The Artwork of William Bruce Ellis Ranken
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in April of 1881, William Bruce Ellis Ranken was a British painter and Edwardian of the English aesthetic movement of the late 19th century. Originated in the 1860s German Romanticism, Aestheticism valued the appearance of music, literature and the arts over their functions. The movement, which included such artists as William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, challenged Victorian culture by asserting Art did not have any instructive or ethical purpose; rather, the basic factor of art was beauty.
The son of Mary and Robert Burt Ranken, a wealthy and successful lawyer, William Ranken spent his childhood living on vast estates in Scotland and England. He attended Eton College and later the Slade School of Art where he studied under draftsman and painter Henry Tonks, one of the first British artists influenced by the French Impressionists. Among Ranken’s fellow students was Ernest Thesiger, the grandson of the 1st Lord Chelmsford and drama student who became a lifelong friend.
At the age of twenty-three, Ranken had his first exhibition of work at London’s Carfax Gallery which well received by artists and art critics. In his career, he worked in the mediums of watercolors, oils and pastels. In 1907, Ranken moved to the Chelsea area of London where he and his friend Thesiger began to associate with the Edwardian Aesthetes. They moved in London’s artistic, literary, and theatrical circles and became frequent guests at John Singer Sargent’s studio and friends with stage actress Beatrice Tanner, better known by her stage name Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Ranken also became a close friend with photographer Baron Adolph de Meyer, famed for his portraits of Queen Mary, John Barrymore, Lillian Gish and other celebrities.
After the outbreak of World War I, William Ranken and John Singer Sargent traveled to America. Sargent introduced him to one of America’s leading patron and collector of the arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner, known for her intellectual curiosity and unconventional behavior. Through his connection with Gardner, Ranken received commissions to paint portraits of the wealthy, including the Vanderbilts, the Asters, and the Whitneys. Upon his return to England in the 1920s, he was given commissions from the British royal family and the aristocracy for portraits as well as interior images of their homes.
After the success of his American visit and his commissioned work in England, Ranken purchased Warbrook House, a historical estate built in 1724 by architect John James and located in Eversley, Hampshire. He undertook a considerable amount of repair work on the building; he also created paintings depicting several of its rooms. These works were included in Art Deco architect Basil Ionides’ 1926 “Color and Interior Decoration”. During England’s depression years of the 1930s, Ranken found the maintenance costs too extensive and made the decision to sell the estate in 1935 to Isabella Rosalind Humphreys-Owen, the daughter of Sir Edward Elias Sassoon, 2nd Baronet of Bombay.
In addition to portraiture, William Ranken painted landscapes and did interior design work for architects. He worked alongside Basil Ionides on the remodeling of the renowned Claridges Restaurant, the height of luxury dining in London. Rankin pursued interests in music, embroidery, antiques and gardening. Among his many friends and patrons were such notables as songwriter Cole Porter; writer Violet Keppel Trefusis,; art collector Henry Davis Sleeper; William Lygon, the 7th Earl Beauchamp; Hugh Patrick Lygon; and American actress and interior designer Elsie de Wolfe.
In March of 1941, William Bruce Ellis Ranken died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage in London. He was buried near his former Warbrook estate at the historic St. Mary’s Church in Eversley, North Hampshire. His sister, Janette Ranken-Thesiger, donated over two-hundred of his works to public galleries and museums in the United Kingdom. Ranken’s other works are in private collections and either damaged or destroyed during the air raids of World War II. His work can be found in the public collections of the National Museums of Northern Ireland, Glasgow Museum, Portsmouth Museum and the Government Art Collection of the United Kingdom, among others.
Notes: Ernest Thesiger, who was bisexual, married Ranken’s sister, Janette Mary Fernie Ranken in 1917. The next year, Ranken painted Thesiger’s portrait; this painting is now housed in the Manchester City Galleries. Thesiger became a well-known English film and stage actor with appearances in Noël Coward’s 1925 “On with the Dance” and George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 “Saint Joan”. Friends with director James Whale since 1919, Thesiger was cast in Whale’s 1932 “The Old Dark House” and later given the role of Dr. Septimus Pretorius in Whale’s 1935 “Bride of Frankenstein”.
As a member of the 2nd Battalion of the 9th London Regiment, Queen Victoria’s Rifles, Thesiger was sent to the Western Front in 1914, where he was wounded in the trenches. With his hands damaged, he developed sewing kits for soldiers similarly injured to provide activity and pain relief. In addition to his career as an actor, Thesiger became Vice Patron of the Embroiderers Guild. In 1960, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In January of the following year, Ernest Thesiger died in his sleep from natural causes and was buried at Brompton Cemetery in London.
Top Insert Image: Adolph De Meyer, “William Bruce Ellis Ranken”, 1903, Vintage Print, Private Collection
Second Insert Image: William Bruce Ellis Ranken, “Battersea Power Station, London”, circa 1940, Oil on Canvas, 68.6 x 56.1 cm, Forens Art Gallery, Hull, England
Third Insert Image: William Bruce Ellis Ranken, “Hibiscus Flower”, 1922, Oil on Canvas, 137.2 x 106.7 cm, Nottingham Castle, England
Bottom Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “William Bruce Ellis Ranken”, circa 1900-1910, Gelatin Silver Print, Kirkcudbright Galleries