William L. Pressly's scholarship is devoted to the art of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, with an emphasis on British painting. His numerous publications include three single-authored books on the eighteenth-century Irish painter James Barry. He has also published on a number of other artists of the "English" School, including William Blake, John Singleton Copley, Henry Fuseli, James Gillray, James Jefferys, John Hamilton Mortimer, Samuel Palmer, John Francis Rigaud, George Romney, Alexander and John Runciman, Gilbert Stuart, J. M. W. Turner, Benjamin West, Joseph Wright of Derby and Johan Zoffany. Outside of British art, he has pubished on Goya and the Surrealists. His most recent book, James Barry's Murals at the Royal Society of Arts: Envisioning a New Public Art (Cork University Press, 2014) is the first to offer an in-depth anaylsis of these remarkable paintings and the first to demonstrate that the artist was pioneering a new approach to public art in terms of the novelty of his patronage and the highly personal nature of his content. The book argues that the murals contain a deeper hidden meaning that has gone unperceived for 230 years, the artist having disguised his message due to its inflammatory nature. It was awarded the 2015 William MB Berger Prize for British Art History.
Professor Pressly has held grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London, and Senior Smithsonian Fellowship. Before joining the Maryland faculty in 1987, he had taught at Yale University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Duke University. At Maryland, he served as Director of Graduate Studies and Chair of the Department of Art History and Archaeology. Since 2012 he and his wife Nancy have been living in Atlanta, just one and a half blocks from their son and two grandchildren.