Artist and designer William James Neatby - an introduction

20th August 2018
Sometimes, when considering the artistic landscape of late-Victorian and Edwardian England, one encounters an embarrassment of riches. This was, after all, the Fin-de-Siècle (turn of the century), the height of the Gothic Revival period in architecture and design. An era of uncompromising quality and style. Everything had to look good as well as be functional. And behind the fabulous towering edifices and mullion windows of many a building of the period can be still be found some of the best examples of craftsmanship and design of all time.
painting on plaster of woman seated on throne flanked by maidens bearing roses, delicate shades
'The Heart of the Rose' - paint on plaster by W.J. Neatby.
In this context, the names of the famous naturally spring to mind - Augustus Pugin, William Morris, William Burges. But other less well-known individuals have made contributions that are significant and often unique. One of these is the subject of this post.

Introducing William James Neatby

photo of young bespectacled victorian gentleman seated, chin resting on hand, pensive
A young W.J. Neatby in reflective mood.
Chances are, you have already seen and admired the work of William James Neatby, but without knowing it. He is one of the unsung heroes of the Gothic revival. From a humble entrance to a traditional city pub, to the spectacular food hall of Harrods in London’s Knightsbridge, his ceramic creations are widespread and often highly treasured.
upward slanting photo of interior of shopping arcade with victorian lanterns and glazed decorative tiles, colourful
Interior of The Royal Arcade, Norwich
exterior of building with decorative glazed tiles, showing angel with outstretched wings motif
Exterior of Edward Everard Printing Works, Bristol.
tiled entrance to a pub, decorative style

Beyond ceramics

But Neatby wasn’t just a designer of ceramics. He worked in glass and enamel; in metals, terracotta and mosaics. He produced furniture and panels; wallpapers and ornamental screens, and he collaborated in illustrations for numerous books. There is hardly an area of design he did not take an interest in - and, quite often master - during his all-too-brief lifespan of just fifty years.
inlay image of woman in long robes included in panel from an ornamental screen
Arts-and-Crafts-style inlay panel from an ornamental screen.

Beginnings in Barnsley

Neatby was born in the Yorkshire town of Barnsley in 1860 and trained initially as an architect. He married his first wife Emily at the age of 21 and lived and worked for many years in various towns and cities locally, including Whitby and possibly Leeds. Quite early on he realised that his vocation was not in architecture but rather in the design of fine art, and in particular glazed ceramic tiles - then hugely popular for interior decoration not only in homes, but as murals and ceilings in public buildings; in libraries, shops, banks and hospitals, along with recreational venues such as theatres and restaurants.
Doulton and Co.

On the death of his wife in 1885, he married again, two years later, to Jane Isabella Dempster, aged 20, and by 1890 is known to have  moved to London to work with tile makers Doulton and Co. of Lambeth (later Royal Doulton). Here, he became director of its architecture department, and some of his most famous designs, in terracotta as well as ceramics were produced under this fruitful partnership.
black and white image of Victorian man with sideburns
Sir Henry Doulton.
Examples can be seen to this day in locations as diverse as the Royal Arcade in Norwich, the Winter Gardens Blackpool, and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.
terracotta sculpture on exterior of red-brick building, shows a figure with outstretched arms, holding sun and moon
Astronomia - exerior decorative sculpture, Greenwich.
Oh, and this little place in Knightsbridge too ...
exterior of department store, with awning and decorative window frames
Detail from the front of Harrods department store, London.
view of ceiling of hall with glazed tiles and murals
The ceiling and frieze area of Harrods food hall.
a glazed sculpture of peacocks
One of the fantastic peacock sculptures at Harrods.
banner image of queen victoria face with red text, black background

Art Nouveau

By the early years of the 20th century, working now as an independent entity from Doulton, we find Neatby designing wallpapers for the prestigious Jeffrey & Co. This was a company working with many of the top designers of the time, including the innovative Glasgow school  of artists. And it is no accident that many of Neatby’s creations have elements of Art Nouveau (and perhaps even a little of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh) about them, especially his furniture.
two items of antique furniture with inlays
Some examples of Neatby's furniture - a cupboard and music cabinet with inlays.
inlay to a wooden cabinet shows a tall female figure, golden in tone
Close-up of one of the beautiful inlays from the music cabinet.

Illustrator of books

Neatby also began to illustrate books at this time. Commissions came from major publishers such as Hodder & Stoughton, and included samplers or anthologies of poems by the Romantic poets of earlier years such as Keats, Shelley Browning and Tennyson.
old book cover of A Day with Keats with illustration of female in long dress
The 'Days with the Poets' series.

A Day with Keats

The book 'A Day with Keats' provided Neatby with an opportunity to express his more lyrical side. And the Pre-Raphaelite influence is plain to see. To graduate, as he did, from the bold and heavy compositions typical of those required for ceramic tiles to the delicate touch needed for illustrating poetry is quite a transition. Yet Neatby was able to embrace this fresh development with ease.

Here are some more illustrations from this delightful little volume, beginning with a closer look at the cover image - showing us the femme fatale from Keats's 'La Belle Dame sans Merci.'
illustration of lady with red hair and long flowing gown
A touch of Autumn for Keats's poem of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness.'
watercolour illustration of autumnal scene, gold and russet colours, trees
small illustration shows lady with a pot of herbs flowering, red hair, long dress
Neatby's own version of a portrait of John Keats appeared on an alternative cover, as well as inside.
book cover illustration of young Regency gentleman, dark hair, the poet Keats
There's even a woodland scene with a nightingale singing, reminding us of Keats's famous Ode.
woodland scene illustrated with small bird on tree, green and lush
And, perhaps best of all, a portrait of the wise and enegmatic Selene from the poem 'Endymion.' Just look at all those marvellous, delicate colours and textures ...
profile of woman with red hair and small crescent moon above hair, dark skies with stars

Days with the Great Composers, too!

The 'Days With' series extended to the musical world, with Neatby providing some further portraits of the great composers. I like his slightly menacing-looking Schubert ...
illustration of 19th-century gentleman with spectacles, the composer Schubert


During these highly productive years, as well as having a family home in the lovely countryside of the Chiltern Hills to the west of the capital, he based himself in London’s artists’ district of Chelsea – the haunt of luminaries such as Whistler, Rossetti and Turner in earlier times. And in 1906 he joined the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, working both in watercolour and in oils, exhibiting widely in London galleries and becoming very well known.
delicate watercolour illustration shows Victorian lady seated near keyboard instrument
Illustration to Shelley's 'Music, when soft voices die.'
I really like this illustration. It is like a creation from the elegant and amazing world of Aubrey Beadsley (just look at those tassels!) - only with colour. And what colour!

An abrupt ending

At the zenith of his achievements, in April 1910, Neatby died suddenly of a heart attack. An abrupt ending to a career that could have taken him to who-knows-what heights? A brilliant and versatile creative soul. His widow Jane survived him by 26 years, and their son Edward became a successful artist in his own right.

Considering that he would have been a fellow Yorkshireman and contemporary of the great English landscape painter John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), I wonder if the two ever met? If so, they would certainly have had a lot in common.
small photo of corner sculpture on brick building, head
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry
Further reading. There really isn't a lot on the internet concerning W.J.Neatby. But this article, in pdf form, is very informative, with numerous illustrations and photographs of his work.

You might also like

Historical Novel
Queen Victoria, and the men who Loved Her.
book cover text, red against black background with faint image of queen Victoria
Elizabeth Siddal. A reminder of why we remember.
close up detail shows face of young woman, pensive, red hair
Arthur Hughes. The 'quiet' Pre-Raphaelite
small sketch of young Victorian gentleman artist, long hair
Historical Novel
The Arrow Chest. Pre-Raphaelite themed story.
head and shoulders of young woman with dark hair, profile, arms raised
small up-arrow linking to top of page