Hugh Thomson

Illustrator of the classics Hugh Thomson remembered in Coleraine, Heather Simpson reports

He made his name illustrating books for literary giants Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, but the work of prolific Coleraine-born artist Hugh Thomson is still making headlines in 2007 after Coleraine Borough Council purchased a collection of the artists' pictures which were stored away in a suitcase for 30 years.

With the aid of a £90,000 grant from the Heritage and Lottery Fund, £40,000 from the Art Fund and £5,000 from the Northern Ireland Museums Council, Coleraine Borough Council have spent £150,000 on more than 800 pieces of Thomson’s work.

Included in the collection are 514 drawings and watercolours, 168 books from his library, some of which are early editions, and a number of photographs.

Helen Perry, Coleraine Museum Services Officer, admitted that the purchase was a major coup for Coleraine and that a small Thomson exhibition held in Coleraine Town Hall in May would not be the last.

‘Hugh Thomson is regarded as one of the Victorian era’s most talented book illustrators. He was incredibly prolific and the quality of his drawings was amazing. Acquiring the collection ensures that his work remains in the public domain.

‘The exhibition is just the beginning of a series of exhibitions, events and programming over the next few years exploring the history that this wonderful collection reveals. Our next step is to open the Hugh Thomson Study Room in Coleraine Town Hall where people can, by appointment, view the collection under museum conditions.'

Thomson was born in Kingsgate Street, Coleraine in 1860, to his draper father John, and mother Catherine. His mother died very young and his father remarried Maria Lennox of the Manor House, in Kilrea. Thomson remained in Coleraine to continue his education at the Model school and stayed with his aunt Jayne Hunter (nee Andrews) who lived in Breezemount House, on the Castlerock Road, Coleraine.

It is said that the Hunter family fostered Thomson’s interest in art and literature. According to his biography, Hugh Thomson: His Art, His Letters, His Humour and His Charm, ‘as a young boy Hugh spent a great deal of time with his Hunter cousins at Breezemount and was particularly close to Ellen and her brother'.

Aged 14, Thomson left school and worked as an apprentice for HA Gribbon & Sons, who owned a large Linen factory on the Strand Road, Coleraine.

According to Perry, ‘Thomson's family believed his talents didn’t lend themselves to office work. During his time there, HA Gribbon recognised his artistic talents and recommended him to train at the prestigious printing and publishing company, Marcus Ward & Sons, in Belfast.’

In 1876, the 16-year-old left for Belfast with his brother Richard, who was an equally fine artist, to work in the design department of the company. Thomson worked alongside artist William Morris under award-winning designer John Vinycomb. Vinycomb proved a strong  influence on the young artist.

‘Hugh was very much self taught, which is quite rare,’ Perry revealed. ‘He didn’t get any formal training and really learned on the job. Among the collection is a portfolio of his work, which he took to London. The work is quite amazing for a young designer and is very accomplished. He could turn his hand to anything, and he could illustrate in a number of mediums, including ink and wash, which was a testament to his training at Ward & Sons.’

In the early stages of his career, Thomson’s preoccupation with nature was a prominent theme throughout his work. Due to the heavy industrialisation of the Victoria era, as an artist he looked to nature and traditional crafts. While at Ward & Sons his depiction of flowers and birds were exquisite, his attention to detail was quite extraordinary and he was particularly good at capturing light and shade.

‘People, places and animals were also prominent in his work. His illustrations of dogs and horses were incredible and he captured their expressions and stances beautifully,’ Perry adds.

In 1883, Thomson went to London in search of fame and fortune, with fellow Coleraine artist AD McCormick. During his illustrious career, Thomson worked for Macmillan & Co and Hyndman publishers and fronted illustrations for a number of leading literary figures, including Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and even put his hand to a number of new Shakepeare editions. The inspirations for his illustrations in Austen’s Emma and Sense and Sensibility were apparently drawn from his wife, Catherine. 

‘It is believed he used his wife as a model, and the family say there is a resemblance to family figures drawn in books,' reveals Perry. 'When preparing a watercolour he would sketch real people and places and then paint from it. His attention to detail was fantastic and he captured expressions really well.'

After the First World War, commissions for illustrations started to dry up and in 1920, following an illness, Thomson died in Wandsworth, London. His legacy was kept alive by his charming illustrations for JM Barrie’s play Quality Street, which were until recently used widely on boxes of Quality Street chocolates.

Despite his death, his close connections with Coleraine and Kilrea live on in his work. Among the works exhibited in Coleraine were illustrations inspired by his time in Kilrea, including a number of watercolours of the bridge at Kilrea, which crosses the River Bann and a depiction of some local fields.