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The son of William Widgery, who had made a name for
himself as a self taught artist, Frederick John Widgery not only became
an artist of some repute, but he became a prominent and active
councillor and Mayor of Exeter. Born in May 1861, he attended the
Exeter Cathedral School where he showed his father's aptitude for art.
He went on to the Exeter School of Art and then the South Kensington
Museum School before travelling to Antwerp to study under Charles
Verlat at the National Art School. Upon his return to England, Widgery
studied at Professor Hubert von Herkomer's School at Bushey in
Now, with a thorough grounding in painting, he
started his career in London in 1889, only to
return to Exeter in 1890, to
make his way as an artist. He lived at 11 Howell Road and established
his studio at 20 Queen Street, close to the modern entrance to Habitat
opposite the, by now, flourishing Royal Albert Memorial Museum which
incorporated the School of Art.
Widgery soon became involved in many local
institutions including the
Rotary Club, and as a member of the 1st Devon and Somerset Royal
Engineer Volunteers he rose to Captain. He was first elected to the
city council in 1898, and after just 5 years, was unanimously elected
mayor in November 1903. This was an exciting time for the city, with
the planning and construction of a new bridge over the Exe, and new
electricity generating station to power a new electric tram system. The
adoption of FJ as the city's motor car registration letters, which
Frederick John was never slow to point out, was always thought to be in
homage to Widgery, but it was alas, a coincidence which has acquired
the status of popular myth.
After his year as Mayor, he was made a Freeman of
the City on 11th
March 1905, and an Alderman in 1909. He was chairman of the Town
Planning Committee until 1938, and as such, was instrumental in many of
the initiatives that were taken in town planning, including inviting
the Cities and Town Planning Exhibition to Exeter in 1911. One of the
outcomes was the formation of the Exeter
Pictorial Record Society, also in 1911, to record and preserve a
pictorial record of the city as it underwent modernisation. Among the
many photographs and other images of the city, are a set of
drawings presented by Widgery to the Society.
As a painter, Widgery enjoyed considerable success,
and is best
remembered for his watercolours of Dartmoor, Exmoor and the Devon
Widgery supplied the Samual Coombs Gallery in London with many gouche
watercolours. His reputation spread to America, Australia and other
and even now, there is a healthy trade for his paintings. He had six
paintings exhibited at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, five at the
Royal Academy and three at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. A
watercolour of Dartmoor, painted in 1925 was used by the GWR as a
poster entitled, 'Glorious Devon'.
After a full life devoted to painting and public service, F J Widgery died on 27th January 1942 at the age of 81.
F J Widgery in 1901 - courtesy of the Devon Library Local Studies Service The 1925 GWR poster.
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