William Oram (d. 1777) was Master Carpenter to the Office of Works when Kirby was appointed as Clerk of the Works at Richmond and Kew. Although he was well-known in artistic circles in his time, his star has faded. Horace Walpole, in his three-volume Anecdotes of Painting, accords Oram precisely one sentence: “William Oram was bred an architect, but taking to landscape-painting, arrived at great merit in that branch; and was made master-carpenter to the board of works, by the interest of Sir Edward Walpole, who has several of his pictures and drawings” [vol II, 711]. The DNB is a little more forthcoming, mentioning his painting of the staircase in Buckingham Palace, and his earliest known published work, an etching of Datchet Bridge printed in 1745.
Very little of his original work is known to have survived. He was popular with nobles having over-door and over-mantle pieces in country houses, as well as painting staircases. Such works have presumably all disappeared, or at least lost attribution. The DNB records his death in 1777, “leaving a widow and a son, Edward” and gives a brief mention of Edward’s own artistic productions from exhibition catalogs.
Against this rather sparse record comes a startling obituary:
On Monday last was interr’d at Hendon in Middlesex, the remains of William Oram, Esq; officer of his Majesty’s Board of Works. He was an affectionate husband, a tender and best of fathers, whose great abilities were universally known; and a sincere friend to his acquaintance. He labored under the most severe affliction for many years, from a hurt in his side. His loss is irreparable to his disconsolate widow and numerous family [Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, Friday, March 28, 1777].
This suggests there may be more to William Oram’s story.
According to Rosenfeld, Oram had an early career as a scene-painter, working with Hogarth at least as far back as 1724 [1960, 84]. In 1732, he painted a sounding board at Goodman’s Fields Theatre with Francis Hayman, and in 1734, he painted a ceiling there, of which there is a record in a drawing by Capon. Hence, by the time he was appointed Master Carpenter in 1748, he had a body of work and a reputation stretching back at least two decades, and was certainly a prominent artist. After his appointment to the Board of Works, he may have carried on his private practice, but landscape painting was not very profitable, and he may have concentrated on his official duties.
In 1761, as Master Carpenter, Oram was responsible for constructing and painting the triumphal arch in Westminster Hall for the coronation of George III, of which an engraving was made, and which is the source of the only extended anecdote about him I have come across. He left a manuscript on the use of colour in landscape painting, which was posthumously published by a relative, Charles Clarke.
William Oram’s background remains obscure. There were a distressing number of Orams, indeed of William Orams, in London at the time, as well as branches of the family scattered around the rest of England. Some of these families are doubtless related, but the exact connections are not clear. William Oram married Elizabeth Ellis, daughter of London builder John Ellis, but I don’t know exactly when or where. Ellis wrote his will in 1752, leaving his three houses in Old Paved Alley to his three children, and giving the rest of his estate to his wife. However, she died in 1754, and Ellis then moved in with his daughter and son-in-law before dying himself in 1755. Elizabeth got administration, which occasioned a law-suit between the sisters, with the other daughter suing for an equal division of their father’s property, while Elizabeth claimed he had given her that property while alive, and while he was living with them. Elizabeth won. She seems to have been a fairly formidable lady.
In 1764, William Oram bought a plot of land in Hampstead and built a brick house and stables, south of Jack Straw’s Castle. Oram might have enjoyed his new house at Hampstead ‘situate of the summit of Hampstead-Heath’ and ‘commanding a delightful and extensive prospect, round the country’, but it seems it was not to his wife’s taste. As soon as he died in 1777, she sold it, giving her address as Scotland Yard (home of the Board of Works). The following year his collection of prints, paintings, and drawings was auctioned off:
The genuine and valuable Collection of Drawings of the late William Oram, Esq, principal painter, and master carpenter of his Majesty’s Board of Works, amongst which are many high-finished landscapes by himself, a variety of heads in oil, some copper-plates of different views in England, &c. &c.
William Oram’s will left everything to his wife, and thus does not provide much insight into his family, but his widow’s will, written in 1786 and proved in 1791, mentions six surviving children, two boys and four (married) girls. The boys got one shilling each, as did her grandson William. Of the daughters, one got a shilling, one got £5, one got £10, and Charlotte, wife of John Peto, got the house in Mount Street and the residue of the estate. Like I said, formidable.
For related posts, see the Office of Works and Kew category.
Rosenfeld, S., 1960. The Theatre of the London Fairs in the 18th Century.
Walpole, H., 1849. Anecdotes of painting in England, with some account of the principal artists, and notes on other …