(3 April 1811 - 13 December 1878)
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.
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)]