Ranken, William Bruce Ellis (1881-1941) by Scholes, Robert

William Bruce Ellis Ranken (1881 – 1941)  William Bruce Ellis Ranken was born in Edinburgh in 1881, the second son of Robert Burt Ranken, a prosperous lawyer, and his wife Mary. He was educated at Eton and The Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks. He had his first one man exhibition at the Carfax Gallery, London in 1904, a gallery much favoured by Sargent at that time. Moving in the circles of Edwardian aesthetes, it is known that he was well acquainted with Sargent by 1908 and Wilfrid Gabriel de Glehn. By 1914 he was living at 14 Cheltenham Terrace, Chelsea, a couple of minutes walk away from Sargent’s studio in Tite Street. Unable to serve in the First World War due the effects of childhood polio, he subsequently went to America on a commission through Sargent. He had his first one man exhibition there in January 1916 at the Doll & Richards Gallery, Boston. Sargent introduced him to Isabella Stewart Gardner who acquired his watercolour ‘In a Turkish Garden’. Later that same year he had a one man exhibition at the Galleries of M Knoedler & Co in New York and by this time had had commissions by other prominent Americans such as the Vanderbilts, Whitneys and Havemeyers, probably due to introductions effected by Sargent.

A prolific artist, he worked equally in oil and watercolour and his work included portraits, interiors, landscapes and still life. His subjects included members of the British Royal Family and aristocracy. Throughout his life he travelled widely, with France being a particularly favourite destination. He exhibited at virtually all the major Galleries and Societies in Great Britain and became a Member of The National Portrait Society, The Royal Institute of Oil Painters, The Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, The Royal Society Portrait Painters and The Pastel Society. By 1921, thanks to his success in America, he had acquired Warbrook House at Eversley in Hampshire, a substantial 18th century property and estate. He appears to have returned to America in the mid 1920’s and had a one man exhibition of interiors at Wildenstein & Co., Inc. in New York in January 1931 and an exhibition of portraits at Knoedler & Co, New York in late 1933. Affected by the Depression, he returned to England, was forced to sell his beloved Warbrook and moved to the south wing of the nearby Farley Hill Place, another prominent English country house, the home of one of his sisters who had married into the family of the Earls of Elgin and Kincardine.

Like Sargent, Ranken was unmarried. He died suddenly in London in 1941 and was buried in the churchyard at Eversley. In January 1943 his American patrons and friends, who had included people such as Mrs. Lars Anderson, Mrs. Otto Kahn, Mrs. Dave Hennen Morris, Miss Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe and Mrs Ector Munn, organised a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Ferargil Galleries in New York. The contents of his studios in New York and London, about 100 works, were not dispersed until 1946 when, according to his wishes, they were distributed to provincial art galleries in Great Britain by his sister, Janette who had married Ranken’s lifelong friend, the actor Ernest Thesiger who had had his portrait drawn by Sargent in about 1911. Despite a very active life in society and artistic circles, Ranken’s name is scarcely known today and this is possibly reflected in the very sad fact that only one of his paintings is on public display in Great Britain, his ‘Olga Alberta, Baroness de Meyer’ (painted in Venice in 1907) at Leeds City Art Gallery.

In The New Age for February 23, 1911, he is criticized, along with Glyn Philpot for “shouting”–a forcing of tone “to knock the observer down” (NA 8.17:405).


Bribery and Corruption
— Ranken, William Bruce Ellis


Flash Emma (1915)
—Ranken, William Bruce Ellis

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