Walter Taylor


In Tate Britain


The watercolour painter Walter Taylor (fig.1) remains, as he was in his own lifetime, a relatively unknown artist, remembered chiefly for his enduring friendship with his exact contemporary Walter Sickert. Little biographical detail is known about him. Taylor was born in Leeds on 16 February 1860, and was educated privately owing to ill health. His father was a successful tobacco manufacturer and Taylor had a privileged upbringing. Ironically, the family could have been even richer were it not for the fact that Taylor’s father was persuaded to sell his shares in Wills Tobacco, convinced by his financial advisors that the passion for cigarettes would not last.1 Nevertheless, Taylor never had to earn a living and, although he undertook training as an architect, his considerable private income meant that he never practised and instead went to art school in Paris and to the Royal College of Art in London. He subsequently lived an affluent life, devoting his time to painting and travelling, and it was during time spent in France that he first met Sickert. In 1899 Taylor married Hylda Matheson, but, tragically, she died on their honeymoon.2 In 1910 he moved from Hastings in Sussex along the coast to Brighton, where he lived and worked for over a decade. He also kept a house in London, which enabled him to maintain links with the capital’s art scene. In 1911 he held his first solo exhibition at the prestigious Grafton Galleries. From 1915 he kept a studio at 18 Fitzroy Street.
To his contemporaries Taylor always seemed old. The writer Osbert Sitwell (1892–1969) said that with his ‘red face and white imperial, his prominent nose, slow movements, leisurely gait, and with a little the air of a seaside dandy, [Taylor] appeared always to be elderly. Everything about him seemed to be leisurely, not least so his voice, with something of an inescapable boredom in its slow, single-toned unemphatic flow.’3 Yet his old-fashioned nature and premature seniority were tempered by a love of the modern in art and literature. A friend Marjorie Lilly described him as ‘prey to the rage for the day after tomorrow’.4 The critic W.J. Turner recalled that he was a ‘reserved and taciturn man but though silent he was genial, and an ideal host who stimulated conversation as he much appreciated wit and was thoroughly well-read’.5 Apparently Taylor only had one eye, although this does not seem to have affected his enthusiasm for painting.6 Spencer Gore’s son Frederick recollected that, following an amusing incident arising from Taylor’s affection for ‘a famous lady who ran an uproarious hotel in Duke Street (caricatured by Evelyn Waugh as Lottie Crump in Vile Bodies)’, he was dubbed ‘Can eye Taylor’. The artist Fred Mayor (1865–1916) and the writer Arnold Bennett (1867–1931) apparently listened at a locked door while Taylor wooed the object of his affection, imploring her, ‘Can I, can I ...?’7 The Chilean artist Alvaro Guevara (1894–1951) painted a portrait of Taylor in 1918. It was hailed as one of Guevara’s most successful works and was sold to the Contemporary Art Society in 1936, but its whereabouts are now unknown.8

Nicola Moorby
February 2004




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