The Scottish artist William Strang was born in Dumbarton, just north of the River Clyde. His father was a builder, and as a lad he was apprenticed for a while to a Clydeside shipbuilding firm, where he worked as a clerk. One of his early aspirations was lowly: he tried running away to sea to be a sailor, but thought better of it and returned. His other dream was to be an artist, and at length he persuaded his parents to let him come down to London. Here, in 1876, he enrolled at the Slade to study art, first under Sir Edward Poynter before he was replaced that same year by the school's second Professor of Art, Alphonse Legros (1837-1911). Strang was strongly influenced by Legros, so much so that Michael Blaker describes Legros as his "master and god-image" (31). Strang spent a year as Legros's assistant in the print-making class, and for many years afterwards worked mainly as an etcher. Legros's strict realism would continue to influence him, in every medium, for the rest of his life.
Strang's etchings include "landscapes in the tradition of Rembrandt, pastoral themes indebted to Giorgione and macabre genre subjects marked py a sense ot tension and suspended animation" ("William Strang"). Among the other artists said to have influenced him, besides Giorgione and Rembrandt, are Dürer, Holbein and Goya. The young Scotsman soon made his name as an etcher. Along with three younger Scottish etchers, David Young Cameron (1865-1945), Muirhead Bone (1876-1953) and James McBey (1883-1959), he did much to revive the popularity of original printmaking in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries (see Stephen). He also played a significant role in the the revival of hand-printed books, with some delightful productions like A Book of Giants (1898), in which one of his fearsome ogres gobbles up a cyclist and then perches his "bike" on his nose for a pair of "specs" (27)! As well as his own work, he illustrated such classics as The Pilgrim's Progress (1885) and Don Quixote (1902), and was in demand for periodical illustration too.
One of the remarkable things about William Strang was simply his versatility. The art critic Frank Newbolt (brother of the author Sir Henry Newbolt) enumerates his fields of endeavour thus in his book on Strang's etchings: "The whole sum of Mr. Strang's work comprises etchings on copper, zinc and pewter, engravings, mezzotints, aquatints, dry-points, woodcuts, line engravings, silver-point drawings, lithographs, coloured drawings, water-colours and oil paintings" (6-7). As for the last-mentioned, Newbolt explains in the Art Journal that while Strang "made a world-wide reputation for himself as an engraver, he was also, and always, a painter in oils." He goes on to suggest why his canvases are so appealing: "[i]n his paintings there are two obvious qualities which attract attention besides the effort to eliminate the unnecessary and ineffective. The first is simplicity of colour; and the second, the almost indescribable effect of fine composition" (49).
Nevertheless, Strang is perhaps best known now for his numerous chalk and pencil portraits of well-known people of the late-Victorian and Edwardian period, of which, Newbolt tells us in the same article, he produced as many as five hundred (48) — and this was written more than ten years before his sudden death in his early sixties. Probably his most famous portraits are of Thomas Hardy, of which the pencil ones are much less flattering than the oil-painting.
Strang had married in 1885, and he and his wife Agnes had four sons and a daughter. Two of the sons followed in their father's footsteps and became printmakers: lan Strang (1886-1952) and David Strang (1887-1967). David, who had from time to time collaborated with his father, printing many of his plates, is the better known (see Stephen). — Jacqueline Banerjee
Binyon, Laurence, re. Anne L. Goodchild. "Strang, William (1859–1921), painter and printmaker." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 6 March 2015.
Blaker, Michael. "Selections from the Editorial Collection, Part I." The Journal of the Royal Society of Printer-Etchers and Engravers. No. 8: 31-38.
"David Strang." National Gallery of Scotland. Web. 6 March 2015.
Newbolt, Frank. "The Art of William Strang, A.R.A." Art Journal (1910): 47-52.
_____. Etchings of William Strang, A.R.A.. London: G. Newnes / New York: Scribner's, . Internet Archive. Web. 6 March 2015.
Stephen, Phyllis. "Scottish National Gallery – William Strang exhibition opens today." Edinburgh Reporter. 14 October 2014. Web. 6 March 2015.
Strang, William. A Book of Giants. London: Unicorn Press, 1898. Contributed by the University of Oxford. Internet Archive. Web. 6 March 2015. [Note: sadly, the illustrations have not come out here, but they can be seen on Dr Chris Mullin's site about "The Visual Telling of Stories." See the illustration of the giant with bicycle "specs."
____. The Earth Fiend. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1892. Contributed by the Harold B. Lee Library from the collection of Brigham Young University. Internet Archive. Web. 6 March 2015.
"William Strang (1859-1921)." Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. Web. 6 March 2015.
Last modified 11 March 2015