised by the Agricultural Society of NSW that opened in Sydney on 6 April 1875. All were for sale except The Doll’s House (family collection), which also was awarded a certificate of merit. The subject of this 'charming little composition’, Edie Williams playing with her doll’s house, was possibly inspired by Millais’s etching, The Baby House 1872 (ill. Josef Lebovic Collectors’ List 1997, no.66, cat. 87), although Mrs Williams’s version is far more personal, detailed and – ironically – early Pre-Raphaelite (perhaps even Bedemeier) in treatment. The early Pre-Raphaelite features of The Doll’s House and a complementary painting, The Story Teller (family collection), an equally detailed, rather frozen oil of Edie reading to her doll, are the purple, blue and acid green colours, the fidelity to nature at the expense of conventional ideas of beauty and, especially, the meticulous detail.
Florence’s paintings seem unique for Australia at the time when domestic genre paintings are almost unknown, the closest equivalents being a few oil paintings of women and children (known only in reproduction) done in Melbourne in the 1870s by the locally-trained Mary Livingstone – who mainly worked as a copyist – and old-fashioned, rather overblown figure paintings produced in Melbourne from the 1860s to the 1880s by the semi-professional painter Chester Earles .
Three more fruit paintings by Mrs. A. Williams followed in 1876, as well as The Pets. One of the fruit pictures collected another certificate of merit, although the Sydney Mail critic now considered such oil studies merely 'good enough in their way’ and pointed out that they needed to be 'exceedingly well painted to be attractive’. Yet the previous year the same newspaper (though not necessarily the same anonymous critic) had called her fruit pieces admirable and far more successful than those by J. H. Adamson . Mrs Williams’s fruit painting hung in the 1879 loan exhibition celebrating the opening of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales was later presented to the Sydney Technical College 'for the benefit of art students’, according to her granddaughter Florence Hope Williams, but it has since disappeared.
In 1880 F.E. Williams was a founding member of the Art Society of NSW (an association for professional artists that had broken away from the more inclusive Academy) and henceforth exhibited regularly with it. At its first exhibition her 'most attractive and original design’ Ophelia had the highest asking price in the show (£75) and was extravagantly praised by the Bulletin 's art critic:
The accuracy of the willows, the realistic painting and elegant arrangement of the flowers, and the chilly depth of the water in which is reflected grass so real that it almost seems to spring upon the banks before the eye, are proofs of the strict adherence both to nature and art, so strikingly manifested in this most attractive and original design.
Again Williams chose a subject made famous by Millais, but her Ophelia (unlocated) was shown 'standing upon the “envious silver”, the breaking of which is so soon to precipitate her into the cold dark water beneath’, not floating in the stream.
As one of the very few figure paintings in the exhibition Ophelia gained most attention, but her four other oils, predictably 'charming groups of flowers and one fruit picture’, were also admired, the 'transparent lusciousness’ of the plums in the latter being especially noted. Primroses and Violets was exhibited in 1880 and 1881 (when it was stated to be a repeat showing from the previous year) and in 1881 she also showed 'a rather large picture’, On the Brook , 'a charming tangle of pale primroses, splendid violets, and delicate moss’. More flowers and fruit followed in succeeding years as well as extravagantly praised groups of rabbits (1883) and guinea pigs (1885). James Green ('De Libra’) called her fruit paintings 'perfect of their kind’, not unworthy of the popular English still-life painter William Henry ('Birds’ Nest’) Hunt, while a pair of paintings of peaches she exhibited in 1884 could have been taken 'for real but for the frames’.
Late in life the Williams lived at Bowral, NSW. Alfred died there in 1913, Florence two years later.