William Wilson has a reputation as the outstanding Scottish printmaker and stained glass artist of the twentieth century. Underpinning these achievements are his substantial skills as a draughtsman and painter. Born in Edinburgh on 21 July 1905, William Wilson left school early to work as a mapmaker. Then, in 1920, at the age of 15, he began an apprenticeship in the stained glass studio of James Ballantine and Son, and also studied stained glass with Herbert Hendrie. While still an apprentice, he attended evening classes at Edinburgh College of Art and, in 1930, was elected to the Society of Scottish Artists.
In 1932, Ballantine allowed Wilson to study full time at the college, and he there discovered printmaking, becoming an outstanding student of etching and engraving under Adam Bruce Thomson, and soon winning an RSA Carnegie Travelling Scholarship. This enabled him to travel to France, Germany, Italy and Spain, and make pen and ink drawings of the places that he visited.
These became the basis of many of his prints.
During the early 1930s, Wilson established himself as arguably Scotland’s finest twentieth-century printmaker, producing work that initially reflected his interest in Italian primitive art, but which gradually became ‘more dramatic and darkly expressive’ (Frances Spalding, 20th Century Painters and Sculptors, Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1990, page 468). From this period, he was secretary to the Society of Artist Printmakers. A fellow member was the etcher and engraver, Ian Fleming, who shared with Wilson the skills that he had acquired from his teacher, Charles Murray, while at Glasgow School of Art.
In 1934, Wilson gained an Andrew Grant Fellowship and RSA Guthrie Award, which permitted him to study both in London, at the Royal College of Art, and in Germany, where he focussed his attention contemporary stained glass. While in London, in 1935, he met the artist, Edgar Holloway, and they travelled together in Britain and Europe. A year later, they rented a cottage for six months at Netteswell Common, Essex, where they installed a printing press.
In 1937, Wilson opened his own stained glass studio in Edinburgh, and produced glass for churches, cathedrals and secular buildings in Britain and abroad, establishing a wide reputation. Notable among buildings to include his work are the cathedrals at Canterbury, Liverpool and Brechin, Angus. His last and largest surviving set of windows, designed in about 1961, is at Craigiebuckler church, Aberdeen.
Alongside his work as a stained glass artist and printmaker, Wilson painted watercolours, including some of scenes of life in fishing ports and others of Paris. In these, he showed affinities with other members of the Edinburgh School, including William Gillies and Anne Redpath. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1939, and a full Academician in 1949, and also a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1946.
Losing his sight, as the result of diabetes, in 1961, Wilson spent the last years of his life with a sister in Bury, Lancashire. He died early in 1972.
Further reading: Fiona Pearson, William Wilson 1905-1972, Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 1994