Frank Watson Wood, 1862-1953
Portrait of Admiral of the Fleet Sir William Henry May GCB, GCVO. (1849 – 1930)
Admiral of the Fleet Sir William Henry May

signed and dated 1913

oil on canvas
37 x 29 in. (94 x 74 cm.)


Admiral of the Fleet Sir William Henry May GCB GCVO (31 July 1849 – 7 October 1930) was a Royal Navy Officer. As a junior officer he took part an expedition to rescue Commander Albert Markham who had got into difficulty trying to reach the North Pole via Smith Sound, the sea passage between Greenland and Canada's northernmost island, Ellesmere Island.

May went on to higher command and served as Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy before becoming Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet. He held the office of Second Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Personnel and in that capacity threatened to resign if the Liberal Government cut the naval estimates any further. Later he became Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, in which capacity he encouraged innovative ways of organising his huge fleet including the deployment of cruising formations, the use of fast squadrons and tactical command at squadron level rather than fleet level, and then became Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth. He served in the First World War purely in an administrative capacity.

Sir William Henry May, (1849–1930), naval officer, was born at Liscard, Cheshire, on 31 July 1849, the third son in the family of ten children of Job William Seaburne May and his wife, Anne Jane Freckleton. Since the seventeenth century the family had lived in the Netherlands, where an ancestor, John May, had been a naval architect. William Henry May's grandfather, an admiral in the Dutch navy and reportedly at the same time captain in the British navy, had assisted in restoring Prince William of Orange to the throne of the Netherlands in 1813. His father left the Netherlands in 1840 and established himself on the stock exchange in Liverpool, where he was Netherlands consul.

In 1860 May entered the Royal Institution School, Liverpool, and in 1862, when he had decided to join the Royal Navy, he entered Eastman's naval academy, Southsea. He passed into the training ship Britannia twenty-second out of fifty in 1863, and a year later he passed out fourth, and embarked at once, aged fifteen, on the Victoria, flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet. After three years he was transferred to the frigate Liffey, in which he served the remaining eighteen months of his midshipman's time. Having become a sub-lieutenant in 1869, May passed his examinations in that rank so well that, as a reward, he was appointed, after a few months in the Hercules, to the royal yacht Victoria and Albert. He was advanced to lieutenant after two and a half years, gaining promotion before many of his seniors. After returning to the Hercules he served on her for two years (1872–4) and was then appointed to the gunnery-school ship Excellent to qualify as a specialist in gunnery. So far his career had been on the usual lines, but then an opportunity was presented of taking part in the Arctic expedition fitting out (1875) under Captain George Strong Nares. May at once volunteered, and was accepted as navigating officer of the Alert. He served on the expedition until its return in 1876, having taken part in the sledging expeditions to Lincoln Bay and in relief of the party led by Commander Albert Hastings Markham and in the search for a practicable overland route to Cape Prevost. He did much surveying, for which he was officially commended by Sir George Nares.

On his return from the Arctic expedition May joined the torpedo-school ship Vernon. There he played a prominent and important part in developing the Whitehead torpedo and an underwater discharging apparatus. After three and a half years (1877–80) in the Vernon and a few months in the frigate Inconstant he was promoted commander; he achieved this rank after only nine and a half years' service as lieutenant. In 1878, while in the Vernon, May had married Kinbarra Swene, daughter of William John Marrow, merchant; they had two sons. In 1880 he was given command of the exceptional new torpedo-ram ship Polyphemus. He held this command for two and a half years (1881–4) and for the next three years was second in command of the royal yacht. Aged thirty-eight, he was promoted captain.

In March 1888 May went to China as flag captain to Admiral Sir Nowell Salmon in the Impérieuse. On the voyage to the East he took possession, acting on secret orders, of Christmas Island. This earned him the nickname Christmas May to go with Handsome Willie May. He returned to England at the end of the commission in December 1890, and was appointed naval attaché to the European states. He served in this capacity for two and a half years, principally in France, Russia, and Germany, and then, without intermission, was appointed to the Admiralty as assistant director of torpedoes. In January 1895 he went as flag captain and chief of staff to Admiral Sir Michael Culme Seymour on the Mediterranean station, where he gave evidence of outstanding organizing ability. After two years' service in the Mediterranean he returned to England and was at once appointed flag captain to Admiral Sir Nowell Salmon, commander-in-chief at Portsmouth, acting as chief of staff during the 1897 jubilee celebrations. After this he went to the gunnery school Excellent, which he commanded until January 1901. He was then appointed director of naval ordnance and torpedoes.

In April 1901, aged fifty-one, May reached flag rank, having a month earlier been made third sea lord and controller of the navy. During the four years of his controllership many far-reaching changes in naval construction and dockyard administration took place. The dreadnought policy was initiated, though May was not a member of the ‘committee of design’ appointed in October 1904 to consider the characteristics of the new type; a greater sea-going capacity was given to the torpedo-boat destroyer class; the use of oil sprayed upon coal was introduced, and ships' machinery underwent great alterations. In February 1905 May, who had been created KCVO in 1904, was appointed to command the recently formed Atlantic Fleet with his flag in the King Edward VII. In July he took the fleet to Brest, to make a naval demonstration of the entente cordiale. May's presence and personality, his knowledge of French, and his able handling of the fleet in entering and leaving Brest harbour created a very good impression on French naval officers.

After two years in command of the Atlantic Fleet, May returned to the Admiralty as second sea lord. At this time (1907) great efforts were being made to cut down naval expenditure, and the Liberal government ordered a reduction of £1 million. When a further reduction of £750,000 was proposed, May, with the third and fourth sea lords, sent a memorandum to the first sea lord, Sir John (afterwards Lord) Fisher, intimating that if this was done they must resign; it was not.

In 1909 May was appointed to command the Home Fleet with his flag in the Dreadnought. This command included all the ships in home waters, and was, in May's opinion, too large. He concentrated on investigating the many tactical problems which the recent growth of the fleet in numbers and size, and the addition to the sea-going fleet of a fighting flotilla, had brought into existence. Gunnery, under the impulse of Percy Moreton Scott, had made great advances, though it was still far short of what came to be demanded of it in 1914. The torpedo had increased in both range and speed, and presented a new element in tactics. Many officers serving under May's command were dissatisfied with the existing tactical doctrines, and advocated new systems of handling the large and heterogeneous body of ships which formed a modern fleet command. May was open to receiving, discussing, and trying new ideas. He initiated an extensive series of tactical exercises of an enhanced scale and comprehensiveness; the cruising formations from which deployment into battle formation could most rapidly be made; the use of flotillas in a tactical offensive; the employment of fast squadrons in action; the alternative of squadronal command in place of the single line under one command—these were prominent among the tactical matters to which May devoted attention. A man of an essentially practical turn of mind, he submitted to trial new theories and suggestions 'on the scale of twelve inches to the foot'. On hauling down his flag in March 1911 May was appointed commander-in-chief at Devonport. He held this command until promoted admiral of the fleet in March 1913, when his flag came down for the last time.

During the First World War May served on the Dardanelles commission (1916–17) chaired by the earl of Cromer; as chairman of the reconstruction committee which dealt, in anticipation, with the problems of post-war reductions; and on a subcommittee on fisheries. After his retirement he lived at Coldstream, Berwickshire, where he took an active part in local affairs. He died at his residence, Bughtrigg, Coldstream, on 7 October 1930.

Few flag officers of his time had more continuous employment than Sir William May. In forty-four years' service he had only twenty months on half pay, and at no time was he unemployed for longer than seven months. He was tall, strikingly handsome, and physically active and powerful. He rowed in a race in a fleet regatta in his sixty-first year; he hunted until his horses were taken for the war; he shot, and played golf until within ten days of his death. He had the gift of eliciting the opinions and theories of his officers, encouraging their suggestions, and giving them his unbiased consideration. He was created MVO (1897), received the Légion d'honneur (1905) and the KCB (1906), and was GCVO (1909) and GCB (1911).

H. W. Richmond, revised by Andrew Lambert Oxford DNB

Artist biography

Frank Watson Wood (1862–1953) Painter of Marine Subjects, Landscapes and Portraits. born in Berwick Upon Tweed, Northumberland. Frank Watson Wood, named after his maternal grandfather, was the eldest child of Robert and Ann. Exactly when and how his artistic ability was discovered is uncertain. At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to a local grocer, but soon left to go to Berwick Art School. Having discovered his talent, James Wallace senior, the Art Master, encouraged him to consider art as a career. Presumably his family accepted the change in direction, particularly as the training he was receiving would enable him to make a respectable living as an art teacher. After completing his studies at Berwick, Frank Wood furthered his training at South Kensington Art School (later the Royal College of Art), and later at the Académie Julian in Paris. He was appointed second master at the School of Art in Newcastle in 1883, remaining there until 1889. He then moved to Hawick where he was Headmaster of the Art School. In 1899 he gave up teaching altogether and became a full-time professional artist, firstly at Southsea and later in Portsmouth, where he developed a talent for marine painting, and later in Berwick and Edinburgh.

He commenced his career as a Royal Navy officer, and was described in 1907 as "naval artist, Portsmouth". He went on to become an internationally regarded watercolorist.

In August 1906 he sold King Edward VII a watercolour which he hung in the Royal Yacht. Queen Alexandra purchased at the same time a further three pictures, all associated with views taken during Cowes Regatta week. In November 1907 the Queen again purchased from him two large watercolours.

He exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Arts in Edinburgh where he lived. With the well-known watercolourist W. L. Wyllie, he was the guest of Admiral Sir Charles Madden on board H. M. S. Queen Elizabeth at the time of the surrender of the German fleet in 1918; he later made several sketches of German ships before scuttling. He accompanied King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on their Canadian tour in 1938. Wood was in Bermuda in 1929 and 1931, and painted Admiralty House (since demolished) and Admiralty Cove, in those days the Headquarters of the America & West Indies Squadron (established 1 July 1927).

Painter and teacher, especially noted for marine subjects,Studied art at South Kensington Schools and Academie Julian, Paris. Taught as second master at Newcastle School of Art, 1883-9, then as head of Hawick School of Art, 1889-99. Much of Wood's work was done in the North East of England where he lived and in Edinburgh. He became a professional artist after his time at Hawick. His final years were spent in Perthshire where he died (at Dochfour, Strathyre) in 1953, at the age of 91. Frank Wood is best known for his watercolours but he also did some work in oil. Locally he is remembered for his landscapes of Berwick and district, but he was also an accomplished portraitist and painter of marine subjects.

He exhibited widely from 1889 onwards, with his work appearing regularly in the Royal Scottish Academy, The Royal Society of Watercolourists, The Laing Art Gallery and the Glasgow Institute of Fine Art. He exhibited once at the Royal Academy in 1902. His work is held in several public collections including the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London, as well as numerous private collections.He was a prolific artist throughout a long life. His early works were meticulously done with considerable detail. Later works became more fluid and accomplished, particularly those done in watercolour. Consciously or unconsciously he returned to favourite scenes throughout his life, faithfully recording the changes that took place in Berwick, as can be seen in the Marygate pictures of 1901 and 1946. He also painted historically significant scenes such as the view of the German Fleet in Scapa Flow in 1919, and his love of the sea can be seen in the numerous marine paintings featuring both local shipping and warships.

A sizeable number of Frank Wood paintings are in the collection of Berwick Museum and Art Gallery. He Exhibited at Royal Scottish Academy, the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Water Colours and the Royal Academy.


Other works include:

Edinburgh from The Braids
Linlithgow Palace
Springtime on the River Tweed
Mordington House (1932)
A View of Berwick-upon-Tweed
Topography of Berwick
Gullane (1933)