William P. Rayner, Artist, World Traveler
William P. Rayner, a watercolorist and travel writer who was the editorial business manager of Condé Nast for 30 years, died in New York City on Jan. 22 at the age of 88. His death was attributed to cardiac arrest, although it has been reported that this was precipitated by an injury that had come during an anniversary trip to France with his wife, Katharine Johnson Rayner.
Mr. Rayner, who was known to friends as Billy, lived on West End Road, near Georgica Pond, in a house of celebrated beauty called Woody House. Together with his wife, he split his time between Woody House and the Upper East Side, wintering in Palm Beach, Fla. Regardless of where he was, his friends said, Mr. Rayner painted every day. His watercolors were exhibited at various galleries, most recently in November at the Chinese Porcelain Company in Manhattan.
His other beloved occupation was travel. On many trips with his wife, and for his work, he saw the world, visiting such far-flung countries as Bhutan, Syria, Libya, China, Egypt, Cambodia, India, and Russia.
“I started traveling extensively when I was around 30 years old,” he told The East Hampton Star in 2013, “both for Condé Nast and on my own account.” His memories of these voyages were published that year in a two-book set, “Notes and Sketches: Travel Journals of William P. Rayner.”
In a 2001 article in the Palm Beach Daily News, when his paintings were in a Florida exhibition, he explained that he had, at first, begun to paint because it was a more accurate way of memory-keeping than simply taking diary notes. “I could remember things I’d seen more accurately,” he said. “I could almost smell the things by looking at the paintings.”
After Mr. Rayner’s death, Edwina Sandys, a British artist and sculptor, extolled his virtues as an artist, telling The Palm Beach Daily News, “He was a very good artist. Watercolor is a most difficult medium. You’ve got to be brave and fluid, which he was.”
Mr. Rayner also wrote a book of essays, “Wise Women: Singular Lives that Helped Shape our Century,” which was published in 1983.
He was born to Emily and Archibald Rayner on Feb. 21, 1929, in Washington, D.C., and was educated at the Taft School in Watertown, Conn., and the University of Virginia.
He grew up surrounded by art. His mother was a social figure in Palm Beach from the 1940s to 1960s, as well as a director of the Worth Avenue Gallery there. The woman he married, Katharine Rayner, is the daughter of Anne Cox Chambers, who is listed as one of Forbes magazine’s 500 wealthiest Americans. His aunt was Betty Parsons, a New York art dealer with whom he spent many summers on the East End and through whom he met leading artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. It was Parsons who introduced him to the idea of keeping a visual diary. (“Her diaries were strictly painting,” he told The Star. “At first, mine were watercolor-driven; then I began to make notes — I was a writer, after all — and then started to paste things in.”)
The Rayners’ garden at Woody House, which is nestled among the ocean dunes at Georgica Pond, was described as a magical oasis by Vogue magazine in 2016. Architectural Digest, last year, said that the loveliness of the house, peppered with exotic antiques and textiles from the couple’s travels, had reached “near-mythical stature.”
On the South Fork, Mr. Rayner will be remembered as a champion of good causes. He was the president of the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons for 10 years and on the board of the Parrish Art Museum. He also was a member of the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Henry Street Settlement in New York City and the Rhode Island School of Design.
Audrey Gruss, a friend and Southampton resident, said Mr. Rayner always was “a joy to be around. He had a great sense of humor, but always in a gentle way and at no one’s expense.”
A funeral service was held last Thursday at St. James Episcopal Church in Manhattan.