There have been many illustrators of Jane Austen’s works. Some have been more successful than others. My joint favourite, with Joan Hassall who illustrated the complete works for the Folio Society, is Hugh Thompson. I thought you might like to know a little about him, his life and works.

Hugh Thomson was born in Kingsgate Street, Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, shown below, on 1 June 1860

I should like to thank the Ulster History Circle for permission to use these two images, the one below showing in detail the blue plaque they affixed to the building to celebrate Mr Thomson’s life and work.

He was first employed in the Ulster linen industry, for which Coleraine was justly famed, as a clerical worker for E. Gribbon and Son.He was however a keen and very talented amateur artist and as a child was noted by members of his family to have been constantly drawing. In 1877, when he was 16, Hugh Thomson produced an illuminated address for the retiring headmaster of Coleraine Model School, James Bresland, see below:

As a result of its beauty he was offered a job in the firm of Marcus Ward and Co of Belfast who were art printers. His work for the firm was so successful that in 1884 he was offered a job at the English Illustrated Magazine,which was published by Macmillan and Co, and which necessitated him moving to London.

He married-above is a picture of Mr Thomson with his father and son- and became a very succesful illustrator for Macmillan, producing illustrations for the Addison and Steele Spectator papers, Days with Sir Roger de Coverley,  Coaching Days and Coaching Ways, by W. Outram Tristram in 1887-8, published in book form in 1878. His biggest hit was illustrating Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford, and this led to him being asked by a different publisher,George Allen and Co., to produce a series of illustrations for Pride and Prejudice in 1893. As he wrote:

This book I am to get £500 for and a royalty of 7d a copy on every copy sold after 10,000.

Work on Pride and Prejudice began in 1893, and despite a debilitating attack of influenza, the 160 drawings  were completed and then published by October 1894. Mr  Thomson seems to have been a very modest and unassuming man of great charm, as is illustrated by this extract form one of his letters:

I saw in the column ‘Books Received ‘that Alllen has sent forth ‘Pride and Prejudice’…I have given up hope of artistic successes now but feel that at my time of life (thirty-four!) I may count myself lucky if one can do good business. In the ardent hope that the golden shekels may roll in I have found refuge.

It was indeed a hit- 11,605 copies were sold in 1894-5 and by 1907 no fewer than 25,000 copies of this edition had been printed.

In 1895 he was ill yet again,but he was then commissioned by his old firm, Macmillan, to work on the other five of Jane Austen’s novels: Emma (1896), Sense and Sensibility (1896), Mansfield Park (1897), Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1898).

I love the tiny details that Hugh Thompson was able to include in his profuse illustrations for these books. Two of my favourites are below…..The moment when Mrs Elton appears at church in Emma….

And quite possibly my favourite of them all..the moment Mrs Bennet hears from her daughter Elizabeth that she is to marry Mr Darcy. Struck dumb for probably the first time in her life……

she sits, unable to utter a syllable..

From the early 1890s Thomson’s drawings were exhibited on several occasions, beginning with a joint exhibition with Kate Greenaway at the Fine Art Society in 1891. He was able to take advantage of the improvements in publishing technology and  his illustrations for last two volumes in the Cranford series included colour plates, as did many of his later commissions, which included works by Shakespeare, Sheridan, Goldsmith, and Hawthorne, and the popular plays of J. M. Barrie.

J. M. Barrie was a great admirer of Hugh Thomson and his works. Writing to M. H. Spiellman who wrote the memoir of Hugh Thomson, Hugh Thomson: his art, his letters,his humour and his charm, with Walter Jerrold in 1931 he noted:

He was a man who drew affection at first sight, so unworldly , so diffident, you smile over him and love him as if he were one of his own delicious pictures.What the man was came out in his face and in all his attractive ways; it might be said of him that he was himself the best picture he ever made. His heart was the gentlest,the most humourous and so was he….

This observation by Barrie is interesting,because Thomson was said to be the illustrator who revived the humour in Jane Austen’s novels:

I am writing your publisher a testimonial that no sufferer or invalid should neglect a course of Hugh Thompson’s marvellous tonic-the restorative effects on impaired vitality.,etc found in your illustrations to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and no household should be without a case-I mean a bookcase full. You have revivifed(sic)  the gently humourous Jane and given her a new lease of life….

(Letter from Joseph Grego quoted in Hugh Thomson :his art, his letters,his humour and his charm,page 98)

His books had a very special feature: he designed sumptuous covers for them. This is my copy of his Pride and Prejudice (1894) with the famous peacock-tail cover. I’ve had this for years and am frightened to even touch it these days so astronomical is the price it now fetches on the open market….

This is his equally sumptuous cover for Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer

Here are his working sketches for the cover of Sheridan’s School for Scandal, so that you can see how he worked around a continuing theme of  fans….

And here is his finished article. Do note all these illustrations  can be enlarged by clicking on them so you can see all the delicious detail.

Hugh Thomson struggled through the First World War,suffering from il health and decreasing commissions.He eventually died of heart disease in 1920.But he left a vibrant and loved legacy in his illustrations, particularly those he completed for the editions of Jane Austen’s novels.

One of my favourite books is a very tactile edition of Sense and Sensibility published in 1912.

Covered in a sort of suede embellished in gold leaf it is one of my favourite editions of all Jane Austen’s books that I own. Thomson’s illustrations for this book are clever and ingenious. Look at this illustration below, showing how subtle he could be in illustrating this tiny passage from Chapter 1;

….but to his son, and his son’s son, a child of four years old, it was secured, in such a way, as to leave to himself no power of providing for those who were most dear to him, and who most needed a provision, by any charge on the estate, or by any sale of its valuable woods. The whole was tied up for the benefit of this child, who, in occasional visits with his father and mother at Norland, had so far gained on the affections of his uncle, by such attractions as are by no means unusual in children of two or three years old: an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise, as to outweigh all the value of all the attention which, for years, he had received from his niece and her daughters.

Note the reflection in the looking-glass showing Fanny Dashwood coldly and calculatingly watching the Old Gentleman becoming ever more enamoured of her son…hmmmmm…..

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Sense and Sensibility I’m going to post a few of these illustrations each week, putting them in context and hopefully adding some interesting comments to them. I find the art of book illustration absolutely fascinating I wanted to be a book illustrator as a young girl,but then I took a completely different career turn! – and I hope you will enjoy some of these posts in the next few weeks.