Born in Antwerp on 17 May 1935, Willem Leo Jan Dolphyn was the only son of Victor Dolphyn and Anna de Ridder. In 1941 his father, Victor, began teaching at the Academy in Antwerp, and with his father already an established and talented artist, Willem clearly had painting in his blood. He began drawing at the age of 4 with a picture of a group of swans inspired after a visit to the Antwerp Zoo.
It was at the age of 12 that through his grandfather’s tales, he began his interest in Eastern culture, and when he was 15, he signed up as an ordinary seaman to give himself the opportunity to travel and explore countries such as Turkey for himself. It was his first experience of the Eastern way of life and it made a deep impression on him. During the trip he made a series of miniatures recording the events of the journey. A profound interest in the Orient was formed on this adventure and this has grown into one of his life’s major passions. It was soon after his return at the age of 16 in 1951 that Willem bought his first Samurai sword. This was the start of a collection which now contains 95 swords and 20 suits of armour.
In 1982 he co-founded the To-Ken club in Belgium which is a society of Japanese arms and armour collectors and he remains an active member today.
In 1950, he joined the Antwerp Academy and at 17 became the youngest pupil to be admitted to the National Higher Institute for Fine Arts where he excelled and honed his skills. Willem joined the army in 1954 in the 29th Engineering Corps and for two years moved bags of cement around... but his true calling always remained and it wasn’t too long before he found the success which would enable him to fund his extraordinary passion for collecting and more importantly, would allow him to share his talent with the entire world.
In 1957 Willem held one of his first shows when he exhibited a collection of miniatures at Nijenrode Castle in the Netherlands. It was a great success and heralded the start of good things to come. However, Willem would have to wait a few years for his first major breakthrough and in the interim; in around 1964, he began teaching figure drawing and still-life painting at the Mol Academy.
1968 became the pivotal year for Willem; with his first show at the Gebo Gallery wjich was very well received. Forty two landscapes and still-life paintings were sold and commissions flooded in which enabled him to give up his job at the Academy in Mol. He went on to design stamps for the Belgian post office in 1973 and to contribute to the 1974 group exhibition by the New Antwerp Realists.
Willem is a traditional family man. Brought up in a loving environment, his parents Victor and Anna installed a strong sense of hard work in the young Willem whilst letting him remain the free spirit that he still is today. Willem said of his father, “he is in his life and certainly in his work, my daily example.”
In the early 1960’s Willem met a lady called Yvonne de Rudder. He was taken by her love of life and sense of humour and they married on 6th May 1961. Early married life saw them renovating houses for a while and they made ends meet with Willem’s paintings. Then on 21st December 1963, Yvonne gave birth to their son, Walter.
Many happy years ensued as Walter grew up and worked alongside his father, painting eventually in the same studio together. After his amicable divorce from Yvonne, Willem met Denise Hermann in the early eighties, and she has become his constant companion, playing a valuable part in all aspects of his life. In 1979 Willem bought a small townhouse in Antwerp which he has now expanded into the neighbouring properties. Willem has created a beautiful home here which gives the feel of walking into a museum.
1992 saw highs and lows, with both the wedding of his son to Inge at the start of the year and the death of his father in the summer. These two events would shape the subsequent years, with a new Dolphyn family just beginning. Willem’s first granddaughter, Ellen, was born on 1 August 1994 and Margot followed on 5 March 1998. The early noughties saw the death of his beloved mother Anna and in 2004; Walter and his family moved to France. This move allowed his grandchildren to grow up close to the summer house of his father Victor and ensured happy Dolphyn holidays in the sun.
Throughout Willem’s life he has undertaken many excursions, visiting the countries of the Middle and Far East - Thailand, Nepal, Tibet, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and North and South America. A childhood dream was fulfilled when he visited the Dayaks in Borneo. The Eastern way of life, the atmosphere, the calm and sobriety that he found there, Willem bought back to his studio and to his house in Antwerp, which accommodates his impressive collection of armour, swords, carvings, stone and bronze hatchets. Willem also enjoys sailing and visiting his house in France near Walter, his son.
Meeting Monique Verschuren in the early eighties was an important moment in Willem’s career. Inspired by his paintings, Monique initially organised an exhibition of his work in her hometown of Zierikzee in the Netherlands in 1983, quickly following this up with an exhibition at Hotel des Indes in The Hague in 1984. These shows were enthusiastically received and were both sold out exhibitions - Willem’s international reputation was secured and Monique then took him to London to meet Bill Patterson. In 1985 Bill held his first show in Mayfair at W.H.Patterson. Sell out shows were a regular feature as Patterson’s clients embraced Willem’s supreme talent and enhanced their collections.
For Willem, the nineties and noughties saw the majority of his exhibitions in the British capital at Pattersons. Every other year ‘the Dolphyn Exhibition’ was widely anticipated. This he alternated with exhibitions in the Sporting d’hiver in the Monaco Fine Art gallery. The Dolphyn’s also held family exhibitions, Willem showing alongside his father Victor, Victor’s brother Denis and Willem’s son; Walter. These group shows brought together the broad range of painting talents and genres from each family member. In Elzenveld in 1990 Willem, Victor and Denis exhibited as “3 Dolphyn’s” and in 2010 at Koksijde, Walter exhibited alongside his father and grandfather.
The death of Bill Patterson in 2002, and the later sale of the gallery by Patricia to the Fuller family from Gladwell and Company saw transition and renewed fortunes. Willem stayed loyal to the gallery through this time of change exhibiting his solid bond and unerring sense of duty. He was rewarded in 2010 with his Silver Jubilee exhibition, a major milestone for any artist and gallery partnership. International shows continued to span the globe in cherished cities like Kobe and Osaka; Japan, as well as new centres for art like the Middle East and Dubai. W. H. Patterson regularly took Willem’s work to art fairs across America and the Far East - the Salmagundi club in New York, and Fine Art Asia in Hong Kong being highlights.
For Willem, the most important thing in life was his painting. He worked in his studio off Venustraat from 1963 to his death in 2016. For over 50 years, from that one spot, Willem created around 2,500 paintings. A monumental achievement for one man. The studio rooms were crowded with historic furniture, the shelves were loaded with treasures, fabrics, glassware and ceramics which span the centuries, gleaming and glinting in the Northern light, each piece collected with pride and all contributing to his incredible compositions. The ideas for these compositions came to Willem during the night. Even in his dreams he worked, seeing Roman glass, Delft tiles, Flemish tapestry, fine fruits and expensive china drawn from across the continent and coming all together in his mind. Willem often undertook commissions for friends, family and his collectors. Portraits, cherished places or his exceptional still lifes created with that personal touch to strike an enduring chord.
In 2008 Willem started a mammoth task that was a childhood dream of his, which was to do a major painting of the skyline of Antwerp. A year and four months later, this incredible undertaking was completed and a beautifully executed painting measuring 1.8m high by 5m wide was presented to the World. Featuring Antwerp from the left bank of the Schelde river, it is only the fourth painting of this size and magnitude that has been painted since the 16th century. Initially the painting was on display at the prestigious KBS bank building and more recently it has found a home in the magnificent entranceway to the Price Waterhouse Coopers building in Antwerp. It is truly a masterpiece and a crowning achievement.