Liverpool's 'greatest' artist; The bicentenary of one of Liverpool and Wirral's finest painters is commemorated in a superbly illustrated new book. Peter Elson reports.
THE outstanding Liverpool painter, William Gawin Herdman, did not suffer any lack of self-belief. He once baldly stated in a letter to the Earl of Derby in 1864: "I have done more for art in England than any man living."
This could be something of an exaggeration, writes Kay Parrott, who has compiled a wonderful selection in book-form of watercolours by W G Herdman and his son William, from the collections at Liverpool Record Office and the Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead.
"The city of Liverpool owes a great debt to Herdman and his family, especially as this year is the bicentenary of WG's birth," says Parrott.
"The Herdmans also published a number of volumes of lithographed views. These pictures are now an invaluable resource for historians studying Liverpool and Wirral and urban growth.
"Father and son painted numerous watercolours of Liverpool and Wirral, depicting the area from the late 18th century, often copying earlier works, through to the 1860s. They also record street furniture, people and fashions.
"Having worked in the record office for 23 years, latterly in charge of local history, I was very familiar with the illustrations, but it was very difficult to make a final choice.
Liverpool artist Frank Green, who is campaigning to save W G Herdman's last house, West Villa, at 41 St Domingo Vale, says: "I don't think that Herdman gets the attention he's due. I believe his claim that he did more for Liverpool than any other artist in any other British city."
Last month, Green wrote to English Heritage pleading for West Villa to be listed for preservation as a future heritage site/gallery in honour of Herdman's matchless contribution to art in Liverpool.
Green says: "Herdman's books also showed how Liverpool looked, based on the views dating back to the Norman Conquest. His sources came from the earlier Halsall Collection, whereby a vicar had collected views and Herdman had improved upon on them."
A highly prominent member of the Liverpool Academy, Herdman had been illustrating Liverpool since he was 13 years old and he also wrote a book on perspective.
"Presumably, he had workshops in the house as he created a huge lithographic collection," says Green.
W G Herdman was very much in the thick of Liverpool's burgeoning art world, with the town's growing affluence attracting buyers, connoisseurs and artists. He was a somewhat controversial figure and there were high-profile rows with fellow Liverpool Academy members.
In spite of the large Herdman family, Kay Parrott found them to be very elusive. She says: "I have still not found any details of William's birth or W G's parents. I am sure there is plenty more information.
"Despite the fact that Liverpool's Herdman Collection contains more than 900 of William Herdman's paintings, compared to 200 of his father W G, little is known about him.
"Born in Liverpool in 1829, William married Elizabeth Munro in 1852 and had at least four children. He was a fine artist, but did not achieve the same level of success as his father, possibly lacking his self-belief and flair for promotion. His accuracy of representing locations can be confirmed with maps and Gore's street directory."
William and family lived in various miserable court houses and "was the archetypal artist suffering in a garret," says Parrott. He predeceased his father by four years, dying aged 49 in 1878, from "exhaustion, through bad leg, brought about by cold".
Patrick Moran, a leading Merseyside local historian, is a long-standing W G Herdman fan. He says: "Not only are his paintings a superb source of social history, but he is one of Britain's finest architectural draftsmen, as seen in books like Herdman's Pictorial Relics of Ancient Liverpool.
"W G Herdman painted well over a 1,000 watercolours of Liverpool, while also studying archaeological texts in Latin and siring a large family. Very much a man of his time.
"Of his 16 children several painted in a similar style, with the most prominent being William, who was better at figure drawing than his father.
"W G and William Herdman recorded everything in a fast-changing Liverpool. As soon as they heard any area was to be cleared, they were out there painting. That's how we are so lucky to have illustrations of everything from St George's Hall to Cumberland Street's long-lost slums."
Pictorial Liverpool, the Art of W G & William Herdman, by Kay Parrott, Bluecoat Press, pounds 12.99
Herdman's paintings provide a 'snapshot' of our region that rival's any modern photographic record. This picture shows Williamson Square' Perch Rock Fort' Liverpool Fishmarket' Frank Green outside the Herdman family home Picture: FRANK LOUGHLIN