Henry Dawson

(3 April 1811 - 13 December 1878)

Landscape painter, was born in Hull, but came with his parents to Nottingham when an infant, so that he always regarded the latter as his native town. His parents were poor, and he began life in a Nottingham lace factory. But even while engaged in lace-making he continued to find time for art, and used to paint small pictures, which he sold at first for about half-a-crown each. In 1835, he gave up the lace trade and set up as an artist, his earliest patron being a hairdresser in Nottingham, wlio possessed a taste for art. In 1844, he removed to Liverpool, where after a time he got into greater repute, and received higher prices for his works. In 1849, he came with his family to London, and settled at Croydon, where some of his best pictures were painted. Among these may be reckoned 'The Wooden Walls of Old England,' exhibited at the British Institution in 1853, 'The Rainbow,' 'The Rainbow at Sea,' 'London Bridge,' and 'London at Sunrise.' With the exception of six lessons from Pyne received in 1838, Henry Dawson was entirely a self-taught artist, and his art shows much originality and careful realism. He studied nature for himself, but he seems in later life to have been moved by Turner's irfluence to try more brilliant effects than he had before dared. Many of his works indeed are very Turneresque in treatment, though he can scarcely be called an imitator of Turner, for he had a distinct style of his own. Henry Dawson, though painting much, and selling his pictures for high prices in his later life, remained, strange to say, very little known except to artists and connoisseurs until the large and very interesting collection of his works that was made for the Nottingham Exhibition in 1878, brought him wider fame. This exhibition showed him to be a genuine English landscape painter, of no great imaginative or inlellectual power, but who delighted in nature, and represented her faithfully to the best of his ability. He died in December, 1878, at Chiswick, where he had for some time resided. [Bryan's dictionary of painters and engravers, 1903]

His Royal Highness, Edward Albert, Prince of Wales, Reviewing Troops, Dublin 10-May-1865

Henry Dawson, landscape painter, was born on 3 April 1811, in Waterhouse Lane, Hull, the second and only surviving child of William Dawson, cheesemonger and flax dresser, and his second wife, Hannah Moore, née Shardlow. Hull was only a temporary residence, and the year after he was born his parents moved back to Nottingham, where he spent the first half of his life. His father took to drink, and the burden of keeping the household together fell on his mother. Dawson had no formal education -- apart from a year and a half at the national school in Nottingham -- and at the age of eight was sent out to work, at first in a rope-walk and then in a lace manufactory. He was drawn to painting early but could only practise it in what little spare time he had. In 1835, he took the risk of abandoning the lace industry to become a professional artist. His formal training as a painter was limited to twelve lessons from J. B. Pyne in June 1838; nevertheless, he enjoyed some early success in Nottingham and began to exhibit landscapes in London, at the Royal Academy from 1838 and the British Institution from 1841.

The market for landscape painting in Nottingham proved to be very limited, however, and by the early 1840s Dawson's income had fallen drastically. He had married Elizabeth Whittle on 16 June 1840, and they had already begun a family; the decline of his prospects in Nottingham, together with the death of his mother, determined him in October 1844, to take another gamble and move to Liverpool in the hope of finding a more lucrative market there. He began to exhibit at the Liverpool Academy, becoming an associate in 1846, and a full member the following year. In 1847, he felt confident enough to compete for the decoration of the new houses of parliament, sending in his most ambitious composition to date, 'Charles I. Raising his Standard, 24 August 1642', (Castle Museum, Nottingham); his entry was not successful, though the painting was sold privately and remains one of his best-known pictures. It was during his Liverpool period that he first began to paint the marine subjects which would become a staple of his repertory.

At the beginning of 1850, Dawson moved south in the hope of establishing his reputation in the London art world. He lived at Croydon until late 1853, at Thorpe Green, near Chertsey, until 1861, and then briefly at Camberwell in London before moving in 1862, to Chiswick, where he lived until his death. At first success still eluded him. He reached a crisis in 1851, when he contemplated giving up art and setting up as a shopkeeper; he sought John Ruskin's advice and received sufficient encouragement to persevere. His work continued to appeal mainly to provincial patrons, and although he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, he complained that the hanging committees never did justice to his pictures. In 1868, he was nominated for election as an ARA but only received one vote. He fared much better at the British Institution, where he showed a series of key pictures -- 'The Wooden Walls of England' (exh. 1854; smaller version 1856, City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), 'British Bulwarks' (exh. 1856), and 'The New Houses of Parliament, Westminster' (1858, priv. coll.) -- and he was certainly hurt by the closure of the institution in 1867. In the 1870s his prices rose sharply and he enjoyed a few years of financial security, though his health had deteriorated by this period. In July 1878, he was honoured by a retrospective exhibition of fifty-seven of his paintings to mark the opening of the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

Dawson's early paintings were in a conservative idiom, much indebted to Richard Wilson. Later, Turner became the dominant influence: some critics considered Dawson one of the main contenders for Turner's mantle after the latter's death in 1851. The work of his middle and later years combines conventional subject matter with often elaborate composition and shows a preference for patriotic or emblematically English motifs and complicated skies. Dawson was always a 'loving admirer of [his] own work'; surveying his retrospective exhibition in 1878, he wrote 'My pictures delighted me; they are a grand show -- kings in art. I don't think the work of any landscape painter living or dead could be put in competition with them' (Dawson, 119). His reputation has always lagged behind this glowing self-estimation. Henry Dawson died on 13 December 1878, at his home, The Cedars, Chiswick, and was buried in Brompton cemetery, London. His wife survived him.

The main sources of information on Dawson are the letters and reminiscences which were included in the Life, published by his son Alfred in 1891; they reveal a man whose unswerving self-belief sustained him in the face of innumerable discouragements. His mixed fortunes did not deter his two eldest sons, Henry Thomas Dawson and Alfred Dawson, from following in his footsteps as artists. A third son, Charles Ernest, was the father of the marine painter Montague Dawson. (Henry Dawson had seven children altogether, though two of them died young.) His paintings are in the collections of Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery; the Usher Art Gallery, Lincoln; the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull; and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

[The Life of Henry Dawson, landscape painter (1891); The Liverpool School of Painters: an account of the Liverpool Academy from 1810 to 1867, with memoirs of the principal artists (1904), B. Webber, James Orrock: painter, connoisseur, collector (1903); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; CGPLA (Calendars of the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration) England. & Wales (1879)]

The Dawson Family of Painters