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William Watkin Waite

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William Watkin Waite

1778 - 1856


(see long history)

W W Waite was an Abingdon artist of the Regency period. Apart from a period of apprenticeship in London as a very young man he lived and worked all his life in Abingdon, creating famous images of several of the town’s most iconic buildings. His work was exhibited at the Royal Academy, is among the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and hangs in Christ’s Hospital and the County Hall Museum, Abingdon. In 1806, in London, Waite published an engraving taken from his watercolour of the County Hall at Abingdon - the second oldest image known of the County Hall, painted when the building was 125 years old (Fig. 1).


Figure 1. Abingdon County Hall, c1805. Watercolour. Courtesy Abingdon County Hall Museum.

A contemporary of two of England’s greatest artists, John Constable (1776-1837) and J M W Turner (1775-1851 as well as of many lesser-known workers, Waite specialised in portraiture and was principally a miniaturist.  His known original works are primarily watercolours, the remainder being drawings in pencil, ink and chalk.  There are also two silhouettes. The original works that survive include a family portrait collection. Other drawings were transformed into engravings and etchings for sale, such as the New Prison,  Abingdon, now known as the Old Gaol, completed in 1812 (Fig. 2). 


Figure 2. View of the New Prison at Abingdon, Berks. H. Meyer after William Watkin Waite. Coloured Aquatint. (Private Collection)

Waite died in 1856, probably at Reading. He gave rise to a dynasty of talented artists.

Peter Gale


See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2015

(see short history)

William Watkin Waite was born in Abingdon of a local family on 19th May 1778 and was baptised at St Helen’s church.  He was the eldest son of Thomas and Winifred (née Watkin) of Ock Street.  The family ran the tannery business of Thomas Waite and Sons in Abingdon. [1] An uncle, John Waite, became a Principal Burgess of the Abingdon Corporation in 1811. [2]

Nothing else is known of Waite’s early life until he became a pupil of James Chapman (Fig. 3), an engraver in London who produced plates between 1792 and 1823. Waite lived for a time early in his career at Lion Court, Islington, becoming a skilled engraver and etcher as well as miniaturist before returning to Abingdon. In 1801 he supplied a series of engravings for the publication Watt’s Poems: The Poetical Works of Isaac Watts, DD, published by C Cooke in that year.


Figure 3. Mr James Chapman. Mezzotint by William Watkin Waite from a crayon portrait by S.S. Drummond. Courtesy Abingdon County Hall Museum

Waite was painting miniatures professionally (probably watercolour on ivory) by the early years of the nineteenth century. In 1800 he exhibited the first of four miniatures, A Portrait, No. 574, at the Royal Academy. [3]  His second submission, Portrait of a Young Lady, No. 740, followed in 1801, and a third, Mr Waite, No. 676, in 1804. His miniature on ivory of the Rev. Stephen Thresher was presented to the Congregational church in Abingdon at around this time; it is now in the collection of Trinity Church, Abingdon (Methodist and United Reform). [4]  In 1821, Waite exhibited at the Royal Academy his fourth and final miniature portrait, Col. Wemyss, No. 615.[5]

He may have left London around 1810, at the time of his marriage to Martha Edgington (1788-1821). Martha was the daughter of Richard and Sarah Edgington and had been baptised at the Lower Meeting House in Ock Street, Abingdon on 13 March 1792. Their first child, also named William Watkin (Fig 4), was baptised at the Baptist Meeting House, Reading, in 1811. 


Figure 4. The artist's first son, William W Waite junior, c1820.  Watercolour.  Courtesy Abingdon County Hall Museum

On 28 April 1810, Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported that “W. Waite, late Thorpe’s, in the Market Place, advertises that he will open his shop for printing, stationery, &c., ‘being under the necessity of first going to London, in order to complete his stock… NB. Magazines, Reviews, London Newspapers, and other Periodical Publications, regularly supplied”. Waite was now 32 years of age, married and about to start a family; at this stage in his career he decided to develop a retail business not unrelated to his continuing work as an artist.

The decades after 1810 were productive. In common with contemporary artists Waite painted popular ‘heroes’ of the time, like The Calculating Boy, G P Bidder, in 1817, and the child actor W R Grossmith as The Infant Roscius in 1825. Waite’s portrait of Bidder (1806-1878), aged 11, survives in the form of an engraving of 1817 by H Meyer in the British Museum.  Born the son of a Devon stonemason, the child prodigy acquired this nickname by attending fairs and shows with his father, to demonstrate his remarkable abilities at mental arithmetic. (He became an engineer and friend of Robert Stephenson, eventually forming the Electric Telegraph Company, engaged in the laying of transatlantic cables.) Child actor Grossmith was celebrated for his extraordinary abilities in playing as many as fifteen parts in one evening.  Born in Reading in 1819, his career began at six in 1825, the date of Waite’s drawing; a playbill of 1826 offers for sale prints of Waite’s portrait. [6]  

William Watkin Waite’s art reached a high point with the creation in 1819 of a miniature on ivory of an elderly man, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

1821 saw the deaths of Waite’s first wife Martha and mother Winifred. Waite remarried under license on 14 November 1823 at St Helen’s Church, Abingdon.  His bride was Virtue Wilkins (1797-1848) (Fig. 5), the daughter of William Wilkins, the minister (and successor to the Rev. Thresher) of Abingdon’s Upper Meeting House, later known as the Congregational Church.


Figure 5. The artist's second wife, Virtue nee Wilkins, c1823. Watercolour.  Courtesy Abingdon County Hall Museum.

It is from this second marriage to Virtue Wilkins that are descended members of the Waite family who became known artists and musicians.

The archives of Christ’s Hospital record a payment of 10 guineas to William Waite (15 May 1827) for a ‘drawing of the old bridge and wharfhouse’. This was the old stone-arched St Helen's Bridge and the buildings which formerly occupied the current location of the Anchor public house. The painting was framed and glazed, and is probably Waite’s most famous work; now restored, it still hangs in Christ’s Hospital Hall.

In 1822, Waite’s brother Thomas, a tanner, became a Secondary Burgess in the Corporation. He died in 1832. Their father, Thomas Waite, died in 1836.

Waite lived for much of his active life at Ock Street in Abingdon.[7] By 1831, William Waite was renting a house and garden on the corner of Tannery Lane where his brother’s premises were. Virtue’s father, the Rev. William Wilkins, lived a little way further to the east. William’s was a large property.  The Census of 1841 indicates that his second wife, Virtue, used the premises to run a seminary for girls, which is shown as having 11 pupils. [8]

Virtue Waite died in June 1848, aged 54. By the time of the 1851 Census W W Waite was living in East St Helen Street, close to the house of Thomas Copeland, a first cousin whose mother and Waite’s first wife, Martha Edgington, had been sisters, and his extensive family.[9]

Family tradition had it that William Watkin Waite died, aged 78, on 9 March 1856, in a train, travelling alone between Dorking and Gomshall, although the death certificate states that he died at 16 Crown Street, Reading. 


To understand William Watkin Waite’s work and achievement, it is helpful to put it into its historical context. [10]  

Waite’s career as a miniaturist was in a period that confirmed Britain’s status as a superpower and the world’s richest nation.  Booming trade, industry and commerce generated wealth and encouraged spending on entertainment and luxuries.  Theatre-going was the most popular recreation, and in the decorative arts entrepreneurs like Rundell and Ackerman promoted the consumption of luxury objects.  Alongside Waite, miniaturists such as Roger Jean (1783-1828) and George Lethbridge Saunders (1807-1863) painted famous figures of the day, and miniature watercolours on ivory by both artists hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Before this period only the very wealthy could afford to purchase portraits.  Now they were engraved and sold in great numbers. Richard Cosway was the leading portrait miniaturist of the Regency era.  He painted his first portrait of the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) in 1780.  Before 1811, when George was appointed Prince Regent, Cosway painted over 50 portraits of him.  Many were exhibited and engraved.  Cosway’s self-portrait in pencil and wash, c1790, and miniature portraits of the Prince on ivory appeared during Waite’s youth, and James Gillray (1756-1815) painted a miniature self-portrait on ivory c1800.  Gillray was the greatest and most definitive satirist of the age, turning out caricatures of royalty, politics and social life.  His self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery is remarkably similar to Waite’s self-portrait shown here.  William Watkin Waite must have observed the work of the most famous miniaturists of the day and copied their techniques, using the demand generated by the post-Napoleonic period to develop a successful career.

A comparison of the career and work of a near-contemporary English miniaturist and portraitist, Adam Buck, helps us to set Waite’s contribution into context. [11]  Buck’s work in the same media and styles as Waite’s follows a similar pattern of development, but much more of his work is extant for study.

Buck and Waite both arrived in London from provincial places in the 1790s to pursue their art. Both had early backgrounds in fine metalwork and both worked as traditional miniaturists until about 1820, thereafter concentrating on painted portraits in the miniature style.

Buck, 19 years the elder, came from a family of silversmiths, a line of craftwork requiring significant finance, and therefore highly regarded in the community (as for example was the contemporary American silversmith Paul Revere). He was able to attract aristocratic patronage for his miniatures and to gain the attention of major publishing firms for duplicating his miniature-style paintings.

Without these advantages, and despite probably equal or greater talent at a younger age, as witnessed by his youthful success in exhibiting three miniatures at the Royal Academy between 1801 and 1804, Waite returned to Abingdon where he enterprisingly opened a printing and stationery business, enabling him to support a growing family while continuing to paint, and possibly printing and/or selling copies of his own works.

The high-society patronage Buck enjoyed was a double-edged sword. He demonstrated a wider interest in his etchings of radical liberal politicians and watercolour paintings of women at archery and foreign musicians. But such subjects were abandoned in favour of dozens of competent but saccharin and repetitious images of an elegant, trivial high society.

Waite on the other hand was free, his business allowing, him to seek out more interesting subject-matter, as well as having the ability to try his hand successfully at the portraits of local landmarks for which he is famous as the author of Abingdon’s best-known paintings.


Figure 6. A young man. Watercolour. Courtesy Abingdon County Hall Museum.


Figure 7. Study of a man in a fur-lined coat. Pencil and coloured chalk. (Private Collection)

Later generations of the Waite Family

Waite had three sons with his first wife Martha – William Watkin, Richard and Benjamin, and two with his second wife Virtue – Edward and Joseph (Figs 8 and 9). Both Edward and Joseph became non-conformist ministers, and it was Edward and his children who inherited William Watkin’s artistic talents.


Figure 8. Joseph Waite, younger son of William Watkin Waite and Virtue Wilkins, c1835. Watercolour. Courtesy Abingdon County Hall Museum. 


Figure 9. Joseph Waite as a young man, c1840. Watercolour. Courtesy Abingdon County Hall Museum. 

Edward was baptised at the Congregational church in Wallingford and attended Cheshunt College, gaining the MA in Philosophy and Economics in 1854. Headmaster of the School for the Sons of Missionaries at Blackheath from 1875 to 1892, he was a keen amateur artist in watercolour, exhibiting at the Royal Society in 1868, No. 678, and leaving a watercolour in the collections of the Ferens Art Gallery at Kingston upon Hull.

Rev. Edward Waite’s sons Charles, Edward, Harold and Arthur were all talented artists.  

Charles Dukes Waite, the eldest (1852-1923), painted in watercolour. 

The second, Edward Wilkins Waite (1854-1924), was born at Leatherhead, Surrey.  After a brief spell in Canada from 1874, he returned to England and exhibited two pictures at the Royal Academy in 1878, exhibiting a further 44 works by 1919.  He married Barbara Tait in 1891 and they lived at Peaslake and Abinger Hammer, Surrey, before moving to Woolhampton, Berkshire, in 1910.  They returned to Surrey and East Sussex in 1915; Edward died at Fittleworth in 1924. 

Edward Wilkins Waite was also an amateur musician as a violinist and conductor.

 A third son Harold (1870-1939) was born at Croydon, Surrey, and studied at the Royal Academy Schools from 1891 to 1896, obtaining both the Turner Gold Medal and the Creswick Prize.  In his early years he painted mostly in oils but later he specialised in watercolours.  He became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1924 and from that year until 1935, he was Headmaster of Sidney Cooper School of Art at Canterbury.  He exhibited widely and galleries at Canterbury and Eastbourne have examples of his work.  After his marriage, he lived in Kent, finally at Bearsted where he died in 1939.

Finally Arthur (1871-1900) was born at Croydon and, like his brother Harold, became a student at the Royal Academy Schools in 1890.  He died in 1900 at the early age of 28, following an attack of diphtheria.

In the next generation, Alexander Edward Waite (1888-1958) was the son of Charles Dukes Waite and a great-grandson of W W Waite.  He was born at Eastbourne, Sussex, and studied at the Royal College of Art from 1908 to 1911, studying watercolour under Professor Gerald Moira and etching under Sir Frank Short.  After completing his studies in Italy, he moved to Toronto, Canada in 1913, exhibiting at the Art Museum, Toronto; two of his etchings were purchased by the National Gallery of Canada at Ottawa.  In 1914, he volunteered for the Canadian Regiment and saw service in France, returning to England after the war.  He exhibited a portrait at the Royal Academy in 1921 and returned to the Royal College of Art to obtain his Diploma, thereafter working almost exclusively in watercolour.  An exhibition of 73 of his watercolours of France and Italy was mounted at the Arlington Gallery in 1930 and a further exhibition of his works took place at the Guildford House Gallery in 1984.  In 1933 after his marriage to Nulma Marsh he moved to Winchelsea, Kent, and subsequently to Wareham, Dorset, where he died in 1958.

Margaret Hebe (Maisie) Waite (1907-1986), the daughter of Harold Waite and a great-granddaughter of WW Waite was born in Kent and studied at the Sidney Cooper School of Art in Canterbury, before going on to study in Paris at Julian’s atelier, the Grande Chaumière and the atelier Colarossi.  For most of her career she taught art at Kingsmead School in Johannesburg, South Africa.  She was a Fellow of the Watercolour Society of South Africa.

A family collection of paintings by all these artists was offered for sale at the auction rooms at Donnington, Newbury in 2010. [12]

Peter Gale


See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2015



[1] It was William’s grandfather, Thomas, who is listed in the St Helen’s registers as a tanner. His father is mentioned as a hempdresser.

[2] This and the following biographical information about WW Waite and his family members is drawn from the large body of family history research carried out by his descendant, John Waite (dec’d 2014), all of whose files, along with a collection of family portraits by the artist, were donated to Abingdon County Hall Museum in 2007.  The collection is presently in the care of the Oxfordshire County Museum Service and may be studied upon request at the Standlake Museum Store.

[3] The Royal Academy of Arts: Exhibitions 1769-1904 (Vol. 4, S-Z) 1970 reprint of 1905.  SR Publishers Ltd., for this and the artist’s other submissions to the Royal Academy.

[4] This miniature was kindly lent to Abingdon County Hall Museum for exhibition in 2008.

[5] The Royal Academy of Arts: Exhibitions 1769-1904 (Vol. 4, S-Z) 1970 reprint of 1905.  SR Publishers Ltd., for this and the artist’s other submissions to the Royal Academy.

[6] Illustrated in Dreweatt’s and Bloomsbury Pictures auction catalogue, 24 October 2007 (Lot No. 666)

[7] The author is grateful to Mrs Jessica Brod for detailed information about the Waite family’s residences in Abingdon.

[8] Censuses 1831 and 1841; Berks Record Office, Reading: Fidel’s valuation 1835; Read’s valuation 1838; Abingdon Museum: Christ’s Hospital map of 1844.

[9] Census, 1851.

[10] Contributed by Dr Lauren Gilmour Gale.

[11] Ashmolean Museum An Elegant Society: Adam Buck, Artist in the Age of Jane Austen, exhibition 2015

[12] Illustrated in Dreweatt’s and Bloomsbury Pictures auction catalogue, 24 October 2007 (Lot No. 666)

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