When artist Bill Bishop was given a set of old paintbrushes as a gift, he was overwhelmed.
The brushes were worn from years of use. But for Bill and the art world, they had special significance.
They may no longer have been the most useful tools for a painter, yet they had once belonged to renowned maritime artist William L Wyllie.
The set of 50 or so brushes was given to Bill when he was a young man by Wyllie’s daughter Aileen.
He had lived in Old Portsmouth next door to Aileen and she had encouraged the budding young artist.
‘It was a tremendous gift, quite overwhelming. I took them to my studio and held them up to see if they’d work on their own,’ laughs Bill, who now lives in Langstone. ‘I hoped a bit of Wyllie’s talent and skill would come through.’
Now a very successful artist in his own right, Bill still has the brushes next to him as he sits at his easel creating detailed and highly-researched maritime oils.
Many Americans know Bill by his full artists’ name, William H Bishop. He has sold more than 200 paintings to collectors in the US and is represented by the Quester Gallery, one of the leading marine art dealers in the States.
In 2005, to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, Bill painted a 6ft wide depiction of the height of the battle.
It was featured on ITV and BBC programmes and eventually sold for £75,000. The Trafalgar oil is now on display in the Minnesota Marine Art Museum.
But he has never exhibited in the UK – until now. An exhibition of Bill’s work is running at the Oxmarket Centre of Arts in Chichester until April 2.
‘My friends are always going on about the fact that I retired at 38. I’m now 68 so I thought I should show them I’ve actually been working quite hard for the last 30 years,’ says the artist.
Bill took up the paintbrush properly after the family shoe business was sold so his father could retire.
But he had been artistic as a child and living in Old Portsmouth with a sailing family, became fascinated with boats.
He says: ‘I can’t remember doing that much drawing but I met an old friend a couple of years ago and he said I was always sketching. I do remember going to galleries and museums and looking at old paintings and thinking I could do that – not in an arrogant way, I just thought I could.’
Bill’s dad loved sailing and holidays on boats inspired him to start drawing them and make models.
And then of course there was Aileen and the Wyllie connection. The great artist had lived in Old Portsmouth and inspiration was all around for Bill, not least the encouragement that came from his daughter. Bill grew up in Southsea but his family moved to Old Portsmouth and he lived next door to her for a few years as a teenager.
‘We used to talk about art. She was very enthusiastic and would show me his sketch books. When she gave me the brushes, I had grown up and was starting to get successful. I think she just wanted them to go to a good home.’
Bill’s career took off after he was encouraged by his wife Helen and had some lessons with artist neighbour and member of the Royal Society of Marine Artists Richard Joicey. He persuaded Bill to submit his watercolour works to the RSMA for their annual exhibition from 1981 to 1984, where they sold. That led to commissions for the Royal Naval Museum and the Mary Rose Trust.
The artist, who now paints in oils, is also a keen sportsman and it was during a real tennis tour of the States and subsequent visits for his work that he would meet dealers and collectors.
He says: ‘I think my situation has been pretty much unique.
‘I thought I’d be up to my knees in paintings but have nowhere to sell them, but it’s been the other way round. I’ve been lucky but I’ve worked very hard too.’
The research that goes into Bill’s work is impressive.
He loves detail and is determined that his paintings of historical ships and battles should be as accurate as possible.
For the Trafalgar painting, he consulted Victory’s curator Peter Goodwin and even went to Madrid to sketch accurate models of the ships.
A keen sailor, he sketches as far as possible when he’s at sea and produces paintings of modern vessels from those drawings and photographs.
William Wyllie isn’t one of his chief artistic inspirations. Bill is a fan of the work of American sublime landscape artists Church, Bierstadt and Cole and the French Meissonier.
But the influence is still there. ‘My top enthusiasms are for other artists but of course I think his work is absolutely wonderful. And it’s been so available. I used to play a lot of squash and we’d play at naval establishments. In almost every ward room, there would be a large Wyllie oil. It was all around me.’