William Bruce Ellis Ranken was born in Edinburgh in 1881 and enjoyed an idyllic childhood, spent at his parents’ successive Scottish country houses. He attended Eton College and 1899–1903 studied at the prestigious but liberal Slade School of Art in London under Henry Tonks. Here he met the actor, Ernest Thesiger (1879–1961), who would become his lifelong friend.

At the age of 23, Ranken secured his first one-man exhibition at the Carfax Gallery, London. In 1907 he moved to the artistic and bohemian neighbourhood of Chelsea. Here he socialised with the Edwardian Aesthetes including the painter John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) and Vogue’s first staff photographer, Baron de Meyer (1868–1946), both of whom greatly influenced him.

Ranken’s wide-ranging society connections meant he was ideally placed to produce portraits of aristocrats, wealthy families and the celebrities of the day in the UK and America. They invited him into their homes enabling him to paint stately and splendid interiors, such as the gorgeous Royal Palaces of Spain, Blenheim Palace and Versailles. His prolific output, in a variety of mediums, also included still-lifes and landscapes.

Girl in a Hat

Girl in a Hat 1920–1940

William Bruce Ellis Ranken (1881–1941)

Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

The Great Depression of the 1930s badly affected Ranken’s career and finances. He died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in 1941. He was unmarried. In 1942 his famous New York society patrons held a retrospective exhibition of his work. They described him as '...the kind of man that all society liked, high or low, royal or peasant. Not only was he an artist, he was a friend.'

Ranken’s devoted sister, Janette, who had unexpectedly married Ernest Thesiger in 1917, took on the unenviable task of distributing the contents of his studios in both the UK and America during the Second World War, to public galleries, museums, family and friends. In 1946, the Russell-Cotes was generously gifted 18 of Ranken’s work, of which a selection are on display.

Despite a huge body of work, and his active career in artistic and society circles, until recently his name had been almost forgotten.

The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum are grateful for the assistance of Wendy and Gordon Hawksley, creators and editors of the research project www.williamranken.org.uk

Duncan Walker, Curator at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

The exhibition 'William Ranken: Gorgeous, Stately, Splendid' is at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum until 29 January 2018.