Exeter Civic Society

Exeter Civic Society

Widgery, Frederick John

F. J. Widgery in 1901 (Courtesy of Devon Library Local Studies Service)

A plaque at 11 Howell Road, Exeter, EX4 4LG, reads:

Exeter Civic Society. F. J. Widgery, 1861-1942, Landscape painter and Freeman of Exeter, lived here, 1891-1940. Exetercivicsociety.org.uk

F. J. Widgery (pictured right in 1901) liked to be known as the man who put the letters FJ into Exeter’s car registrations. He was mayor when the letters were allocated in 1904 but the fact that they were the mayor’s initials was just a coincidence. However, F.J. Widgery has more substantial claims to fame.

When an exhibition of paintings by him was displayed at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter in 2013, the museum had this to say about him:

“Frederick John Widgery, known as ‘FJ’, lived much of his life in Exeter. Like his father [William Widgery, also an artist], FJ’s primary source of inspiration was Dartmoor but he also visited the Exe estuary and Woodbury Common as well as other sections of the Devon and Cornwall coastline.

Dartmoor scene by F. J. Widgery (Credit: Larkbeare House, Exeter)

“Unlike his father, the young FJ enjoyed an extended period of training. Having attended Exeter Cathedral School, he studied at the local Art School, then housed here at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. In London, he became a student at the South Kensington School of Art (now the Royal College of Art) and continued at the Academy in Antwerp. In 1883 he spent his last period of training at the newly opened Bushy School of Art in Hertfordshire.

“FJ was active in the Arts and Education of Exeter. He became Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Royal Albert Memorial College and served as Chairman of both the College Committee and Fine Arts Committee. As a city councillor he was also deeply involved in local politics and was appointed Mayor in 1903-1904. Civic honours awarded to him included Honorary Freeman of Exeter 1905, Alderman 1909, and Justice of the Peace in 1912.

“Working from his studio at 20a Queen Street, FJ maintained close contacts with the Museum and in 1931 donated his entire collection of sketches and sketchbooks. Most were not intended as ‘finished’ work for public exhibition and therefore reflect the artist’s personal interest and pleasure in the world around him.” (Reproduced by courtesy of Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter)

F. J. Widgery bought 11 Howell Road from his father after he returned to Exeter following his art training and a short spell in London, and lived there for the next 49 years. It was a short walk from his home to his Queen Street studio.

Portrait of William Widgery, the artist’s father, by F. J. Widgery (Copyright: Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter)

He was chair of Exeter’s Planning Committee until 1938 and at the centre of changes to bring the city up to date; equally he was keen to record the city and its buildings in his sketches and drawings. He loved Exeter and Devon, and one of his Dartmoor paintings was chosen by the Great Western Railway for its “Glorious Devon” series of travel posters.

As well as his civic responsibilities, he was also a Captain in the 1st Devon and Somerset Royal Engineer Volunteers. In 1922 he was Founder President of The Rotary Club of Exeter.

F. J. Widgery spent his last months in a nursing home and died on 27 January 1942 at the age of 81. He is buried in Exwick Cemetery.

• The Exeter Civic Society plaque was sponsored by a grant from Bury Meadow Residents’ Association supported by Devon County Council and Exeter City Council. JM