William Orchardson was born in Edinburgh in 1835, and commenced his artistic training at the Trustees Academy in 1850. Amongst his fellow students was Thomas Faed (1826-1900), later a fellow Academician. From around this time Quiller-Orchardson also exhibited his oil paintings at the Royal Scottish Academy. In 1862 Orchardson moved to London, and started exhibiting at the RA in 1863. Quiller-Orchardson became ARA in 1868, and RA in 1877.
Orchardson was a painter of portraits, genre, and historical genre paintings. Initially Quiller-Orchardson concentrated on subjects from Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott. Like many other artists of the time Quiller-Orchardson also illustrated magazines. As Orchardson’s career developed he created a speciality of portraying upper class drawing room psychological dramas, an example of which is his famous painting “A Marriage of Convenience,” showing a discontented young wife dining with her much-older husband. Quiller-Orchardson paintings are subtle and muted in their colouring. Quiller-Orchardson tended to use browns, yellows, and greens in combination. Quiller-Orchardson painting “Master Baby,” of 1886 is a charming picture of his wife Ellen and infant son Gordon and, of course very much to Victorian taste. His painting “Napoleon on board the Bellerophon,” showing the brooding Emperor’s voyage to exile on St Helena is a justly famous example of the painters historical works. Orchardson traveled twice to Venice in the 1870s.
Quiller-Orchardson was typical of Victorian artists in his conscientious working methods, which involved full-scale charcoal studies. Following the death of Millais in 1896 Orchardson was a candidate to become President of The Royal Academy. In the event Edward Poynter was ultimately elected as Millais’s successor. In 1907 Orchardson was knighted. Quiller-Orchardson was also invited to provide a self-portrait for the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, a major honour for an artist at that time. In Louise Jopling’s book “Twenty Years of My Life,” she describes Orchardson as follows : “Sir Quiller Orchardson, the RA, had a most picturesque personality.”
Sir William Orchardson died on the 13th April 1910, and worked to the last. Shortly before his death, he left his sick bed to complete his portrait painting of Lord Blyth, which was exhibited at the RA that year.
Charles Orchardson, son of Sir William Quiller-Orchardson was a well-known painter of portrait paintings and landscapes, who died of wounds received in the First World War in 1917.