Mrs Williams was an artist, who exhibited with Steer at the New English Art Club, and her husband, T. Cyprian Williams, was a collector of art. D.S. MacColl recalled that the portrait was commissioned by another artist friend of Steer’s, Francis James (1849-1920). James owned the picture throughout his life, and it may be that it was painted at Steer’s request, but that he needed the commission in order to be able to devote the time to it. The design of the portrait is unconventional in that the point of view looks downwards from one corner. Mrs Williams is seen in profile, and her two daughters, placed on a bench that divides the picture diagonally, are seen from above. It is likely that Steer felt freer to be so unusual since the portrait was not commissioned by the sitter.
MacColl noted that Steer was imitating the complex design of paintings by Degas, and of Japanese prints – ‘A curiosity in perspective grouping, traceable to Degas or Japanese design, marks the Mrs. Cyprian Williams with her Children’ (p. 101). The portrait was exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1891, where Steer was also competing with Sargent (1856-1925), who also favoured unusual compositions, and often emphasised, as does Steer, the sitter’s hands. The connection with Japanese prints is made explicit by the additional tokens of the two Japanese dolls, and the Japanese fabric on the back of the armchair.
This is one of the largest of Steer’s portraits. Its exhibition at the NEAC served to advertise his availability as an original portraitist, but did not lead to further commissions.
D.S. MacColl, Life Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer, 1945, pp. 44, 46, 101, 106, 192
Bruce Laughton, Philip Wilson Steer 1860-1942, 1971, pp. 42, 44-5, 131 (cat. 78), reproduced pl. 92
Jane Munro, Philip Wilson Steer 1860-1942, exhibition catalogue, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and Arts Council of Great Britain, 1986, no.14, pp. 37-8, reproduced in colour p.10
Ysanne Holt, Philip Wilson Steer, Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan 1992, pp.54-5