Philip Wilson Steer

Mrs Cyprian Williams and her Two Little Girls


Not on display

Philip Wilson Steer 1860–1942
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 1022 mm
Purchased with assistance from anonymous subscribers 1928


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.

Further reading:
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

David Jenkins
April 2001

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Display caption

The unusual perspective of this composition, looking down on the subject, was influenced by the work of French artist Edgar Degas and the design of Japanese prints. It is used to convey a sense of claustrophobia and confinement. The wife of an art collector, Helen Cyprian Williams was a successful amateur artist renowned for her distinctive features and volatile temperament. The uneasy shift in scale from Mrs Williams to her daughters – and her gaze away from them, lost in thought – reinforces some undefined sense of separation. Her stillness invites us to speculate about what is running through her mind.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry


Inscr. ‘P. W. Steer’ b.r.
Canvas, 30×40 1/4 (76×102).
Purchased from Barbizon House (Clarke Fund) with the aid of a contribution from David Croal Thompson 1928.
Coll: Francis Edward James until 1920.
Exh: N.E.A.C., April 1891 (33); Barbizon House, February 1928 (5); Tate Gallery, April–July 1929 (4); National Gallery, June–August 1943 (10).
Lit: MacColl in Artwork, No.17, 1929, pp.10, 15, repr. p.3; MacColl, 1945, pp.44, 46, 101, 106, 192.
Repr: Barbizon House Record, 1929, No.28; Ironside, 1943, pl.18.

Commissioned in 1890 by Francis Edward James (1849–1920) the painter, who exhibited at the New English Art Club and Royal Watercolour Society, of which he was an Associate. The chief sitter was the wife of a well-known collector, T. Cyprian Williams, and appears to have been herself an amateur artist since she exhibited as a non-member at the N.E.A.C. from April 1891 to November 1892. At the April 1891 exhibition she showed a painting ‘Gwen and Joan’ which may just possibly have been a portrait of her two daughters.

Two studies of Mrs Cyprian Williams are listed in MacColl's catalogue (1945, p.192); one, ‘Sketch of Mrs Cyprian Williams’ (panel, 9×11 in.), was apparently done while Steer was staying at Hayling Island in 1891, and was sold at Sotheby's in 1940 by the executors of Mrs H. R. Williams. A second ‘full-length study’ of Mrs Williams was also in this sale.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II

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