DAVID WILSON unearths the background to the man who stands in front of the City Art Gallery

HE’S not exactly hidden from York history, so many residents and visitors to York cannot avoid encountering William Etty.

However, the details of his life and work remain little-known to people who aren’t artists or art historians.

His statue, erected in 1911 and restored by Alaina Schmisseur in 2018, was the work of York sculptor George Millburn, and is one of three prominent figures to grace York’s city centre pavements.

There’s also a plaque commemorating Etty in the city. The plaque is on the wall at 20 Feasegate, the site of the house (long since demolished) where he was born, and there used to be another next to the City Screen, near to where he died.

There’s also an 1883 stained-glass window, a memorial to the artist, in St Olave’s Church.

York Press: Etty, William; Venus and Cupid; York Museums TrustEtty, William; Venus and Cupid; York Museums Trust

Etty was buried here at St Olave’s in 1849, and his tomb, which he shares with his brother Walter, can be viewed from both the churchyard and from the Museum Gardens.

William Etty was born in York on March 10, 1787, the seventh child of Matthew and Esther Etty (née Calverley).

His father was a successful miller, baker and confectioner. His mother was related to East Riding gentry but had been disowned by them because ‘she had married beneath her station’. William showed artistic promise from an early age by drawing in chalk on the wooden floor of his father’s shop. Later, he would stand in front of John Todd’s bookshop in Stonegate and would sketch the prints displayed in the shop windows.

After he’d spent some time at a boarding school in Pocklington, William Etty’s mother obtained for her eleven-year-old son a seven-year apprenticeship with Robert Peck, a printer in Hull.

On completion of his Hull apprenticeship, Etty moved to London and in 1807 he joined the Royal Academy Schools and studied under Sir Thomas Lawrence. He trained as an artist by copying the works of Old Masters. However, he enjoyed little commercial success in his first few years in London. Later, Etty was to travel extensively around continental Europe through Paris, Florence and Rome spending seven months at the Venetian Academy in 1823 where he was elected an honorary Academician.

York Press: The Lord Mayor unveiling the statue of William Etty in Exhibition Square, February 20, 1911. Picture: Explore York Libraries and ArchivesThe Lord Mayor unveiling the statue of William Etty in Exhibition Square, February 20, 1911. Picture: Explore York Libraries and Archives

Etty soon acquired a reputation which wasn’t entirely favourable in the conventional and puritanical world of early 19th-century England. He took to studying the naked human form at life classes and continued this practice throughout his professional career. Drawing nudes in life classes was severely criticised by his fellow-artists. One critic in The Times of January 1822 expressed the opinion that "Naked figures when painted with the purity of Raphael, may be endured: but nakedness without purity is offensive and indecent, and Mr Etty’s canvass is mere dirty flesh".

A couple of York artist friends of mine are unimpressed by his work. For them Etty followed technical artistic rules too closely, never really reaching the creative heights of, say a Reynolds or a Gainsborough.

York Press: Plaque near to where William Etty diedPlaque near to where William Etty died

So, how did Etty acquire the esteem in which he was obviously held? Was it a case of local York boy made good? The York citizens who mattered were clearly proud of him. He had been elected a Royal Academician in 1828, and this was the highest honour available to an artist at that time. He never forgot his humble beginnings in York and is credited with having played an active role in campaigning to save York’s medieval city walls from being demolished.

In 1842 Etty also established the York School of Design which was later to become the York School of Art. His paintings are currently owned by several galleries throughout Britain from the York City Art Gallery to the Tate and the Fairhaven Collection at Anglesey Abbey.

William Etty was a shy man, totally dedicated to his work, and he never married. He lived with his niece Betsy in London where she kept house and eventually moved back to York with him. While it’s inappropriate to read modern social values back into the very different world of the 19th century, his very convincing portrayal of male as well as female body contours raised eyebrows in his day, given that he was what used to be known as a "confirmed bachelor". Nowadays, it is suspected that he may have been secretly gay.

Fast forward to the first decades of the 21st century and a dramatic change in society’s attitudes towards nudity and the expression of sexuality.

There’s been renewed interest in Etty’s work, especially the naked male and female figures.

From June 2011 to January 2012 there was a major retrospective exhibition of the work of William Etty at York Art Gallery, the first for more than 50 years. The exhibition was titled Art and Controversy. York Art Gallery later partnered with the York LGBT+ Forum to make its Burton Gallery a more welcoming and inclusive space for the LGBTQIA+ community.

But perhaps his greatest contribution to English art is best summarised by Friend of York Art Gallery, Dorothy Nott, who in her 2022 essay on Male Nude with Arms Up-Stretched wrote: "Etty was very much admired for his flesh tints and the corporeality of his figures, one reviewer stating that he was the greatest colourist of the English school, and that no other living artist could paint flesh like him."

David Wilson is a community writer with The Press