Skip to Content

ROBERT ARTHUR WILSONBritish 1884 - 1979

This watercolour is part of an extraordinary group of abstract works we acquired, all executed between 1917-1920, that were originally shown at Wilson’s one-man shows of 1920 and 1922. His exhibition at The Guild of Decorators’ Syndicate in Newman Street, London W1 in May 1920 comprised 46 ‘Paintings and colour studies’ of which the majority were described by the artist himself as: “semi-abstract decorative subjects based on the analogy of colour and music.” In his memoirs Wilson recalled of this exhibition: “ At this period I gave my first BBC broadcast talk, entitled ‘Colour, its meaning and use, logic, mystery, symbolism and power’. The subject matter of this particular exhibition led to much publicity in the press, and was published in the ‘Radio Times’.” Many of the same works were exhibited two years later at another one-man show at the Dorien Leigh Gallery, Millars House, Cromwell Place, South Kensington, in October 1922. An exhibition of 40 oil paintings and 21 watercolours, Wilson recalled: “During this show I gave a lecture on ‘Colour and Music’ with help from Edward Mitchell, who played chords on the piano corresponding with colours in my pictures. He ended by giving a minor Scriabine recital.”

ROBERT ARTHUR WILSONBritish 1884 - 1979

Robert Arthur Wilson was born in 1884 the son of an ironmonger and dealer in china, in Monkwearmouth, Sunderland. He left school at the age of thirteen and a half and was employed as a book-keeper for two years before being apprenticed at the age of 16 to a local firm of sign-writers – his father, who was keen for all his sons to learn a trade, described it to him as “neat and natty work”. Thus in 1900 began Wilson’s 80-year long painting career. Throughout much of his apprenticeship Wilson attended evening classes at the Sunderland School of Art and in 1907 he was awarded a Government National Scholarship which enabled him to study at the Royal College of Art in London.

There he gained a diploma in 1911 and was awarded an RCA bursary which helped him move to Paris where enrolled at the Académie Julian as a pupil of Jean Paul Laurens. Within the first few weeks he gained first prize for drawing from life and a medal for a painting ‘Torse femme’.

For a time he steeped himself in the Parisian art scene, socialising with fellow English artists such as William Roberts, Christopher Nevinson, Matthew Smith and Edward Wadsworth. A photograph of the Académie Julian taken in 1913 shows Wilson seated beside Nevinson with the latter’s arm thrown around his shoulder, and it was through Nevinson, who had for a time shared a studio with Modigliani, that Wilson was introduced to many of the French avant-garde artists of the time.

Towards the end of his first year, feeling bored and longing for change, he was introduced to Tudor-Hart, and American painter who held classes in his studio near Montparnasse. Tudor-Hart had an enormous influence upon him (Wilson later claimed “he was the only man who ever taught me anything”) and the next few years were spent largely alongside him, as pupil and then as teacher at his art school in Paris, then Meudon near Sevres and finally in Hampstead, London. Wilson spent the war years teaching at the latter studio and, when that closed, working on a fruit farm near Chester. In his privately printed autobiography, ‘Memoirs of an Individualist’, Wilson skates over the years dividing the great wars, describing them as “the least exciting and most uneventful so far in my life.” Yet in truth the paintings he produced between 1917-1920 were the best, the most intellectually stimulating, and by far the greatest gift to posterity that he ever produced. Louis J McQuilland ended his introduction to Wilson’s 1922 one-man show with the words: “R A Wilson is a craftsman with acute sight and hearing and he has fulfilled himself in his life’s work.” These words must have haunted Wilson repeatedly, with the thought that he might already have “fulfilled himself in his life’s work” when 57 years of painting still awaited him. It would certainly explain his antipathy to these astonishing works and his preference for his later, mundanely orthodox mainly rural scenes.

Between 1917-1919 Wilson produced a series of allegorically inspired watercolour ‘decorations’ as well as abstract designs that were derived from sound effects and piano music. In this he was heavily influenced by the Russian composer Alexandre Scriabine and his experiments in music and colour. Such theories were common currency among painters of the avant-garde at this time. In 1914 Duncan Grant had designed an abstract collage 4 metres wide to be unwound to the music of Bach. Meanwhile musical motifs abounded in the early abstract works by Picasso and Braque. But Wilson was probably unique in capturing snatches of music by the abstraction of colour rather than form.

In the year 1919 he exhibited alongside some of the greatest artists of his generation: at the Allied Artists’ Exhibition; at The London Group; and at an extraordinary exhibition organised by the art critic James Wood for The Cambridge Magazine, where the fellow exhibitors included: ‘…works by Augustus John, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Nina Hamnet, Mark Gertler, Modigliani, Adrian Allinson, RA Wilson, Richards and Sydney Carline and others…’ In the same year Charles Wheeler (later Sir Charles Wheeler and President of the Royal Academy) sculpted a head of Wilson in bronze.

In 1920 his first one-man show, at The Guild of Decorators’ Syndicate, generated much publicity but relatively few sales. The reviews were mixed and split upon predictable lines, between those with a taste for the avant-garde and those suspicious of it. His second one-man show two years later at the Dorien Leigh Gallery, South Kensington, featured many of the same works alongside some impressionistic oil paintings, but was a more forceful demonstration of Wilson’s innovative colour theories and methodologies. As such it received further media attention, though a profound lack of commercial success especially for the more experimental pieces.

In 1922-3 Wilson decided to change direction in his art and turned to a more naturalistic style, focussing largely upon rural scenes painted in tempera, en grisaille or in oil paints. He continued painting in this manner until the age of 90, exhibiting occasionally at the Royal Academy and other venues, meanwhile teaching at several art schools, giving many talks and lectures often on colour theory. He died at Bletchingley, Surrey, in 1979.

His eldest son, Arthur, was teacher at Epsom School of Art and continues his work as an artist with his own website (, his work largely inspired by mathematical formulae. His younger son, Arnold Wilson, was curator of the Bristol City Art Gallery for many years, while his grandson, Richard Wilson, is following in his grandfather’s radical tradition as an internationally renowned installation artist, best known for ‘20:50’ which has recently been described as “a contender for the most important work of British art of recent decades”.