A FAMOUS ARTIST ON HIS WORK

A CHAPTER IN AUTOBIOGRAPHY BY HARRISON WEIR

TRANSCRIPT REPRINTED FROM “THE BRITISH WORKMAN” 1901

Editors Note:

This article was written by Harrison Weir, in June 1901, as he refers to his 77th Birthday on the 5th of the previous month. The article gives significant clarity to several events of historical significance during his lifetime, especially with regard to the animal world and his role in some of the publishing trends surrounding it. It also clarifies his significant suffering from various illnesses over the course of his life, and helps to clearly delineate the high moral character and philosophy behind the motives for his actions. It should be noted that this article also pre-dates the completion of his personal Magnum Opus, ‘The Poultry Book’, in 1902.

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A FAMOUS ARTIST ON HIS WORK

When but “mere children” my late and only brother, John Jenner Weir, F.L.S.,F.Z.S., etc.,and myself, were taught by our father to love animals, birds and flowers. He would often draw dogs, cats, pigs, ducks, cocks and hens before us, for our amusement, and so lead us to observe and become familiar with such surroundings. Being, with my mother, on a visit to a farmhouse at Pembury, Kent, on my fifth birthday, I was missed, and found with a pencil and paper busy in trying to draw some of the farm poultry. As portraits they were not good, but they were treasured by my mother for many a year afterwards. That 5th of May is well over seventy-one  years ago and yet it is as fresh in my memory as though it were but yesterday.

From then until now the love of and the entrancing study of Nature in all its varied phases have not only been a pleasure but my chief delight. The woods, with their branch-mingling trees, full of wondrous and many living sounds, the air fragrant with “the breath of flowers,”  the berried hedgerows in winter, and again with their spring adorning; the meadows, meads and fields either clothed in simple verdure or decked in floral beauty bright, new and rare – all have charmed and remain an ever-present heartfelt joy. So, early or late, day in, day out, weeks, months, years, summer and winter, in sunshine or storm, “the country” of my native land has always been to me “a thing of beauty and joy for ever.”

A pastoral scene reminiscent of “the country” that for Harrison was “a thing of beauty and joy for ever.” This image c1862, from “Poetry of the Year,” published by Charles Griffin & Company, illustrates the poem, ” A various group the herds and flocks compose.”


“The Christmas Carol Singer” by Harrison Weir.

Again, it seems “but the other day” that Mr Frederick Smythe, the wood engraver, called on me, then a young fellow “in my teens,”  to say that an illustrated weekly paper was to be brought out, and as I could draw for engraving, would I join it and begin by drawing the fashions. I agreed, and thus became one of the original staff of the Illustrated London News, of which, alas! I am the only survivor.

Some time about “the fifties” I persuaded Mr Herbert Ingram , the proprietor, to purchase the copyright of my robin picture, that was being exhibited at the New Society of Painters in Water Colours (now the Institute) of which I was then a member. It was entitled “A Christmas Carol,” and was to be published as an extra number or supplement . Leighton Brothers chromo-printed it. It sold wonderfully – in fact, far beyond anything anticipated by the most sanguine. This was the beginning of what now are so generally known as “coloured supplements.”

Herein vast progress has been made, high art pictures are bought and printed in close representation of the originals. These, in plenty, have long been brightening the walls of our people’s homes, giving them something pleasant to look at; and when the subjects and the work are good, they elevate the thoughts and are direct helps to happiness and content. A good picture often silently softens sorrow. Art can teach as well as Literature.

Still, in those early days, there seemed a void to be filled in our paper and magazine life, and that was good art and literature for the artisan, his cottage and for his family. This was thought of and supplied by Mr Thomas Bywater Smithies in 1850.


His first venture was the BAND OF HOPE REVIEW, and then followed the far-reaching, good-producing BRITISH WORKMAN. I say, advisedly far-reaching, for  I have had letters praising it from “up the country” colonists in Australia and New Zealand, and a friend coming from the wilds of California told me that he saw a trapper’s shanty with the inside papered over with the animal pictures from the BAND OF HOPE REVIEW and the BRITISH WORKMAN, and the owner said that when he came home tired he forgot all else in “illustration dreaming. ” From the first these two papers were appreciated, and though the struggle for life was severe, it was clear that their ultimate success was assured.

Mr T.B.Smithie’s idea from the first was, that any periodical to do good and be universally approved must be good in itself. So it was that he sought for and endeavoured to obtain the services of some of the best draughtsmen on wood to help forward his project, and ever foremost among them was that grand delineator of humble daily life, the trades, those of the village or the town, the historical, allegorical, and the truthful, John Gilbert. Quick in thought and action, well did he earn the name of “Gilbert the Ready.” His technique was unsurpassed, and it may be said, for gorgeous colour, was unsurpassable. This to Mr T.B.Smithies he was a “tower of strength.”

Then Henry Anelay came from his retirement and in his way told the tales of sense, industry, thrift and sobriety. And many other “good men and true” did their best for the cause that Mr T.B.Smithies held so dear. These “figure men” worked with a zeal worthy of the intention, while to my humble lot fell the picturing of the Animal World, Wild and Domestic. Time sped and success followed success.

In 1860, or thereabouts, in a conversation with Mr T.B.Smithies I said, that although we had a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals it was, in my opinion, not the right way to sure and eradicate the ill-treatment of our animals and birds.

Cover illustration by Harrison Weir of “Duck and Ducklings”, for the May 1st 1866 issue of the “Band of Hope Review.


Nor did their sphere of action extend to the wild, but only the domestic;  and then the punishing after an act might deter to a certain extent, but it did not induce the growth of kindness, gentleness and mercy, and the love for animals. What really was wanted was a children’s magazine, with good pictures and reading about animals and birds. “Teach,” said I, “the love of animals to the young and the S.P.C.A. will have no work to do, because tenderness towards all living things would then grow with increasing years, and a well-tutored life would not only feel so towards our animals but would increase to a higher degree our relations with each other.

So it was that the CHILDREN’S FRIEND became another of Mr T.B.Smithie’s valuable aids for righting wrong. The little work grew rapidly in estimation, was looked for eagerly by “our little ones,” and I now venture to say – and this without any hesitation or fear of contradiction – that there was never any periodical or any book that wrought so much permanent good in humanizing man by love towards animals. From the child to the man or woman grew the delight in animal and bird life.

Hundreds of people have told me that the reading of the CHILDREN’S FRIEND altered the very tenor of their lives and varied happily their daily existence. From this up-growing training of love for animals and birds have come our Dog Shows, our Poultry and Pigeon Shows, and in 1871, from knowing how ill-treated, persecuted and misunderstood the cat then was, I instituted a Cat Show at the Crystal Palace, which is still a well-known success in every way.

And now, I have been asked to say something to my fellow work-men about myself, as to my method of life, my old age, and how such may be obtained, and – What is the secret?  I know of none. Those that live by rule are scarcely better off than others that do not. Of course there are things that conduce to a happy life, but how to prolong it is absolutely beyond our knowledge to compass. The man that has never known a pain “passes” suddenly, and that often at an early age, while the invalid lives on.

Cover illustration by Harrison Weir, entitled: “The Flamborough Pilots,” for the July 1st, 1869 issue of “The British Workman.”


“Touch him if you dare!” An illustration by Harrison Weir, that accompanied the original article.

As regards myself, the 5th of last month (May) was my 77th birthday, and yet few have suffered from illness so much. Twice have I had the small-pox; twice congestion of the lungs; chronic bronchitis for over five years; once scarlet fever; ten weeks in bed with rheumatic fever; three times congestion of the liver; weeks of neuralgia; slight rheumatic gout; whooping cough; influenza, six times, seriously twice;  six weeks laid up from a tricycle accident; one rib broken from falling over a hidden tree stump; knocked down by a cab and the upper part of the left arm-bone fractured, etc, and I am generally in pain, more or less, and have been for nearly 40 years!  So it will be seen that old age is a gift from the Creator and is not attainable by the will of man.

I am a great believer in work. Work done well and with a heartiness and a will is a grand thing for anyone, and is a help to happiness and comfort, if not wealth. If one is in sorrow, let him work. If his heart is in his work, as it should be, all else will be forgotten. Work never hurt a man, given he has food and raiment, with regular times for food to the minute, and regular times for work. Anxiety, worry, trouble, irritability and vexation kill, but work is medicine to the suffering.  I know it.

Often in my younger days I have worked on all through the night, and once for thirty-six hours, staying up but for my regular meals. During the light mornings of last year, I began work at 4am. In winter, I rise at 7.45 am and to bed at 9.30 pm.  Yes, I believe in work. Work well done is a pleasure far beyond the so-called games, and there is something to show for it.

Neither my late brother nor myself ever played games as boys. All our spare time was spent amid country life, and work was our delight. The changing from one kind of thoughtful work to another perhaps a little less so is sweet and most profitable rest. Idleness is neither.


Another thing that may conduce to old age is contentment. The striving for wealth, the hankering after something we have not, simply because others have it, is wearing.  The ruling passion of the world is envy, and out of this comes hatred and malice. Honest, true, good work brings satisfaction and contentment, and is a blessing beyond price. If a man sees a man more prosperous than he is, envy will not help him, but work will; at least there is the possibility; and even if it does not to the extent he hoped, still there is the satisfaction that one has not eaten of the bread of idleness; there is “something  attempted, something done.”

As an artist, I began life early, and though untaught, exhibited my first picture at the British Institution, Pall Mall, in 1845; afterwards at the Institute of Painters in Water Colours, 53, Pall Mall, the Society of British Artists, and the Royal Academy. This was years ago, and though I still paint pictures I have no occasion to exhibit, for the few that I am able to begin and finish even now are eagerly bought. As an artist on wood my work must have exceeded hundreds of thousands, and I am  the author and illustrator  of “Our Cats and all About them,” “Every Day in the Country,” “Animal Stories, Old and New,”  “Bird Stories, Old and New,”  and “The Poetry of Nature” – one and all designed for the purpose of leading our children, and those of larger growth, to the love of natural objects and animal and bird life; and, judging  by the sale, I rest in the hope and belief that to a certain extent  they have realized that intention.

                                                           “A Cool Corner” 

An illustration by Harrison Weir of ducks in quiet repose, that accompanied the original article in the British Workman.


“Cat and her Companions”, from the Nov. 1867 issue of  the “Children’s Friend”. Also published in Mary Howitt’s “Our Four-Footed Friends”.

In business and general daily life I have endeavoured to keep to the one great principle that should help to success, and that is punctuality. Never to promise but with the intention of performing. On my fiftieth birthday  a few friends kindly gave me their presence at dinner, and the late Mr. John Knight speaking at that event said, that “during  all the years that I had worked for the BRITISH WORKMAN, etc., etc., I had never broken my promise as to time of delivery.” I mention this for the reason that nowadays promises are hastily made and also far more seldom fulfilled than they should be. The neglect of this great element of success, in my poor opinion, is a growing evil.

Proverbs, “wise saws, and modern instances” have always had a peculiar charm for me, and many is the time that they have turned my “doings” to a good account. If in haste to conclude a purchase or an agreement, there has been an indescribable something that has said mentally, “Look before you leap.”  So much I am persuaded of the value of proverbial philosophy that I have a large collection,  and these are some of my reasoning guides:-

“Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.”

“How far that little candle throws its beams, so shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

“Enough is as good as a feast.”

“Be temperate in all things.”

“He that hath most, most wanteth.”

“He doth much that doth a thing well.”


“He that would have the fruit, must climb the tree.”

“If a man break his word once, it is once too much.”

“The idle are hard worked.”

“Friends are the nearest relations.”

“Nothing is ours but time.”

And, as final quotation, like the foregoing, all of which I hope my fellow-workmen  will profit by and which, in my case, old age has realized: “Past labour is pleasant.”

P.S. – noting that both animals and birds rest, dose or sleep a short time after feeding, for many years I have done so after my mid-day meal. Besides being a break in the work-time this aids digestion materially and so is helpful. I must also mention that winter or summer I never wear an overcoat, a waistcoat or a necktie, and to this, I believe, I owe my immunity from what are commonly called “colds.”  But I have a horror of draughts, little or great.

HARRISON WEIR