Friday, 27 July 2007

Life and times of a comic genius

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in passing about eccentric Edwardian artist Harry B. Neilson (pictured right) – the man who painted those charming watercolours of foxes dressed as huntsmen riding foxhounds. As far as I was concerned, the artist was something of an unknown.

I said I intended to learn more about him and added that I would appreciate hearing from any reader who could help me give Harry his rightful place in the roll call of gifted local artists whose lives and work should be memorialised. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by the response.

So, I feel I owe it both to the several readers who responded and to Harry himself to pass on the knowledge passed to me. I do so in the hope that Harry's pictures will receive a wider recognition among collectors and who knows, possibly cause more of his work to be unearthed which might otherwise be left lying unidentified, unknown and unloved.

I owe the biggest debt of gratitude to Mr G.H. of Birkenhead, who was kind enough to send at his own expense a copy of "A Record of the Neilson Family", compiled by Geoff W. Neilson a family member now living in New Zealand. The large format illustrated book gives a history of the Neilson clan from the 16th to the 21st century.

Our interest, though, is in Harry, who was one of the leading comic illustrators of his day, illustrating various books as well as producing posters and postcards with a particularly fine series of comic animal sketches. He also contributed to the Savoy, Dainty and Premier series of picture postcards and told his own story in his book "Auld Lang Syne" published in 1935.

In the book Harry writes: "I was born in the year 1861, at number 39, Westbourne Road, Birkenhead. The house was pleasantly situated amid green fields which extended into the suburb of Claughton.

"Some water-logged old clay pits afforded free bathing in the summer to many naked little urchins. Small thatched cottages, with white-washed walls, little gardens, and all with pig sties, were dotted here and there, and were said to have originally possessed 'squatters' rights' and so paid no rent, rates, or taxes!

"My father still wore half-Wellington top boots and the old fashioned stocks. The ladies wore poke bonnets, crinolines, Paisley shawls, and many-flounced, voluminous skirts, while young men of fashion affected peg-top trousers, little pork-pie hats with fluttering ribbons, and Dundreary whiskers! Policemen still wore top hats. Croquet was practically the only outdoor game played by ladies.

"In the year 1863 my parents moved with their family of children to the new house my father had built in Forest Road, Calughton, a suburb of Birkenhead. He bought the land, which was covered with fir trees, and one acre in extent, for 3s 6d per square yard! The house was called "Airliewood", a name well chosen, as was that of the road which it faced, for all around us stretched forest land composed mostly of Scotch firs."

Harry was born Henry Bingham Neilson in 1861, the eighth child of Andrew and Isabel Neilson. He completed an engineer's apprenticeship with Laird Brothers, Liverpool, starting in 1879 and finishing in 1884. He worked on board the S. S. Noordland, as an electrician, on voyages across the Atlantic, between the years 1884 to 1886.

In 1887, he went to the Behar Province in India to work on an indigo plantation managed by his cousin. Whilst in India, Harry became a trooper with the Behar Light Horse Regiment.

In 1903, he was back in England and moved to "Meadowbank", 36 School Lane, Bidston Village, where he lived with his sister, Louisa. There he continued his artistic work, illustrating at least 21 children's books, many betraying animals with "human feelings and attributes". He also sketched Christmas cards and developed a keen interest in amateur horse keeping, a subject which was to feature in some of his sketches. He remained at Meadowbank until his death in 1941.

Another transcript reprinted in the Neilson family record is a note written by Harry, expounding the conflict between motor transport and horse transport.
The note was "Dedicated to all lovers of a good nag" and his horse, Isabel, is herself immortalised by several references and sketches in Harry's book Auld Lang Syne.

It reads: "In these fast-moving days of motor transport, where in most parts of the country it has become impossible to either ride or drive a pleasure horse, with any sense of security or comfort, it occurred to my mind that it might be of interest to horse lovers, if one of themselves were to present with pen & pencil, his experiences of horse keeping, as a hobby in a small way, between the years 1907 & 1927.

"When at the earlier of this period it was possible to enjoy country rides & drives with a degree of comfort, this will probably never occur again, especially by those who would keep a horse or pony for the mere joy of it; and this I have endeavoured to show in the following pages. I was my own Stable man groom. In fact everything in one, regarding the keeping, riding & driving of one of the most delightful & lovable little nags that ever wore a saddle or looked through collar, and her name was Isabel."

Another sketch shows Bidston Church in about 1885 and in writing about some of the parishioners Harry says that "if the sermon happened to be drawn-out to much longer than the usual length, Mr Clover would draw his watch chain sharply between a finger and his signet ring, producing a distinctly rasping sound, which never failed to bring the discourse to the finish"!

Auld Lang Syne was published by Willmer Brothers and in his book, Geoff Neilson recounts how he met Mr Wrayford Willmer who vividly remembered the day this "persistent, eccentric little man" arrived at his office with a sheaf of papers and asked that they print and bind them as a book.

Their first reaction was to have nothing to do with it as bookbinding abd printing was not their trade. However, they eventually agreed to do it, originally printing 1,000 copies but binding only 500 which sold very slowly. The original price was 10 shillings and 6 pence.

The remainder sat on Willmer Brothers shelves for many years until such time as there was some community function in Bidston that created an interest in the records that Harry had put together and the rest of the copies went almost overnight.

On searching the Internet, Geoff Neilson discovered that the original manuscript of Auld Lang Syne was offered by Dominic Winter Book Auctions on July 24, 2002, the first two volumes in typescript, the third in a neat, legible hand with numerous illustrations in black ink, pasted at appropriate positions through the work.

It was offered together with a first edition of the printed book signed by Neilson on the inside front cover. The lot was estimated at £700-1,000 but appeared not to have sold. It is interesting to speculate where the material is today and what it would be worth!

Geoff Neilson also discovered that a collection of 325 items of original drawings, watercolour paintings and manuscripts by Harry are held in "2 oversize boxes" at the Manuscripts Division, UCLA Library,, Charles E. Young Research Library, in Los Angeles.

Auld Lang Syne was reprinted in a small limited edition by Birkenhead Library in 1996 and several readers contacted me to say they were lucky enough to own a copy. Sadly, I do not!

Harry Neilson’s animal magic

Harry Neilson's ability to put animals in human poses and situations was uncanny. This, coupled with his skill as a draughtsman, makes his sketches and watercolours both compelling and enduring.

No one is better equipped to explain the phenomenon than Harry himself. The following was probably used as a foreword to one of his children's books. It is headed Canine Characters and reads: "It has been said of (Sir Edwin) Landseer, the great artist, that he introduced a too human expression into his pictures of dogs. Those who thus criticised him I think were mistaken. All lovers of dogs are well aware that their favourites are capable of expressing the apparently human element, and it was this Sir Edwin loved to bring out and portray. How often a look, or a glance from a dog surprises and amuses us by its uncanny resemblance to somebody we know!

"Not only in their expression does this occur, but also in their varied character and appearance. For they not only remind us of certain people but also, sometimes of the professions they follow! It is this, the accompanying sketches are intended to illustrate, and though the dogs are dressed-up, to indicate the parts they play, every care has been taken to preserve their natural expression and character."

Pictures show: Top, Among a cache of original sketches found in Harry’s house and given to Geoff Neilson when he visited from New Zealand were these two sketches, presumably from a children’s book, entitled respectively “Adventure with Gorillas and a Crocodile No.1” and “Adventure with a Rhinoceros No. 2”

Above: The Bulldog Breed – a sketch from one of Harry’s children’s books

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Anonymous john neilson said...

I am currently researching my family tree and would like to know where I can purchase a copy ofGeoff W Neilson,s book. It is not recognised by abe books. Any information would be appreciated.

27 January 2008 at 15:31  
Anonymous Converts to the clan of collectors! | WriteAntiques said...

[...] Jules and Andy, thank you! . Read about Harry Neilson here - perhaps you’ll catch the collecting [...]

15 May 2008 at 09:32  

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