born on 3 July 1825 at Teignmouth, Devon, England, son of William Thomas Strutt (1777-1850), a noted miniaturist, and his second wife Mary Ann Price. His grandfather was Joseph Strutt (1742-1802), social historian and artist. The family lived for a short time in Boulogne, France, when William was small and he was educated by a French tutor. Returning to France in the late 1830s, he studied in Paris in the atelier of Michel-Martin Drölling and later at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He spent much time at the Louvre, and Raphael remained a lifelong influence. An excellent draftsman, he received many commissions for illustrating books: but, near breakdown and fearful of losing his sight, he decided to leave Europe and on 5 July 1850 arrived in Melbourne in the Culloden, much restored.
Employed by the Ham brothers, Strutt that month published engravings in the first issue of theIllustrated Australian Magazine. He designed, engraved or lithographed postage stamps, posters, maps, transparencies and seals and began to learn all he could about the history of the colony. His friend and patron J.P.Fawkner encouraged him to record important events of the ensuing years. In between sketching and painting important historical occasions, he received commissions for portraits in oil, of which his best known are of Fawkner, Sir John O’Shanassy and a fine equestrian portrait of Sir Edward Macarthur. He also painted many miniature water-colour portraits of Aboriginal troopers as well as members of the Victorian mounted police. When bushrangers held up a number of people in St Kilda Road, he produced lively sketches of the event and later a fine oil painting. But his most dramatic work, not finished until after his return to England, was ‘Black Thursday’ commemorating the tragic bush fires in Victoria in February 1851; it was acquired by the State Library of Victoria. In 1853 he had been a founder of the short-lived Fine Arts Society. He exhibited at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1854.
On 2 June 1852 at the Congregational church, Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, Strutt had married Sarah Agnes Hague. With her and their small daughter he went to New Zealand in February 1855 where he bought 105 acres (42 ha) at Mangorei, New Plymouth, and painted mountain landscapes and Maori groups. He left New Zealand for Sydney in July 1856, and returned to Melbourne to renew friendships with the artists Eugene Von Guerard, Ludwig Becker, Nicholas Chevalier and the art critic James Smith. Together they revived the defunct Fine Arts Society, renaming it the Victorian Society of Fine Arts and holding several conversaziones and an exhibition in December 1857 before disbanding once again for lack of support. His final major works in Victoria were the on-the-spot sketches of the preparations for the Burke and Wills expedition. He carefully prepared from eye-witness description many sketches of the explorers’ tragic deaths, later reproducing the sketches in oils. His full-length painting of Burke commissioned by the Melbourne Club shows a man of flesh and blood and casual air that is unique among the portraits of distinguished Australians at that time; soon after completing it he left Melbourne for London on 29 January 1862 in the Great Britain.
Strutt excelled as an animal painter. In England, heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, he came to regard the lion as the greatest symbol of nobility and strength. Restless again, he visited North Africa to see wild animals in their native habitat. From 1865 to 1893 he exhibited twenty-three times at the Royal Academy and twenty-seven times at Suffolk Street, London. He was elected a member of the Royal Society of British Artists.
Aged 89, Strutt died at his home at Wadhurst, Sussex, on 3 January 1915, survived by his son Alfred William, an artist, and by three daughters. Frequently described as a melancholy artist, Strutt suggests conflict in many of his works, but his sketches and water-colours indicate that he had a very good sense of humour: some are quite amusing. The journal that he kept for a greater part of his life also shows that he had considerable literary ability, if not complete historical accuracy. Although he acknowledged his indebtedness to France for his early art training, undoubtedly Australia provided the inspiration for his best paintings.
His works are represented in galleries in Sydney, Melbourne, Ballarat, Adelaide and Hobart. Among European collections, le Musée de Lucerne and the Peace Palace at The Hague hold important paintings. The Dixson and Mitchell libraries, Sydney, the National Library of Australia, State Library and the Parliamentary Library, Victoria, and the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, all hold extensive collections of his sketches, paintings or manuscript material.
Biography by Marjorie J. Tipping