York Plaques

William Etty (1787-1849)


Location of plaque: A stone plaque is on Etty's grave in St Olave’s graveyard

You may have noticed that the statue of the artist William Etty outside York Art Gallery has been looking a little more cheerful recently.

That's because it has been restored by York Civic Trust. Etty is still missing the fingers of his right hand - fingers which may have been broken off by Canadian airmen larking about during the Second World War, according to one Press reader - but that apart he looks much better.

But who was Etty? And why does he merit his own statue in such a prime spot?

William Etty is often referred to as 'York's most famous artist', one renowned today mainly for his risqué nudes and for his part in helping to save the city walls. He was born above his father's bakery shop at 20 Feasegate in 1787, and apprenticed at 11 to a Hull printer. But after serving a seven-year apprenticeship he headed off to London determined to become a painter

He stayed with his wealthy uncle, and became a private pupil at the Royal Academy School at Somerset House. When his uncle died, he was effectively homeless, moving from lodging to lodging. He regularly had paintings accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibition but had little commercial success at first. From 1821 to 1823 he travelled in France and Italy to improve his knowledge of painting and when he returned, in his mid thirties, became a respected member of the Royal Academy whose work sold well.

By the time of the York Minster fire in 1829, Etty - who had built his reputation on the painting of nudes, quite controversial in Victorian times - was prominent enough to be able help lead a successful campaign against plans to restructure the interior of the great cathedral, which was instead restored to its original state.

He also played a part in the campaign to save the city walls. There had been several attempts to get rid of these since 1800. In 1826, the barbicans at four of the city gates or bars were demolished. In 1832 Etty began writing to local newspapers calling for the walls to be preserved. But since by this time the city corporation had already decided to retain and restore the walls, it is unclear how significant his intervention was. He also campaigned in 1838 against plans by the York and North Midland Railway to cut an archway through the city walls to a railway station inside: a campaign he lost.

Etty never married. You would not know it to look at his statue, but he was considered extremely ugly. His biographer Alexander Gilchrist described him in 1855 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 this 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."

William Etty died on November 11, 1849. He had planned to be buried in York Minster, but neglected to cover the costs in his will and was buried instead in the churchyard of St Olave’s Church in Marygate, his local parish church. He left £17,000, a house in Stonegate and many paintings which are in York Art Gallery.

For the stories behind more York Civic Trust plaques, visit www.yorkcivictrust.co.uk