Book Review

Charles Willis: Biography of a Royal Portrait Painter by Roger W Stanyon and Peter J Norton

Our Art Appreciation Group convenor, Roger, has collaborated with Pete Norton to write this book about the life and works of his grandfather, Charles Willis, an artist and illustrator whose long career brought him, if not fame, certainly widespread recognition through his body of work. Roger himself was unaware of the breadth and versatility of his grandfather’s talent until he found a wooden portfolio in his mother’s house when she moved into residential care. A treasure chest for sure.

Charles Willis (1878-1963) left school at eleven but showed a significant talent for drawing that enabled him to enroll at the Nottingham Municipal School of Art and Design where he remained a student until he started work in 1901 in a studio shared with Arthur Spooner. His first work was as a commercial artist with clients such as Boots the Chemist and Raleigh Bicycles, but over time, he developed a very particular skill in portraiture. He provided portraits for the commemorative tins made for the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, and subsequently produced portraits of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and Princess Marina.

Charles stayed in Mansfield until he moved to London in 1924 to be nearer the source of his work. Most of his income came from painting illustrations for magazines (The Tatler, for example), children’s books, advertisements and posters for the cinema and theatre. He stayed in London for the rest of his working life, eventually moving to Ruislip with Mabel his wife, to be nearer their daughter, Gwen. He died, aged 85, in 1963.

The book is full of gorgeous reproductions of Charles Willis’ work across a range of media and techniques. I loved most the portraits of his family, full of detail and redolent of the deepest affection. The intricacy and detail captured in these paintings are to be much admired. A whimsical drawing of Roger as a baby resisting the fervent desire of his father for successful potty training is very good fun and indicates the kind of engagement with family life not always present in an artist’s biography. There are many portraits, not only of Royalty but also military figures, and a very derring-do portrait of my childhood hero, Biggles. There are also cartoons, magazine illustrations, posters, and landscapes in the impressionist style, and many ‘conversation pieces’ of idealised bucolic life and hunting scenes.

What I like about this book is the social and cultural history that it contains, somehow quintessentially middle-class Edwardian, revealing through his body of work the artist as a warm, sympathetic human, as well as a man of great skill, energy and joie de vivre.

If you are interested in buying a copy, then it is available for £15 from Roger at  from Peter Norton at or at the Teesdale Mercury Shop, 24 Market Place, Barnard Castle.