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Hugh Thomson

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Hugh Thomson
Hugh Thomson at his desk
Thomson at his desk, 1912
Born(1860-06-01)1 June 1860
Died7 May 1920(1920-05-07) (aged 59)
MovementCranford School

Hugh Thomson RI (1 June 1860 – 7 May 1920) was an Irish Illustrator born at Coleraine near Derry.[1] He is best known for his pen-and-ink illustrations of works by authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and J. M. Barrie. Thomson inaugurated the Cranford School of illustration with the publication of the 1891 Macmillan reissue of Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford.


Hugh Thomson was born to tea merchant John Thomson (1822–1894) and shopkeeper Catherine (née Andrews) (d. 1871).[2] He was the eldest of their three surviving children. Although he had no formal artistic training, as a young boy he would often fill his schoolbooks with drawings of horses, dogs, and ships.[3] He attended Coleraine Model School, but left at the age of fourteen to work as a clerk at E. Gribbon & Sons, Linen Manufacturers.[4] Several years later his artistic talents were discovered, and in 1877 he was hired by printing and publishing company Marcus Ward & Co.[2]

On 29 December 1884 Thomson married Jessie Naismith Miller in Belfast. Soon afterwards they moved back to London for Thomson's career. They had one son together, John, born in 1886.[2]

In 1911, he and his family moved to Sidcup, hoping to improve their "ever delicate health."[4] Thomson's correspondence reflects the fact that he missed being close to the National Gallery and the museums where he usually compiled research for his illustrations. During World War I, demand for Thomson's work decreased to a few propaganda pamphlets and some commissions from friends. By 1917, Thomson had fallen on financial hardship and he had to take a job with the Board of Trade, where he worked until 1919.[2]

Thomson died of heart disease at his home in Wandsworth Common on 7 May 1920.[2]


At the age of 17, Thomson joined the art department at Marcus Ward & Co. There his mentor was John Vinycomb, head of the art department. Vinycomb and Thomson's cousin, Mrs. William H. Dodd, encouraged his artistic development during the first years of his career.[3]

Thomson's artistic ambitions led him to London in 1883 where he became a leading contributor The English Illustrated Magazine.[5] He first worked for the magazine with Randolph Caldecott on the 1885–86 issue, and later collaborated with Herbert Railton on the 1887–88 issue. His style at the time is said to be in the "straight tradition of Caldecott."[6]

Thomson also gained praise and influenced many young artists through his book illustrations. He notably illustrated editions of William Shakespeare,[7] Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens.[5][8] His illustrations for Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford (1891) inspired a slew of publishers to produce a series of gift books in a similar style ("crown octavo with three edges gilt, bound in dark green cloth, front and spine heavily stamped in gold").[2][9] Between 1886 and 1900, he illustrated a set of small classics for Macmillans and Kegan Paul.[1] Much of his work during that period consisted of elaborately illustrated gift books and reprints of popular classics. Thomson's most popular illustrations were "fine line drawing of rural characters and gentle countrified society."[2]

His works were featured in a number of exhibitions during his lifetime, including an 1899 exhibit at the Birmingham and Midland Institute[3] and a 1910 exhibit of his watercolor drawings for Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor at The Leicester Galleries in London.[note 1] His illustrations were also featured in an 1891 exhibit with fellow illustrator Kate Greenaway at the Fine Art Society.[note 2]


An illustration from Pride and Prejudice.

Thomson is best known for his pen-and-ink illustrations. He prepared most of his work in black and white until the early years of the 20th century, but would sometimes tint pieces for exhibits. The earliest known example of this was for the 1899 Birmingham and Midland Institute exhibition, where he colored the Cranford illustrations he had first drawn eight years earlier. Throughout his career Thomson occasionally dabbled with watercolors, but only used color in his illustrations in response to his publishers' demand.[3] His first book illustrations prepared and printed fully in color were for the last two books in the Cranford series, Scenes of Clerical Life (1906) and Silas Marner (1907).

When working on a new illustration, Thomson would research his subject in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He would often take detailed notes on costumes, furniture, old prints, and architectural records. His attention to detail can be seen in his sketchbooks, which include pages devoted to the changing styles of ladies' bonnets and descriptions of "the details of a cavalry officer's regimentals, together with a series of studies of how such an officer would hold the reins of his mount."[3] When illustrating a series of pieces set in the same location, Thomson would maintain the details of each room, hallway, or facade, drawing them from different angles throughout the publication.

Thomson was often praised for his ability to "project himself into a story."[3] Much of his work has become inseparable from the publications themselves. Such is the case with his illustrations for Pride and Prejudice and the other Austen novels. When J. M. Barrie's Quality Street was published with Thomson's illustrations in 1913, the art critic for the Daily News stated, "The Barrie-Thomson combination is as perfect in its way as that of Gilbert and Sullivan."[3]

Thomson was elected RI, a member of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1897 and retired in 1907.

The Cranford School[edit]

Thomson was the first of the Cranford School of illustrators who abandoned the 1890s style of Beardsley for the delicacy of an eighteenth-century mode.[11] The 'Cranford School' of illustration was not so much a 'school' with a common training, but more of a style which celebrated a sentimental, pre-industrial notion of ‘old England’.[12] The style was named for Thomson's illustrations of the Macmillan reissue of Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford. Cranford was the first of a series of 24 volumes, of which Thomson illustrated 11.[13] Felmingham includes the Cranford School within a broader movement that he called the Wig and Powder School which he states reflected an aspect of contemporary taste that . . . is sometimes called the 'Queen Ann revival'. Felmingham included the popularity of such architectural features as high-pitched roof, Flemish gables, and white or green painted sash windows as an outward expression of the revival.[14] Jenkins states that the term Wig and Powder School is loosely equivalent to the Cranford School and that the latter term was mostly used between 1890 and 1914.[note 3][15]

The style was a nostalgic, affectionate and slightly whimsical approach to historical themes.[16] and was distinguished by graphic nostalgia for a philistinism that was no more.[17] The members of the school had all been fired by the literature, art, costume or atmosphere of England in the eighteenth century and became dealers in nostalgia on a very large scale.[18] It was a style of illustration harking back to pre-industrial rural England,[19] which specialized in the nostalgic recreation of a by-gone golden era before the ravages of industrialization.[20] Cooke notes that the style involved the careful representation of Regency dress and interiors, pastoral settings and sharp characterization which was based on a close reading of the text.[12] The emergence of the Cranford School style was only possible because photo-mechanical reproduction of drawings allowed the fine pen lines distinctive of the school to be reproduced, which was impossible with the older technique of wood engravings.[16]

Thomson was the originator of the school. Other members of the school were:

Thomson's illustration of Cranford[edit]

The following illustrations by Thomson for the 1891 Macmillan Cranford give some flavour of the book that inaugurated the Cranford School. The book has 111 illustrations in total.

Selected works[edit]

Illustration for Pride and Prejudice, 1894

In total, Thomson illustrated sixty-five books and contributed a large number of illustrations to magazines and other periodicals.[3] The following list of publications includes a number of his works.[1][2] External links lead to digitized copies on Internet Archive unless otherwise noted.



  1. ^ A handsome oversized volume with his paintings laid in was produced for the exhibition. See "The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare with Illustrations by Hugh Thomson" (London: William Heinemann, 1910).
  2. ^ Thomson exhibited as follows: 194 works at the Fine Art Society, 181 works at the Leicester Galleries, five works at the London Salon, and 32 works at Walker's Gallery, London.[10]
  3. ^ Jenkins also notes that the school is sometime also called that Queen Anne Revival, a term especially associated with the watercolour work that sometimes accompanied the delicate pen drawings, such as Thomson's colour drawings for the 1898 Cranford, online at the British Library.


  1. ^ a b c Houfe, Simon (1981). The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800–1914. Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club Ltd. p. 479. ISBN 0902028731.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Fitzpatrick, Olivia. "Thomson, Hugh (1860–1920)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Hammond, Lansing V. (April 1951). "Hugh Thomson 1860–1920". The Yale University Library Gazette. 25 (4): 131–138. JSTOR 40858476.
  4. ^ a b Illustrated by Hugh Thomson, 1860–1920. Comp. Olivia Fitzpatrick and Debby Shorley. Belfast: University of Ulster at Belfast, 1989.
  5. ^ a b "Culture Northern Ireland". Archived from the original on 11 December 2013. Retrieved 21 December 2012.
  6. ^ Houfe, Simon (1978). Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800-1914. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors' Club. p. 161. ISBN 0902028731. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  7. ^ See "The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare with Illustrations by Hugh Thomson," (London: William Heinemann, 1910).
  8. ^ "Mount Holyoke Hugh Thompson Collection". Retrieved 21 December 2012.
  9. ^ Ray, Gordon N. (1991). The illustrator and the book in England from 1790 to 1914 ([Facsim. ed.]. ed.). New York: Pierpont Morgan Library in association with Dover. pp. 181–182. ISBN 9780486269559.
  10. ^ Johnson, J.; Greutzner, A. (8 June 1905). The Dictionary of British Artists 1880-1940. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors' Club. p. 500.
  11. ^ Engen, Rodney K. Randolph Caldecott: Lord of the Nursery. London: Oresko Books Ltd.
  12. ^ a b c Cooke, Simon (9 April 2016). "Christiana Mary Demain 'Chris' Hammond (1860–1900), an illustrator of the '90s". The Victorian Web: literature, history, & culture in the age of Victoria. Retrieved 17 June 2020.
  13. ^ Loosey, Devoney (2017). "The Golden Age for Illustrated Austen: From Peacocks to Photoplays". The Making of Jane Austen: With a new Afterword. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  14. ^ Felmingham, Michael (12 May 1988). "Wig and Power School". The Illustrated Gift Book, 1880-1930: with a checklist of 2500 titles. Scholar Press. p. 40. ISBN 978-0859676922.
  15. ^ Greenspan, Ezra; Rose, Jonathan, eds. (1998). "Trilby: Fads, Photographers, and "Over-Perfect Feed"". Book History. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  16. ^ a b c d e Peppin, Bridget; Micklethwait, Lucy (1984). "Hugh Thomson (1860-1920)". Book Illustrators of the Twentieth Century. New York: Arco Publishing Inc. p. 300.
  17. ^ Herbert F. Tucker (2002). "Literal Illustration in Victorian Print". In Richard Maxwell (ed.). The Victorian Illustrated Book. University of Virginia Press. p. 204. ISBN 978-0-8139-2097-9. Retrieved 16 June 2020.
  18. ^ Houfe, Simon (1978). "The Return of the Eighteenth Century". Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800-1914. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors' Club. p. 184. ISBN 0902028731.
  19. ^ Zaidan, Laura M.; Hunt, Caroline C., eds. (1994). "Minor Illustrators". Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 141: British Children's Writers, 1800–1914. Detroit: Gale Research. p. 316.
  20. ^ Blewett, David (1995). The Illustration of Robinson Crusoe: 1719-1920. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe. pp. 151–2. ISBN 0901072672.
  21. ^ Blewett, David (1995). The Illustration of Robinson Crusoe: 1719-1920. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe. p. 151. ISBN 0901072672.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]