Sidney Richard Percy (1821–1886) was an English
landscape painter during the Victorian era, and a member of the Williams
family of painters.
Life and career
Sidney Richard Percy was born Sidney Richard Percy Williams in 1821 in London.
He was the fifth son of the painter Edward Williams (1781–1855) and Ann Hildebrandt
(c.1780-1851), and a member of the Williams family of painters, who were related to
such famous artists as James Ward, R.A. and George Morland. His father was a
well-known landscape artist, who taught him how to paint; otherwise he received no
formal instruction. Although his early paintings were signed "Sidney Williams", he
used the name "Percy" from the age of 20 onwards to differentiate himself from the
other artists in his family. Starting in 1842, he exhibited at the Royal Academy
(65 works), the British Institution (48 works), and the Suffolk Street Gallery of
the Society of British Artists (67 works). He also exhibited in many of the
lesser-known Victorian art venues as well.
His early years were spent in or near the artist's quarter of Tottenham Court,
before moving about 1846 with his family to Barnes on the outskirts of London. Here
he lived and worked with his father and brothers in a communal artist setting in a
large house with a studio that they shared at 32 Castelnau Villas. Barnes today is
part of the urban sprawl of London, but much of it was rural countryside in
Victorian times. Situated close to the Thames River, there were quiet marshes
beneath windmills, farms where horses pulled plows, and wheel-rutted dirt roads
running past country inns or through shaded glens. These were the scenes that the
Williams brothers captured on canvas during their early years as painters, but as
Sidney Richard Percy matured as a landscape painter he increasingly sought his
inspiration in Northern Wales, Devon, Yorkshire, the Lake District and Skye.
He moved after his 1857 marriage to the Florence Villas on Inner Park Road in
Wandsworth, Surrey, and then moved his family about 1863 to Hill House in the
village of Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. Hill House was well placed for
painting forays into the English countryside, situated as it was across from the
Misbourne Valley. He was extremely popular during these years, which brought him
sufficient income to indulge the extravagant tastes of his wife, which included a
carriage and several servants.
Percy traveled in 1865 to Venice with his friend and neighbor the water colour
artist William Callow (1812–1908), and returned visiting Switzerland and Paris.
Although war between Prussia and Austria in 1866 put an end to these travels, he
returned home to ample artistic inspiration in the Welsh countryside, where he
spent many days painting in and around the villages of Llanbedr and Arthog, on
either side of the Mawddach estuary in Merioneth. He also made painting forays to
the Scottish Highlands.
Sidney Richard Percy had his greatest success painting landscapes of grazing
cattle, typically set against backgrounds of distant mountains and cloudy skies.
The prevailing hues of his landscapes are earth tones and soft greens, accentuated
by a variety of pastel hues. The detail in his work is part of its appeal, and "it
was remarked that his rocks and stones were sufficiently accurate to have served as
illustrations to the writings of Sir Roderick Murchison, the popular 19th-century
geologist." Llyn-y-Ddinas, North Wales, one his more popular works on the
internet, displays these qualities. He also painted landscapes of farm fields,
wheel-rutted country roads, and the occasional boat scene on a lake.
His art interests were not limited to painting, and he was also an amateur
photographer, in a day when photography was new and exciting, yet still a poorly
understood medium. He frequently used his own photographs of gypsies in the Barnes
or Wimbledon Common as the basis for similar figures in his paintings, even though
some contemporary critics complained how these figures ruined what otherwise would
be delightful landscapes. A classic example is Storm Gathering on Cader Idris,
North Wales, which he exhibited in 1856 at the Royal Academy, and which has
the same gypsy girls in it as one of seven of his photographs in the Victoria and
Albert Museum. In fact, this painting is one of the ones singled out for some of
the aforementioned criticism. These same girls appear in his 1861 work A Rest
on the Roadside, and they appear again, but reversed, in his 1873 version of
Llyn-y-Ddinas, North Wales, showing that he repeated themes when
Although he generally painted in oils, a number of small watercolors on
cardboard exist, typically unsigned, that are his work. The family, and his son the
painter Herbert Sidney Percy in particular, referred to these as "potboilers",
meaning that they were quickly, and often crudely executed, yet easily and cheaply
sold "to put food on the table" when working on larger, more time-consuming oils
for exhibition, or commissions. Many of these watercolor "potboilers" were done in
the field, and then brought back to the studio to refer to when executing a more
formal oil on canvas.
Sidney Richard Percy was extremely popular during the early part of his career,
which for a short time brought him a fair amount of income. Among his patrons
during this time was Prince Albert the Royal consort who in 1854 gave Percy's
landscape of A view of Llyn Dulyn, North Wales, which had just been
exhibited at the Royal Academy, as a gift to his wife Queen Victoria. This painting
still hangs today in the Royal Collection. Unfortunately Sidney Richard Percy
outlived his popularity, and the art world was more excited about impressionism and
other styles than landscapes when he died. Today though, his work is much sought
after, and his better paintings bring much higher prices in auction than any of
those of his brethren in the Williams family.
When the Athenaeum in 1886 (i. 592) ran an obituary for Sidney Richard Percy
they called him, "the well-known and popular painter, founder of the so-called
School of Barnes . . ." Although depending on the context of what is meant by the
so-called Barnes School, this is a bit of an injustice to his father Edward
Williams, whom it might be argued is the founder of the Barnes School of painters,
but it illustrates the popularity that Sidney Richard Percy held with the
art-buying public of his day.