Henry Wallis was born on February 21, 1830 in London. His mother was Mary Ann Thomas but who his father was is unknown. When Henry was fifteen his mother married Andrew Wallis, a wealthy property owner. The 1841 census shows that Henry, aged 11, already lived with Andrew at his residence at Clarence Place, Pentonville, in the district of Islington and was registered as Henry Wallis. It is possible therefore that Andrew was Henry’s actual father and his parent’s marriage made their relationship official and gave the boy legal protection.

Of Henry’s youth we know almost next to nothing but by his mid-teens he had already fixed upon a career as an artist. In order to gain access to the Royal Academy Schools, he initially enrolled at Cary’s Drawing Academy located in Bloomsbury at 6 Charlotte Street. This was the former Sass’s Academy now run by Francis Stephen Cary. Other pupils who had attended Sass’s or Cary’s school included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais,Walter Deverell, Simeon Solomon, and Joanna Boyce. Wallis was eventually admitted to the Royal Academy Schools on the recommendation of Cary. On January 7, 1848, shortly before his eighteenth birthday, Wallis entered on probation and on March 31 of that same year he was admitted to the Antique School. Although students were allowed to stay seven years at the Schools, Wallis seems to have left after only two, for it is certain that he was in Paris by 1851. It is likely that Wallis had grown tired of drawing from casts and was anxious to advance to drawing from life such as he could experience right from the beginning under the French system of training in an atelier.

Henry registered at the atelier of Charles Gleyre where James Whistler, Thomas Armstrong, George du Maurier, Edward Poynter, and Val Prinsep would later attend in the mid to late 1850s. The freedom that Wallis and other students experienced at Gleyre’s studio would have been unknown at the Royal Academy Schools.

In addition to the practical experience Wallis gained in Gleyre’s studio, he also copied paintings and sketched from art works in the Louvre, considered an essential part of an art student’s training in Paris. Wallis appears to have been no exception in this regard. Wallis is said to have done patient, beautiful drawings of all the statues in the Louvre, to perfect his knowledge of anatomy. Despite previous claims that Wallis had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts his name does not appear in the indexes of students’ files so this is unlikely. His combination of training at Cary’s, the Royal Academy Schools, and at Gleyre’s atelier gave Wallis a good solid foundation in draughtsmanship and the craft of painting.

Wallis must have stayed in Paris at least until the end of 1852 and likely into 1853. Joukovsky speculates he returned to London sometime in the winter of 1853-54 (623). Wallis first exhibited in England in 1853 at the Royal Manchester Institution and first exhibited in London in 1854 at the Royal Academy and at the British Institution. He exhibited thirty-six pictures at the Royal Academy between 1854-1877 and also exhibited at the oil exhibitions of the Dudley Gallery. He was a member of the Hogarth Club from 1858 until its dissolution. He exhibited eighty-one works at the Old Water-Colour Society (Society of Painters in Water Colours) of which he was elected an Associate in 1878 and a full member in 1880.

In 1857 he began an affair with Mary Ellen Meredith, the wife of novelist George Meredith. Early in the summer of 1857 she left the matrimonial home and later that summer she and Wallis went for a holiday to Wales. It was likely during this trip when she conceived their son Harold, more commonly called Felix. During the winter of 1858 Wallis took her to Capri in the hope that the trip would allow her to regain her failing health. Although they opted not to live together, possibly because the scandal could have derailed Wallis’s promising artistic career, it is likely that Wallis and Mary Ellen maintained a discreet but constant relationship until her death from kidney failure on October 22, 1861. Wallis never completely got over his love for Mary Ellen and he never married. In June 1859 he inherited several freehold properties in London on the death of his father, which provided him with financial stability and meant he was no longer dependent on art to make a living.

During the 1860s Wallis mainly produced historical scenes, such as Gondomar witnessing the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh of 1861, Shakespeare and Spenser of 1864, and Luther and Melanchton of 1867. In the 1870s, however, he became increasingly fond of Italy and Italian Renaissance art. “Venetian” subjects, and Italian landscapes became predominant, such as A Despatch from Trebizond of 1873, Found at Naxos of 1875, and On the Ponte della Paglia, going to the Council of 1875. By the end of the 1870s, he was constantly on the move, mostly painting high-quality watercolours, which he sent to be exhibited at the Old Water-Colour Society. While only indirect evidence documents his movements in the 1860s to early 1870s, from this point onwards his correspondence allows his many journeys in Europe and the Middle East to be traced.

After being in ill health for some time and almost blind Wallis died of a stroke in Croydon on December 20, 1916. He was buried at Highgate Cemetery. After Wallis’s death, the major part of his ceramics collection was split between the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Links to Related Material


Bornand, Odette Ed. The Diary of W.M. Rossetti. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Joukovsky, Nicholas A. “The Early Meredithian Milieu: New Evidence form Letters of Peter Augustin Daniel.” Studies in Philology XV (Summer 2018): 615-64.

Lessens, Ronald and Dennis T. Lanigan. Henry Wallis. From Pre-Raphaelite Painter to Collector/Connoisseur. Woodbridge: ACC Art Books, 2019.

Last modified 15 October 2022