For a long time, it was believed that Hugh William Williams was born the son of a Welsh sea captain on board a ship destined for the West Indies. It now seems more likely that he was born in Devon, and probably to John Williams and his wife, Mary (née Soper), of Honiton. However, nothing certain is known about his childhood.
By 1790, Williams had moved to Edinburgh, and had become the ward of Louis Ruffini, a Turin-born manufacturer of embroidered muslin who may have been related by marriage to Williams’ father. Having studied pattern design and other skills under David Allan, he seems to have worked at Ruffini’s factory in Dalkeith, southeast of Edinburgh.
At the same time, he may have received lessons from Alexander Nasmyth, and certainly produced landscape watercolours in emulation of that painter. In parallel to his development as an artist during the 1790s, he worked as an actor and, later, as a scene painter.
Williams established himself as a professional artist in Glasgow, and by 1793 had founded a Drawing Academy in that city in partnership with the miniaturist, Alexander Galloway. Though his involvement in this enterprise did not last long, he loaned his watercolours to the Glasgow drawing master, C Buchanan, in 1795, in order that they could be copied by pupils. By the mid 1790s, when he returned to Edinburgh, he was also involving himself in printmaking. He produced his first etched outline in 1794 and had a work published as an aquatint by Jee and Eginton of Birmingham in 1795. Then, in April 1801, his Etchings of Local Subjects – intended to assist in the Study of Nature were published in Edinburgh. A number of his landscape images were also used to illustrate books and magazines, including frequent appearances in The Scots Magazine (1804-13), edited by David Brewster.
From the turn of the century, Williams showed interest in exhibiting his work in London, and it appeared at the Royal Academy on two occasions, in 1800 and 1815. In 1807, he sought election to the Society of Painters in Water Colours. When he proved unsuccessful, he joined the newly formed rival group of Associated Artists in Water Colours, and exhibited with it in 1808 and 1809.
Back in Edinburgh in 1808, Williams became a founder member of short-lived society of Associated Artists in Watercolour. At the time, he was living at 4 South St Andrew Street though, by 1811, he had moved further out to 23 Duke Street in Leith. In 1813, he published six large views of Highland scenery, which he dedicated to some of his most important patrons, including the Dowager Duchess of Buccleuch and William Douglas of Orchardton MP.
One of the present watercolours – of the estate of the banker and politician, John Baring, at Mount Radford, near Exeter – indicates that Williams visited Devon in 1814. At the time, William Douglas was MP for Plympton Erle, so Williams may have travelled in his company.
In 1816, Williams certainly joined William Douglas on a tour of Italy and Greece. While they were in Rome, he entered the circle of Elizabeth Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who had settled in the city following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. She commissioned him to produce an illustration for her luxurious edition of Virgil’s Aeneid (published in 1819/1821). He also gave drawing lessons to the young architect, George Basevi.
On his return from the Continent in 1818, Williams worked towards both a book and an exhibition. In 1820, he whetted the public’s appetite by publishing the volume, Travels in Italy, Greece and the Ionian Islands. Then, in 1822, he held a solo show at the Calton Convening Rooms that established his reputation and earned him his nickname, ‘Grecian Williams’; in the same year, he had work hung at Holyrood Palace, in a private exhibition organised for King George IV, on his visit to Scotland. A growing demand for his art, fuelled by an interest in Greek independence, led him, in 1823, to prepare a series of Select Views in Greece in collaboration with leading Scottish engravers. Possibly because of financial difficulties arising from the publication of that volume, in the years 1823-29, he held a further solo show at the Calton Convening Rooms in 1826. However, from 1824 until his death, he showed most regularly at the Royal Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland.
Though Williams married Robina Miller in 1827, their life together would be short. He became ill in the summer of 1828, and died in the following year, on 14 June 1829. He was buried in the Miller family plot in the Canongate churchyard, Edinburgh, on 22 June. Robina and her fellow trustees arranged a studio sale in 1831.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum and the V&A; Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester); Glasgow Museums and the National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh); Ulster Museum; and Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, RI) and the Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, CT).
J L Caw (rev Mungo Campbell), ‘Williams, Hugh William [called Grecian Williams] (1773–1829)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, Vol 59, Page 212;
Joseph Rock, Hugh William Williams, sites.google.com/site/hughwilliamwilliams;
Joseph Rock, The Life and Work of Hugh William Williams (1773-1829) set within a Scottish context: with a catalogue of works in public collections and a catalogue of all known prints by and after the artist, Edinburgh College of Art, 1997 [PhD thesis];
‘Williams, Hugh William [ Grecian ] (b 1773; d Edinburgh, June 23, 1829)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, Vol 33, Page 204