Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow


William Wilkie Collins

Date of birth: 1824.01.08
Place of birth: Tavistock Square, London
Date of death: 1889.09.23
Place of death: 82 Wimpole Street, London
Category: writer


William Wilkie Collins was a novelist. His father, William Collins, was a landscape and genre painter, and a member of the Royal Academy. His brother Charles Allston Collins was also a painter in the Pre-Raphaelite circle and married Kate Dickens, a daughter of Charles Dickens. Wilkie Collins never married but lived with a widow Mrs Caroline Graves from 1858. He had three children by Martha Rudd (Mrs Dawson) whom he met in 1864: Marian Dawson, born in 1869, Harriet, born in 1871 and William Charles Collins Dawson, born in 1874.


Collins left school at seventeen and entered the office of the tea brokers Antrobus and Co. as a clerk. From 1846 he studied law at Lincoln's Inn, being called to the Bar in 1851. He considered a career as a painter but decided to become a writer following the publication of Memoirs of the Life of William Collins R.A. in 1848 and of his first novel Antonia in 1850. He met Dickens in March 1851, and in October 1856 joined the permanent staff of Household Words.

He was a member of the Garrick Club from 1854 until 1865 and of The Arts Club from 1866 to 1869. In April 1865 he was appointed Chair of the Royal General Theatrical Fund and in 1884 became a founding member of the Society of Authors.

During his life Collins published twenty-three novels, six collections of stories, a volume of essays, a travel book, and a biography. He also published numerous short stories, a translation from French, over a dozen plays and more than one hundred articles in periodicals such as Illuminated Magazine, Bentley's Miscellany, The Leader, Harper's Weekly, Household Words, All the Year Round and The Cornhill.

When Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl y038 was exhibited at Morgan's Gallery at 14 Berner's Street, London, in 1862, following its rejection at the R.A., it was entitled, 'The Woman in White', and it was assumed by many, including F. G. Stephens, the art critic of the Athenaeum, that it was intended to be an illustration of Collins' popular novel of the same name (London, 1860). Whistler refuted this, declaring that he had never read Collins' novel and that 'My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain' (GUW #13149). He claimed that the title had been given by the gallery without his sanction, a statement that was contested by the manager Frederick Buckstone (GUW #12979).


Records of The Arts Club, London; Wood, Christopher, Dictionary of Victorian Painters, Woodbridge, 1971; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; Gasson, Andrew, Wilkie Collins: An Illustrated Guide, Oxford, 1998; Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, 2004.

The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp, Online edition, University of Glasgow, 2004.