Painting box belonging to famed Fen artist is donated to museum

Sarah Russell and the painting box

Sarah Russell and the painting box - Credit: Archant

A painting box which belonged to a prominent impressionist artist has been donated to the Norris Museum in St Ives after it was found tucked away in an antiques dealer’s workshop.

The painting box

The painting box - Credit: Archant

The box, which is thought to be at least 70 years old, belonged to oil painter William Watt Milne, renowned for his Fenland scenes including pictures depicting St Ives, Hemingford Abbots, and Houghton.

The collector’s item was discovered by dealer and former teacher, David Jones, from Hartford, who came across the paint-splattered box after his wife, Maisie, died in


Sarah Russell, David Jones, and Bridget Flanagan

Sarah Russell, David Jones, and Bridget Flanagan - Credit: Archant

“My wife was the dealer and bought all sorts of odd things really and we used to say that she had a good eye,” the 86-year-old told The Hunts Post.

“She must have known the artist. She had quite an interest in buys over the years, some of which made quite a bit of money.

“When my wife died, I piled things up and I moved from our house in Hemingford Abbots into a little annex in my grandson’s house and he had a sun house which we had to pull down because it got a bit dangerous and that’s where I’d put all the stuff.”

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Opening the box, Mr Jones found a collection of oil paints, brushes and a pallet, plus a piece of card with Milne’s signature on it and another inscription on the top.

A painting by William Watt Milne

A painting by William Watt Milne - Credit: The Norris Musuem

It wasn’t until he bumped into friend and author of Artists Along the Ouse, Bridget Flanagan, though, that he realised the item’s worth.

“When I found it I didn’t think anything of it really, and then I came across it again,” he added.

“I had a print of one of his paintings on my [antiques] stand and it aroused my interest a little bit. Then I met Bridget by accident and she was quite excited, much more excited than I was, and that’s how it happened.”

According to Ms Flanagan, Milne was born in Scotland in 1873 and moved to Cambridgeshire in 1914, renting rooms in Houghton before uprooting his family to The Waits, in St Ives.

He also had a studio in East Street in the town, and some of his paintings can now fetch more than £5,000.

“The pictures he painted when he came here, people really liked. They’re very sought after and they’re pictures that people enjoyed,” Ms Flanagan said.

“He would paint outdoors to get the atmosphere, the impressions and the light of what was exactly happening at the time and then he would probably paint the main part of the picture and then take it back into the studio to paint the rest.”

No one is sure how much the paint box is worth, but the item is due to become a permanent part of the Norris Museum’s collection, alongside some of his original pieces there.

Sarah Russell, museum director, said: “We were so excited when David offered this to us because it’s a piece in the puzzle of our story.”