William James Müller (British 1812-1845)


An artist sketching a tomb in the church of St Mary, Yatton, Somerset

Watercolour over pencil, inscribed verso: In Yatton Church/(Somt.) and with a preliminary watercolour sketch verso

38 x 56 cm

The fourteenth century church, also called the Cathedral of the Moors, which was enlarged in the fifteenth century, is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Somerset, and an easy journey from Bristol where Müller lived.

The lady in a red cloak is sketching the monument of John Newton (1425-1488 ) of Court de Wyke and his wife Isabel Cheddar (1451-1498). It was erected by Isabel who was churchwarden in 1496 and she also built the chapel in which they lie which is dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. John Newton was the soldier son of Sir Richard Newton (formerly Craddock), Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in 1444.

It is tempting to suppose that the figure in the watercolour might be Miss Elizabeth Frances Philpott, Müller’s fiancée of eleven years. She was an artist, a couple of years older than Müller, who exhibited two pictures in 1832 at the first exhibition of the Bristol Society of Artists. She and Müller visited Leigh Woods together, a popular sketching ground near Bristol, in 1833, and Müller frequently called upon her in Clifton. After his early death Miss Philpott burnt hundreds of Müller’s letters and ‘never recovered her spirits..but remained taciturn and tinged with melancholy to the last’ (see ed. F. Greenacre and S. Stoddard, W.J. Müller, 1991, p. 104 no. 82 and p. 10).

I am grateful to Francis Greenacre for his comments on the present watercolour.

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Five studies of the head of an African

Oil on canvas

50 x 69 cm

Müller returned from Egypt in 1839 and spent the summer in Bristol before moving to London in the autumn. He worked at the Clipstone Street Academy in Fitzroy Square in the evenings, where he painted from life. This artists’ society had been founded in the 1820s to enable artists to study picturesque characters from life, and there Müller worked in oils, producing sparkling sketches of which this is a lively example. This picture seems to reflect his interest in the Cairo slave market, where he spent time sketching from 1838 to 1839 and which provided the subjects for many of his exhibited works at the Royal Academy and British Institution until his death in 1845. A further study of the same sitter is with the Maas Gallery.

Provenance: Spink & Son, London, 1977; Private collection, UK

Exhibited: Spink, Visions of the Orient, October 1995, cat. no. 35 (on loan)