Edward Killingworth Johnson was a Victorian wood engraver, illustrator, watercolourist and painter in oils, specialising in rural genre scenes. He gained much success during the 1860s as a regular contributor to The Illustrated London News and latterly The Graphic. He exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Society of Painters in Water Colours and throughout his life received much recognition in both his native England and in America with works such as Tuning Up and The Rival Florists.
Edward Killingworth Johnson was born in Stratford-Le-Bow, Essex, on 30 May 1825, to Richard Johnson, an Irish-born merchant, and his wife, Mary (née Meadows). He was born into an artistic family, his uncles being the marine artist, James Meadows, and the illustrator, John Masey Wright. The youngest of six surviving children, he was Richard and Mary’s only son to live to adulthood. During his early life, his family was based in London, but moved frequently. In 1832, Richard returned from a voyage to find that his wife, Mary, had tragically died of cholera, and he removed his young family to the ancestral seat of Baker’s Farm, Sible Hedingham, Essex. Three years later, Edward and his five siblings were orphaned when their father died.
At the age of ten, Johnson was then apprenticed to the wood engraver, John Orrin Smith. In 1841, the fifteen-year-old Johnson was living at Surbiton Common with his sisters, Jesse and Emma, which suggests that the apprenticeship had begun informally. In 1842, Smith went into partnership with William James Linton, and when Smith died in 1843, Johnson was employed by Linton.
As he wrote in his unpublished autobiographical notes, ‘I was employed at drawing on wood at £2 a week’. During this time, Linton moved to No 85 Hatton Garden, and this studio-cum-home would become a well-renowned base for his successful firm.
In 1842, Smith and Linton had been commissioned to produce engravings for TheIllustrated London News, which had been established earlier that year. The publication’s circulation grew steadily during the following decades, and Johnson, alongside other apprentices at the Linton firm became set for success. Moreover, engraving works by the great watercolourists of the day is likely to have had a strong influence on Johnson’s later work in the same medium. Though known as a self-taught artist, Johnson supplemented his seven-year apprenticeship by attending evening life drawing classes at the Langham Life School, an academy affiliated to the Artists’ Society of Langham Chambers, an earlier evolution of the present London Sketch Club. He wrote in his autobiographical notes: ‘I was pretty industrious and managed to get on with my drawing pretty well. I gained the Langham and studied from life in the evenings.’ He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1846 with a picture titled Afternoon.
In 1851, Johnson was living in Camden and in the census for that year, was described as an ‘artist and sculptor’. Not only did he continue to contribute to The Illustrated London News but also exhibited a ‘felt hat’ at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Johnson’s hat design was manufactured by William Mason, a Newcastle felt manufacturer, and is listed in the official descriptive and illustrated catalogue for the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’, in 1851, as ‘designed by Mr Killingworth Johnson, registered as the “Raphael”’. Around this time, a public enthusiasm and curiosity about photography began to grow and extended to Johnson and his artistic circle, which included his contemporary, Charles Keene and notably, his niece, Mary Ellen Edwards (1838-1934), a talented emerging illustrator. Alongside his niece, Johnson was an early contributor to The Graphic (founded in 1869)and was also employed on staff at London Society, a new fashionable literary magazine.
By the 1860s, and during a period that has become known as a 'Golden Age of Illustration’, Johnson had established a reputation as an engraver, illustrator and painter. He was elected an Associate of the Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1866, where he exhibited 176 works throughout his lifetime. The first picture that Johnson exhibited at the Society in 1866, Tuning Up, received particular praise from The Times critic: ‘his heads show a sense of character, his young ladies are graceful and maidenly, and, though his work as yet fails to satisfy, it gives excellent promise.’
The following decade proved to be one of change and success for Johnson. In 1871, he married Hannah Reynolds in Hampstead. Though little is known of how they met, they removed immediately to his ancestral home of Baker’s Farm, Essex, where their first child was born in 1872. Johnson’s enthusiasm for photography can be seen during this period, in portraits of his young wife, Hannah, in their rural garden.
Professionally, Johnson steadily gained success and recognition, being well received in America, where one critic wrote in TheNew York Times on 16 February 1873, ‘We can characterize “The Rival Florists” as one of the most remarkable pictures of its kind ever brought to this country.’ Domestically, his success continued to build. Importantly for Johnson, in 1876, the celebrated watercolourist, Myles Birket Foster, purchased The Anxious Mother when it was exhibited at the Society of Painters in Water Colours, and in 1878 he was elected a full member.
In the 1881 census, Edward Killingworth Johnson is recorded as a visitor at the house of Mr & Mrs John C Staples, in Hove, Sussex, and all three are listed as artists. John Staples was the husband of Mary Ellen Edwards, suggesting that Johnson remained close personally and professionally to his niece throughout his life. Johnson continued to be a popular contributor to The Graphic where, following his move to Essex, his pen name was ‘Our Country Artist’. His family home, Baker’s Farm, and his wife and three children provided constant inspiration and often featured in his work.
Towards the latter part of his career, Johnson remained sought after as an illustrator and engraver. He was employed to draw illustrations on the wood for the Cundall Edition of Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1887),and two works byF E Weatherly: Sunbeams (1888) and Sunlight and Song (1892).
Edward Killingworth Johnson died in Halstead, Essex, on 7 April 1896, and is buried in Sible Hedingham churchyard. He was survived by his wife, Hannah and three children, Giles Alington, Barbara and Richard. Following his burial on 11 April 1896, the local newspaper wrote: ‘His genial and kindly disposition had won for him the esteem of a large circle of friends by whom his death will be much regretted.’
This biography owes much to the research of Alan Hart on The Meadows Family Tree, as seen online.