William Nowland Van Powell (1904-1977) was born in Memphis in 1904, the son of Addison Powell, captain of the famed riverboat, the Kate Adams. He is remembered as an architect, artist, designer, and historian, as well as a temperamental genius with a keen sense of humor.
In the mid-1960s he gave up his architecture practice because of failing eyesight. While most people would have been content to a leisurely retirement, Powell put all his energies into his other career – a painter of American History. Using a magnifying glass to help him with the details, Powell focused on his paintings of American naval battle scenes from the Revolutionary War. He had a reputation for historical accuracy, and depicted the ships with meticulous precision and detail – from the hull shapes and rigging to the accurate handling of ships in various weather conditions.
Powell was very well read, and his favorite subject was American History. Each of his paintings required an incredible amount of research. The battles were researched for historical accuracy as well as the ships themselves. It was not uncommon for Powell to read ship’s logs and plans of the builders in order to paint the vessel with the accuracy that he demanded of himself.
According to his daughter, Jenny Grehan, he painted everyday, often in the very early hours of the morning. He required very little sleep, and she recalled that he would sometimes wake up after a few hours of sleep and resume painting. Many collectors appreciated his work, and he earned a great deal of recognition for his paintings. The government of Paraguay commissioned nine canvases, which were issued as stamps. In 1971 Bruce International Gallery made the greatest single purchase of works by a Memphis artist when it purchased 70 of Powell’s paintings. Exhibitions of his paintings were held at the Memphis Brooks Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. Three of his works were sold to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, and now hang in the John Paul Jones crypt in the chapel. In 1974, G.P. Putnam’s Sons published a large-format book, “The American Navies of the Revolutionary War”, featuring more than 50 of his best marine paintings. Unfortunately, the illustrations in the book appeared washed out and did not meet the high level of quality that Powell expected and deserved.
At this death in 1977, Powell was still painting. His last finished work; “The Battle of Barfleur” is decidedly one of his best. It depicts the dramatic sea battle between the French flagship Soleil Royal and three British first rates: the London, the Britannia and the St. Andrew. This painting, along with approximately 40 other maritime paintings will be included in the exhibition of Powell’s work.