Hugh Thomson

Hugh Thomson (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.

Hugh Thomson
Thomson at his desk, 1912
Hugh Thomson

(1860-06-01)1 June 1860
Died7 May 1920(1920-05-07) (aged 59)
Known forBook and periodical illustration


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."[1]

Thomson also gained praise and influenced many young artists through his book illustrations. He notably illustrated editions of William Shakespeare,[6] Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens.[5][7] 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][8] 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.[9] His illustrations were also featured in an 1891 exhibit with fellow illustrator Kate Greenaway at the Fine Art Society.


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]

Selected works

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. Houfe, Simon (1981). The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800–1914. Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club Ltd. ISBN 0902028731.
  2. Fitzpatrick, Olivia. "Thomson, Hugh (1860–1920)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
  3. Hammond, Lansing V. (April 1951). "Hugh Thomson 1860–1920". The Yale University Library Gazette. 25 (4): 131–138. JSTOR 40858476.
  4. Illustrated by Hugh Thomson, 1860–1920. Comp. Olivia Fitzpatrick and Debby Shorley. Belfast: University of Ulster at Belfast, 1989.
  5. "Culture Northern Ireland". Archived from the original on 11 December 2013. Retrieved 21 December 2012.
  6. See "The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare with Illustrations by Hugh Thomson," (London: William Heinemann, 1910).
  7. "Mount Holyoke Hugh Thompson Collection". Retrieved 21 December 2012.
  8. 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.
  9. 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).

Further reading

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