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Dawson, Henry (DNB00)

DAWSON, HENRY (1811–1878), landscape-painter, was born in Waterhouse Lane, Hull, 3 April 1811, during a temporary residence of his parents in that town. The next year they returned to Nottingham, where he lived till he was thirty-three years old. His father had been in good circumstances as a cheesemonger, but had lost his money and his business, and had also fallen into bad habits, so that from the time of his son's birth till his own death his weekly earnings as a flax-dresser amounted to but a few shillings, most of which he spent on himself. Fortunately Dawson's mother was a woman of courage and character, and managed mainly by her own exertions to preserve a home. Her maiden name was Hannah Shardlow, but had been changed by a previous marriage to Hannah Moore before she became Mrs. Dawson. She is said to have been descended from a good family, connected with John Robinson, bishop of London from 1714 to 1723. The circumstances of Dawson's childhood did not permit of much education. After about a year and a half at the national school of Nottingham, he, when between eight and nine years of age, was put to work a wheel at a rope-walk, afterwards he became a ‘twist hand’ at a lace factory, and it was in the manufacture of lace that he was employed till he finally adopted art as a profession in 1835. Just before this determination he had perfected, in concert with a friend, a machine which introduced an important novelty in lace-making, and if their capital had sufficed to bear a longer strain it is probable that the whole course of his life would have been directed in another channel. As it was, they had to give up the struggle to introduce their new product, for which a strong demand sprang up a few months after.

His bent had always been towards art. From his earliest years he had delighted in drawing anything and everything, as he expresses it, ‘from Green's balloon downwards,’ but his favourite subjects seem to have been electioneering processions, ships and boats, and the great sea serpent. He soon, however, found his way to landscape, and he had earned money by his sketches (a hairdresser and picture-dealer named Roberts being one of his earliest patrons and best customers) before he resolved to leave the lace factory. In this resolve he was encouraged by his mother, who had always favoured his artistic tendency, and the result of his first year as an artist, though only amounting to about 40l., was much the same as he had been earning as a ‘hand.’ Among the first to recognise Dawson's genius and to purchase his pictures were William Wild, the keeper of the lock on the Trent, and the Rev. Alfred Padley of Bulwell Hall; and another early encourager who was of great service to him was Mr. F. Cooper, of the Greyhound Inn, Trent Bridge Road, a dealer in old masters, by whose aid he was able to study fine examples of great painters. In 1840 his income reached what to him was the considerable sum of 130l. His position now appeared to him to justify matrimony, and on 16 June 1840 he married Elizabeth Whittle, to whom he had been some time attached. But fortune left off smiling just at this juncture, and his income gradually sank to the level from which it had started in 1835. In February 1844 he lost his mother, and in October of that year, with his wife and two children (Henry and Alfred, both of whom have since made their mark in art and mechanics), he moved to Liverpool. He took a house (19 Ashton Street, Pembroke Place), and settled down with 30l. clear in his pocket. At first he had neither friend nor introduction; but it was not long before he found a purchaser in Mr. Richardson, a picture-dealer, who paid him 12l. for a small forest scene called ‘The Major Oak.’ This picture shows that Dawson was already a powerful painter, an original colorist, and a draughtsman of exceptional skill. After this though his funds were often at a very low ebb, his career in Liverpool was comparatively smooth. Except twelve lessons from W. H. Pyne [q. v.] in 1838, Dawson had never received any instruction in art, but while at Liverpool he studied the figure at the Academy, and from Dr. Rowland, who with his wife were lifelong friends, he learnt something of the chemistry of colours. At Nottingham also he was able to indulge his love for music; he played the violin and managed to found a musical society, which flourished long after he left the north. In 1847 he competed for the decoration of the Houses of Parliament, and sent to Westminster Hall a picture of Charles raising his standard at Nottingham (58 inches by 94 inches). This work, sold to Richardson for forty guineas, fetched 480l. in 1875. Two more children, Hannah and William, were born to him at Liverpool, and his income being still very small, he determined to move nearer London, and took a house at Croydon, where he arrived in January 1850. Here his fortune improved little at first. A large picture sent to the Academy, ‘Sherwood Forest with Cattle,’ one of the finest he ever painted, was skied, to his great disappointment, and though Mr. Padley bought it for 50l., his resources were so reduced by the end of the year that he seriously thought of taking a small-ware shop to increase his income. Before doing so he resolved to consult Mr. Ruskin, who praised his colour, recommended him to study drawing, and encouraged him to follow his profession. Some of Dawson's best pictures, ‘The Rainbow,’ ‘The Rainbow at Sea,’ ‘The “Pool” below London Bridge’ (the first of two pictures of that subject), ‘London at Sunrise,’ ‘Crome Hurst,’ and ‘The Wooden Walls of Old England,’ were painted at Croydon. The last picture, sold in 1853 for 75l., brought 1,400l'. at a sale at Christie's in 1876.

The following extract from his diary in 1850 well shows the scale of his income and his expenditure, and also the temper with which he engaged in the struggle of life: ‘June 8.—This day had more money in my possession than ever I had at one time of my own, namely, 148l. This will enable me, with God's blessing, to stand a twelve months' siege, if I should not sell another picture, and all this good fortune notwithstanding my apparent ill-luck at the Academy. Surely goodness and mercy hath followed me all my days. O God, make me more thankful for these great benefits.’

It was long before he gained any reputation in the south of England. Though well treated at the British Institution his pictures were, with one exception, invariably ill-hung at the Royal Academy, and almost to the last it was the residents of Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, and Nottingham, and not those of London, who bought his pictures. From Croydon Dawson moved to Thorpe, near Chertsey, where he purchased a small house and painted ‘The Houses of Parliament’ and other fine works. After some seven or eight years at Thorpe, he moved to The Grove, Camberwell, for a short time, but his house being required to make room for the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway, he removed to ‘The Cedars,’ Chiswick, where he remained till his death. Though his reputation was rising gradually in the north, his income was never a large one, and the closing of the British Institution in 1867 had a serious effect upon it. For some years afterwards he did not earn his expenses. Among the academicians almost the only ones who recognised his merit were John Phillip and Thomas Creswick. The former proposed, the latter seconded, his name for election as associate. When the day of election came Phillip was dead, Creswick ill and absent, and the only vote recorded in Dawson's favour was that of Richard Ansdell.

At the end of 1871 Dawson had a long and severe illness, which threatened to terminate his career as a painter, and it was just about this time that his works began to rise rapidly in value. Pictures sold originally for 30l. fetched 300l. and 400l., and one, the first price of which was 40l., fetched no less than 650l. In 1874 he sold two pictures (‘Greenwich Hospital,’ painted 1867, and ‘London from Greenwich Hill,’ painted 1869) for 1,750l., and this sale enabled him to purchase ‘The Cedars.’ Commissions at high prices flowed in, and a short period of real prosperity commenced. It was, however, very short, for he died in December 1878. Dawson would probably have never enjoyed even this short period of success if it had not been for the exertions of a friend who for many years had been a strong believer in his genius, and had used his considerable influence to spread Dawson's reputation. This was Mr. James Orrock, R.I., who when resident at Nottingham had seen and admired Dawson's pictures in the house of Mr. Wild, the lock-keeper before mentioned. In 1857 he commenced to purchase ‘Dawsons’ and to recommend others to do so, and when he came to London he formed a friendship with the artist which lasted till the latter's death. It was through Mr. Orrock that Dawson obtained the first high prices for his unsold pictures and received his most important commissions.

Only a few months before his death Dawson's reputation was greatly extended by a collection at the Nottingham Exhibition of 1878 of fifty-seven of his pictures, which exhibited his development almost from first to last, but it was not till the Jubilee Exhibition at Manchester in 1887 that Dawson's place among the greater masters of the English school was fully and publicly recognised. Here he was represented by several of the large pictures of his later years, grand in design and magnificent in colour, by the ‘Greenwich,’ for instance, of 1874, and ‘Wooden Walls,’ a picture of men-of-war of the old type seen against a powerful crimson sunset barred with clouds. It is upon these and other pictures of this class, such as the ‘Houses of Parliament,’ the ‘Custom House,’ and the ‘Durham,’ that his reputation with the public rests, but there are many who prefer the pictures of his earlier time, when Wilson rather than Turner was his guiding genius. These are distinguished by their breadth of style, their forcible but quiet colour, the serenity of their temper, and the solidity of their execution. Dawson was also skilful in the use of water-colours, which he used principally for sketches and studies.

[Bryan's Dict. (Graves); notice by Mr. Watt Webster in Catalogue of Nottingham Exhibition of 1878; diaries and note-books of the late Henry Dawson.]

C. M.