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The Art of Berkeley Williams Jr.

From 1920 to 1975 the Richmond Public Library clipped and indexed every newspaper article it could find on local art exhibitions. The library may have stopped cutting and pasting, but the clippings, in 36 binders, are still available for perusal at the main library’s reference desk. The articles provide an immediate sense of the RVA art scene of the early 20th century and can uncover fascinating, unheard of artists, sending you on a chase through the library’s collections.

After a quick thumb through one of the binders I stopped on this striking image:

The illustration–a sinister-looking dandy stalking the streets with cape and cane–is by Berkeley Williams, Jr., and it accompanied a review of Williams work shown on East Franklin Street in 1927. The write-up is glowing, almost equaling its subject in style: “whether one be artist or bootblack, poet or porter, one cannot look upon the pictures without getting the hunch that there is glamor in this living business.”

Williams, it turns out, makes a few appearances among the library’s early clippings. In 1930 Williams showed thirty of his paintings in Richmond, still-lives and landscapes painted in Southern France. A review of that show explained that Williams, a Richmond-native, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before spending 18 months in France. He then returned home with his work, giving Richmond one of its first tastes of modern painting. Another article just under two years later declared: “Mr. Williams has reached the point where he is convincing in everything he does.”

Portrait of Hunter Stagg (1931)
Still curious, I switched over to the library’s old file of local obituaries. With the help of a reference librarian I discovered that Williams died in 1977 at 72 years old. He attended St. Christopher’s School in Richmond and the University of Virginia. He married Alta Murdoch “Jerry” Williams, the garden columnist for the Times-Dispatch. And his creative output did not stop with the early 1930s paintings. Williams went on to work as an illustrator for children’s books, collaborating on two collections of Appalachian folk tales, both held by the library, The Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales.

So far I had learned about Williams’ drawings, paintings, and children’s book illustrations, hopping from one collection to another. But I wanted to see the artist himself, and a quick internet search retrieved not only a photo of Williams but brought me right back to First and Franklin. A 1936 Times-Dispatch article preserved online explained that Williams once kept a studio in what was then called Richmond’s Greenwich Village, four brick houses rented out to artists and standing opposite the main library.

For Richmond history, sparkling criticism, and arresting images, stop by the reference desk to see the library’s collection of exhibition clippings. And if you happen to have more information about Berkeley Williams, Jr. please drop us a line or a comment below. We’d love to keep filling in this portrait of a Richmond artist.