Europeans & Americans Abroad; Philadelphia Collection 73; September 2004
William Bruce Ellis Ranken
(Scottish, 1881–1941)
Water Lilies, 1910
Oil on canvas, 34 × 46 1/4 inches
Signed and dated at lower right (impressed in wet paint): “W B E Ranken/1910”
EXHIBITED (probably): Royal Institute of Oil Painters, London (August 1910), no. 363

William Bruce Ellis Ranken was born in Edinburgh and studied in London at the Slade School of Art with Henry Tonks (1862–1934). His London studio was in Chelsea, near that of his friend John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), and his first one-man show was held in 1904 at the Carfax Gallery in London, where Sargent also exhibited. Through Sargent, Ranken received numerous portrait commissions from prominent sitters in the United States, where he spent considerable time.1 He had solo exhibitions at Doll and Richards Gallery in Boston (1916), M. Knoedler and Company in New York (1916 and 1933), the Arts Club of Chicago (1929), and Wildenstein and Company in New York (1931); a memorial exhibition was mounted at Ferargil Galleries in New York in 1943. Isabella Stewart Gardner, the legendary collector and Sargent’s good friend and patron, purchased a watercolor, In a Turkish Garden (location unknown) from Ranken’s 1916 Boston exhibition.

Ranken’s paintings were included in major exhibitions in Britain and the United States; he was a member of numerous British arts organizations, including the Modern Portrait Society, the National Portrait Society, the Pastel Society, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters (of which he was vice president beginning in 1919), the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, and the Royal Portrait Society. Rankens’s English sitters included members of the Royal family. Interiors, especially those of English and European historic houses and palaces, were a specialty for the artist: he painted rooms in Blenheim Palace and Windsor Castle for the Duke of Marlborough and interiors and garden views of Lynnewood Hall for the Philadelphian Joseph Widener. Ranken was a prolific artist, and the income from his portrait commissions and other paintings allowed him to travel extensively and to purchase Warbrook House in Hampshire. His heirs distributed about one hundred of his works to British museums in 1946.2

Like Sargent, Ranken was equally adept at painting oils and watercolors. Both artists had profitable careers as portrait painters but also painted dazzling landscapes for their own pleasure. In this informal rendering of water lilies, Rankin takes pleasure in manipulating paint to capture the scintillating effects of bright sunlight on moving water and wind-blown foliage, much as Sargent did in such contemporaneous works as Alpine Pool (1909; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Val d’Aosta: A Man Fishing (c. 1910; Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Mass.).

The English authorities on Ranken’s work, Wendy and Gordon Hawksley, believe that this painting is almost certainly Water-lilies, shown in the 1910 exhibition of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in London, where it received enthusiastic attention in the press. One reviewer went so far as to compare it to the water lilies by Claude Monet (1840–1926) water lilies.3 There are other paintings of water lilies by the artist, the inspiration for which, the Hawksleys believe, “probably comes from the water lilies in Dalswinton Loch, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland,” near the “Ranken family home in the early part of the twentieth century.” The Hawksleys observe that Ranken “exhibited, in order of importance: interiors, portraits, and still life in both oil and watercolour (and occasionally pastel).”4


1. Ranken’s American clients included members of the Havermeyer, Vanderbilt, and Whitney families, and the popular songwriter Cole Porter.    2. Much of the exhibition history and other biographical information given here is from the artist’s scrapbook. Private collection, courtesy of Wendy and Gordon Hawksley.    3. The Observer, London, October 16, 1910. 4. E-mail, Wendy and Gordon Hawksley to David Cassedy, March 3, 2004.

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