William Etty is one of York’s most high profile exports. A popular, lauded and controversial figure, his nudes splitting opinion right down the middle, with one half captivated by his subtle use of colour, and the other offended by his underlying preoccupation with titillation and the female form. A son of York, Etty is celebrated as much in the twenty-first century as he was in his own time. To accompany the recent Art & Controversy exhibition at York Art Gallery, let Obscure York take you on a walk around the city, visiting places of interest, charting Etty’s life.
Born on Feasegate in 1787, Etty apprenticed at a printers in Hull, before eventually moving to London to begin his education at the Royal Academy School in 1807. Though he moved away from the area at the age of twenty-one, his influence looms large in the city, especially in Exhibition Square. Outside the gallery is a life-size statue of the man himself, commissioned in 1911 by the York Corporation and sculpted by George Milburn.
The walk continues to Bootham Bar, a small replica of which positioned next to the Etty statue’s right leg. Etty was instrumental in the campaign to save the bar, after it had fallen into disrepair. In 1832 the council threatened to demolish the bar, and Etty personally wrote to the York Herald and donated £50 towards the restoration which helped to save the ancient gateway. Etty also helped to avoid the radical alteration of York Minster after it was damaged by fire in both 1829 and 1840. Etty referred to the Minster fondly. “Bride…so lovely to mine eyes, so dear to my heart, captivating to my imagination.” He raised great funds to restore the cathedral; consequently, it is ironic that his dying wish to be buried at the Minster was only marred by lack of money to pay for the service.
A short walk from York Minster is 30 Stonegate, the original site of John Todd’s Bookshop. (It’s the one with the golden Bible
hanging over the door.) A young Etty would spend many hours sketching the prints in the shop window. From Stonegate, navigate to Feasegate, the site of Etty’s birth. This is commemorated by a plaque outside BHS.
Another plaque, on the side of City Screen, marks the site of Etty’s Coney Street house. It is here, in the two-storey riverside building, that he lived out the last eighteen months of his life. Bought for £1,100, Etty was enamoured with the house, enthusing, “I have got fires lighted; and sit looking at a very pretty view:- green fields, trees, and rippling river. How I love it!” Walking from Coney Street to Museum Gardens, York Philosophical Society marks the place where Etty was made an
honorary member in 1829, in “consideration of his eminence”.
On the thirteenth of November 1849, Etty died, overlooking the powerful Ouse from his home. His last words were, “Wonderful!
Wonderful! This death!” His funeral was attended by over three hundred mourners, and many shops closed out of respect. He is buried at St. Olave’s church, Marygate, where there is a stained glass, in memory of Etty.
William Etty was a fine artist, erstwhile educator, and a man with a great passion for his native city. He is remembered well in York, the recent centenary exhibition visited enthusiastically, and will continue to be revered for years to come. Visit the places outlined here, and uncover your own opinion on the great man, William Etty.