During his lifetime, Dumbarton-born William Strang (1859 – 1921) built up an international reputation as a highly skilled and imaginative printmaker, portraitist and painter. His diverse subjects ranged from the fantastic to the very real, including uncompromising depictions of contemporary life and the effects of poverty and social injustice, landscapes, subjects from the bible, bewildering allegories, and narrative illustrations. He was also a prolific and highly successful portraitist.
William Strang was born in Dumbarton in 1859. His father was a builder and his mother was the daughter of a founding member of the Clydeside shipbuilding firm William Denny & Bros. Throughout his life Strang identified himself as one of the working class and maintained a concern for the ordinary working person. On leaving Dumbarton Academy, he worked for a year as an office clerk for the family firm before he was eventually permitted to move to London to commence an artistic training. Although he made periodic return visits to Scotland, from this time London became his permanent home.
He enrolled at the Slade School of Art in London in 1876, aged seventeen, and studied under the school’s newly-appointed professor, the French Realist Alphonse Legros (1837–1911). Legros had introduced a continental style of teaching which focused on the importance of fine draughtsmanship and drawing from life. Having been a leading member of the etching revival in France, Legros also introduced an etching class. Strang clearly excelled here, and served as Assistant Master in the etching class for two years after graduating. Legros’s teaching, and his ideas, had a profound and lasting influence on the young artist, who described his old master as ‘the greatest teacher that ever lived, because he was the greatest artist who ever taught’.
For the first twenty years of his career, Strang practised primarily as a printmaker. Although he did paint, he did not begin to exhibit his paintings until the early 1890s. From the mid-1890s he started to become increasingly occupied with more lucrative portrait commissions and began to shift the emphasis of his art from etching to painting and drawing. However, he continued to work as a printmaker throughout his career. In 1918 he became President of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers and in 1921 was elected an Engraver Member of the Royal Academy. He died suddenly in 1921, shortly after his election as Royal Academician.
Strang’s choice of subject matter was hugely varied. His portraits included many important artistic and literary sitters such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Hardy, and, inspired by Rembrandt, numerous self-portraits. He was also an advocate for the revival of the hand-printed book and made many narrative illustrations for books, periodicals (including Aubrey Beardsley’sThe Yellow Book) and his own Scots dialect ballads. He also explored the biblical themes of traditional art, and these he treated with deep reverence. Although Strang made a number of etchings of architectural and landscape subjects, these never held the same importance as those in which there was human interest. His macabre, often bewildering genre pictures ranged from the real to the fantastic and the allegorical.In Paris, Legros had been closely associated with the artists of the Realist movement, who sought to convey in their art a truthful vision of everyday contemporary existence, and he encouraged a similar honesty in the work of his pupils. Strang’s closely observed depictions of the lives of the urban poor are clearly influenced by Legros as well as by a life-long respect for the traditions of the old masters Rembrandt, Dürer, Van Dyck, and Goya. In images such as Grotesque the dirrect manner with which he has approached the subject of poverty eschews all sentimentality or the figuratively beautiful, favoring instead honesty and psychological intensity.
By 1904 Strang was well-established as a portrait artist, having turned to the more commercial business of portraiture largely as a means to generate income. Strang took portraiture very much as a literal and truthful exercise, rarely pandering to the vanity of his sitters. His portraits demonstrate a variety of technical and pictorial approaches, often employing more relaxed techniques for portraits of those he admired and knew well.
A device that we see in most of Strang’s portraits is one where the head is fully modelled, while the body, with its conventional modern clothes is drawn in outline or omitted.
Between 1898 and 1909 he produced over 500 portrait-drawings. Many were executed in black and red chalks on paper primed with a pink wash, a technique heavily influenced by Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait drawings of the Court of Henry VIII, which the artist had seen in the collection of the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.
Thomas Hardy was the subject of several drawings, etchings and oil portraits by Strang, becoming possibly the artist’s most famous sitter. Strang probably first met Hardy in London in the early 1890s when both were members of the Art Workers Guild. In old age Hardy was described as like a ‘bald eagle’, with a scraggy neck and a tendency to glance sharply from side to side.
Inspired by Rembrandt, Strang found himself useful as a model and produced many self-portraits across his career. The Gallery’s collection includes a number of etched self-portraits by Strang and two painted self-portraits (both in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery). One shows the artist wearing a fez and holding a palette and brushes, the other is a more intense study of his aging face.
Strang was a prolific printmaker and across his lifetime produced over 750 original prints. He worked mostly in etching, but experimented with other techniques including drypoint, mezzotint, lithography, aquatint, woodcut and engraving. As a printmaker, he produced one of the most original and varied bodies of etched work by any Scottish artist of the period. He was a key figure in bringing about an international revival of interest in original printmaking during the late-nineteen and early twentieth-century and, in 1904, was one of the founding members of the Society of Twelve, a group of artists (which included fellow Scots David Young Cameron and Muirhead Bone), committed to this revival. Although he went on to achieve great recognition as a painter, printmaking remained central to Strang’s work until his death.
In 1906 a catalogue was published (J Maclehose & Sons, Glasgow University Press) listing all of Strang’s etched work up to that date – some 471 items. Compiled by the artist with assistance from friends, it contained an introduction by Laurence Binyon. An updated second issue including an additional 73 items was published in 1912. Following the artist’s death, a final supplement was issued in 1923, adding some 140 more works and bringing the total number of catalogued etchings by Strang up to an astonishing 700.
Strang married Agnes McSymon, who was also from Dumbarton, in 1885, and the couple had four sons and one daughter. Two of their sons, Ian (1886 – 1952) and David (1887 – 1967), became printmakers. Ian was an etcher, draughtsman and painter mainly of architectural and landscape subjects who, like his father, trained at the Slade. Ian Strang wrote The Student's Book of Etching in 1938, one of a series of art books written by well-known artists and designed to give students the guidance ‘which only experienced artists can give’. David Strang was well-known as a printer, and was an etcher in his own right. He occasionally collaborated with his father and printed many of his plates, including a small edition of proofs from the plates that were in his possession after the artist’s death. The plates, nearly 600 in all, were then destroyed.