‘pen drawings by Hugh Thomson can be said with reasonable justification to mark the beginning of a new era in English book illustration’ (Edward Hodnett, Five Centuries of English Book Illustration, Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1988, page 187)
The Irish-born artist, Hugh Thomson, helped introduce a new approach to illustration through his closely observed and carefully researched pen and ink drawings. He was particularly associated with editions of classics of and about the Georgian and Regency periods. However, his versatility enabled him to capture both contemporary life and native topography with a relaxed energy.
Hugh Thomson was born at 9 Church Street (now Kingsgate Street), Coleraine, County Londonderry, on 1 June 1860. He was the eldest of the three children of John Thomson, a tea merchant, and Catherine (née Andrews), a shopkeeper.
Two or three years after the death of Hugh’s mother in about 1871, his father married Maria Lennox, a widow with one son, of the Manor House, Kilrea, about 14 miles south of Coleraine. John Thomson settled in Kilrea, and opened a drapery, haberdashery and hosiery warehouse in Maghera Street, though left the running of it to his wife as he pursued other business interests.
Hugh attended Coleraine Model School and, while there, often stayed at Breezemount, with his maternal aunt, Jayne Hunter, becoming very close to his cousins.
Then, on leaving school at the age of 14, he entered an apprenticeship with E Gribbon & Sons, linen manufacturers, on Strand Road. Having drawn from an early age, his artistic talent was soon recognised, probably by John Campbell, who worked in the linen trade. Campbell then recommended him to his friend, John Vinycomb, who was head of the art department of Marcus Ward & Co, the leading Belfast printer and publisher.
In 1876, at the age of 16, with indentures cancelled, Hugh Thomson left for Belfast in the company of his brother, Richard, who was also a fine artist. He lived at 7 Park View Terrace, Ballynafeigh (since renumbered), close to Marcus Ward’s Royal Ulster Works on the south side of the city. His work there included the production of Christmas cards and box covers. He received encouragement from John Vinycomb, and attended a few classes at Belfast School of Art, but was mostly self-taught. In 1879, he and Vinycomb were among the 16 members of Ward’s staff to found the Belfast Ramblers Sketching Club (which later became the Belfast Art Society).
On 1 December 1883, Thomson moved to London to further his career, at the urging of his cousin, Ellen. He returned to Belfast to marry Jessie Naismith Miller, of Ballynafeigh, on 29 December 1884, but the couple settled in Putney, on the River Thames. By then, he had established himself through his drawings for Macmillan & Co’s recently founded periodical, The English Illustrated Magazine, and would become particularly well known for those that illustrated eighteenth-century ballads and stories. These contributions led to Coaching Days and Coaching Ways (1888), the collaboration with the illustrator, Herbert Railton, and the writer, W Outram Tristram, which confirmed his reputation.
From the late 1880s, Thomson was continually in demand as an illustrator of fiction and poetry that had been written or set in Georgian or Regency times, such as that of Jane Austen and his own close friend, Austin Dobson. In visualising this world, Thomson himself was equally influenced by the writings of Thackeray and the illustrations of Edwin Austin Abbey and Randolph Caldecott. In turn, he influenced the Brothers Brock, who soon became his chief rivals in the field of historical illustration. Like them, he thoroughly researched his subjects and, in order to do so, made visits to the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. However, Thomson was more versatile than this suggests.
Living in or close to London for much of his career, Thomson produced vital and perceptive studies of contemporary city life for publication in The Graphic (1890-1905) and other periodicals. He also illustrated a number of topographical volumes, for Macmillan’s series ‘Highways and Byways’, including that on his home territory, Donegal and Antrim (1899), with a text by Stephen Gwynn.
Thomson was well equipped to satisfy the increasing demand for colour illustration that occurred in the 1890s, for he had been regularly exhibiting watercolours at various dealers (the Fine Art Society, the Leicester Galleries, Walker’s Galleries, the Continental Gallery) and at the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colour. He was elected to the RI in 1897, but retired from the society a decade later. Though also nominated to the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours, he turned the offer down. Retaining connections to Belfast, he was elected a member of the Ulster Arts Club in 1903.
Macmillan attempted to stretch his skill as a colourist by launching a series of ‘Hugh Thomson’s Illustrated Fairy Books’, which began and ended with Jack the Giant Killer (1898). However, his imagination lacked the edge of fantasy that made Dulac, Rackham and Heath Robinson the leaders in the field of the gift book; so he returned to produce the detailed, observant work that still characterises his name.
Having lived in West Kensington and then Sidcup, Kent, Hugh and Jessie Thomson moved to 8 Patten Road, Wandsworth Common, London, in 1913. Hugh would die there on 7 May 1920, his wife and only child, John Thomson, both surviving him. Three years later a memorial show was held at the Leicester Galleries.
His work is represented in the collections of Ulster Museum (Belfast).
Further reading: Olivia Fitzpatrick, ‘Thomson, Hugh (1860-1920)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 54, pages 515-516; M H Spielmann & Walter Jerrold, Hugh Thomson. His Art, London: A & C Black Ltd, 1931