Henry Tonks has a special place in the history of twentieth-century British art. Having established himself as a surgeon in the late 1880s, he made great use of his expert knowledge of anatomy in his progression as a draughtsman-painter (and occasional caricaturist). It informed his figure compositions, which synthesised elements of the Rococo, Impressionism and English illustration of the 1860s to distinctively satisfying ends. It also underpinned his almost legendary approach to teaching at the Slade School of Fine Art, when he became assistant to his friend and mentor, Professor Fred Brown, in 1893, and Professor himself, in 1918. He encouraged some of the most talented young artists in the country to use drawing – from the antique, from prints and from life – as the basis for individual development.
At the same time, he discouraged them from visiting exhibitions of the avant-garde or engaging with the aesthetic values of its champion, Roger Fry – instead encouraging them to join the Impressionist stronghold that was the New English Art Club. His combination of qualities also made him almost uniquely placed, during the First World War, to record Harold Gillies’ pioneering work in reconstructive surgery.
Henry Tonks was born in Solihull, Warwickshire, on 9 April 1862, the fifth of eleven children of Edmund Tonks, a former barrister and 186 the owner of a well-established brass foundry in Birmingham, and his wife, Julia (née Johnson). Soon after he was born, the family moved a few miles south to Packwood Grange, a newly-built home in Knowle.
Tonks was educated at All Saints’ School, Bloxham, Oxfordshire (where he was first inspired to paint), and then, from 1877, at Clifton College, Bristol (‘where he declared that except chemistry he learnt little or nothing’, according to The Slade, London: Printed by R Clay & Sons, 1907).
In 1880, Tonks began to study medicine at Sussex County Hospital, Brighton, while lodging at 16 Great College Street. During his time there, he was encouraged by a fellow student to develop his interest in art, and he even attempted to sell some of his drawings at a shop, though without success, before briefly attending the local school of art. A year later, he moved to London, to continue his studies at London Hospital Medical College, Whitechapel. In 1886, he became a member of the Royal Society of Surgeons and was appointed House Physician at London Hospital. A year later, he filled the post of House-surgeon to Sir Frederick Treves at London Hospital. Then, in 1888, he attained his Fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons and was appointed Senior Medical Officer at the Royal Free Hospital, in Gray’s Inn Road.
In his spare time, Tonks had been making frequent visits to the National Gallery, and, in 1886, had become well acquainted with the collection at Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, during a trip to Germany to learn the language. As a result, he decided to study painting in his spare time and, on the recommendation of a young acquaintance of a paternal uncle, took classes run by Fred Brown, the headmaster of Westminster School of Art. Brown had studied in Paris, and based his teaching on the model of the French atelier, so he introduced Tonks both to Impressionist handling and working from the life model. In 1891, Tonks exhibited for the first time – at the New English Art Club, which Brown had helped found, on progressive principles, five years earlier. Tonks would become a member of the NEAC in 1895, and continued to exhibit there regularly.
In 1892, Tonks took up the positions of Demonstrator in Anatomy and Curator of the Museum, both at London Hospital Medical School, in order to increase the time in which he could paint. Then, in 1893, he turned to art full-time, and was appointed Assistant Professor at the Slade School of Fine Art by Fred Brown, who had been appointed Slade Professor a year earlier. This demonstrated both Tonks’ rapid development as an artist and the close bond of the two men. (They were joined by Wilson Steer NEAC, as a teacher of painting, and C Koe Child, from Westminster, as secretary.) It also marked the beginning of a heyday at the Slade, including what Tonks would describe as the first of two ‘crises of brilliance’, which saw the emergence of such star students as Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore, Gwen and Augustus John, Ambrose McEvoy and William Orpen, all of whom would be showcased at the NEAC.
In about 1894, Tonks moved from Holborn to Chelsea, and for the next two decades lived in a number of different addresses in the area, which was closely associated with artists. He also travelled widely, making sketching trips that included one to Honfleur in 1904, with the painter and critic, D S MacColl, and another to Italy in 1907 (exhibiting the resulting watercolours at the NEAC). His first solo show, held at the Carfax Gallery in 1905, helped confirm his standing as an artist, while a second ‘crisis of brilliance’ at the Slade, in the years 1908-14, reflected his strong influence as a teacher. That crisis was characterised by the presence and achievement of David Bomberg, Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson and Stanley Spencer. In 1910, he published, jointly with George Clausen, a report for educators entitled Elementary Propositions in Painting and Drawing, which proffered the fruits of his teaching. In the same year, he finally settled at 1 The Vale, Chelsea, which would remain his home for the rest of his life.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, Tonks returned to medicine. He worked first with war prisoners at a camp hospital in Dorchester, and then at the officers’ hospital at Hill Hall, Essex (where he made drawings of Auguste Rodin and his wife, who were friends of the owner, and staying as refugees). By January 1915, he was in the Haut-Marne, working as an orderly, and later in the year moved to Italy to join a British ambulance unit that had been organised by the historian, G M Trevelyan. In 1916, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and worked with Harold Gillies, a pioneer in plastic surgery, at The Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup. There he made a series of pastel drawings that compared portraits of wounded soldiers before and after surgery. These would be published in 1930, in Gillies’ book, Plastic Surgery of the Face (and are now in the collections of the Army Dental Museum, Aldershot, Surrey).
In 1918, Tonks was appointed an official war artist, and returned to France with John Singer Sargent. As a result of the trip, he produced Advanced Clearing Station in France: 1918 (Imperial War Museums), which was exhibited in ‘The Nation’s War Paintings and Other Records’ held at the Royal Academy in 1919. In that year, he went to Archangel in Russia with the British expeditionary force.
When Fred Brown retired as Slade Professor in 1917, he offered the position to Tonks. Tonks suggested that Steer would be a stronger choice as the better painter, but, when Steer declined it, he accepted, and so consolidated his status as a great teacher. It might be suggested that he nurtured at least two further ‘crises of brilliance’, the first including Winifred Knights, Thomas Monnington, Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler in the years 1918-22, and the second, in the years 1926-29, including Tristram Hillier and William Coldstream (who would himself become Slade Professor in 1949). In 1922, he produced a mural showing the four founders of university College London, of which the Slade School is a department. In the summer of 1928, he spent five weeks in the company of A H Gerrard, head of sculpture at the Slade, travelling to countries he had not previously visited: Sweden, Denmark Holland and Belgium. Just before retiring his Professorship in 1930, he published an account of his early development, ‘Notes from “Wander-Years”’, in the Winter 1929 issue of Artwork, the quarterly edited by his friend, D S MacColl. On his retirement, he was offered a knighthood but declined. A year later, he exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts for his one and only time; the work, Spring Days, was purchased under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest and entered the collection of the Tate Gallery.
Following his retirement from the Slade, Tonks continued to defend his traditional principles of observation and craftsmanship against avant-garde developments – through his own practice as a painter and his critique of others. He focussed his attacks on Roger Fry, who had curated the key Post-Impressionist exhibitions at the Grafton Gallery in 1910 and 1912, while he was Lecturer in Art History at the Slade. Between 1932 and 1934, Tonks wrote three letters to The Times that were critical of Fry’s skills of conservation (of the Mantegna murals at Hampton Court) and connoisseurship (in attributing a portrait of Henry VIII to Hans Holbein the younger).
In 1936, a retrospective exhibition of Tonks’s work was held at the Tate Gallery. He was only the second living artist to be so honoured, the first having been his friend, Wilson Steer, in 1929. Tonks died at home in Chelsea, London, on 8 January 1937. A memorial exhibition of his paintings, watercolours and pastels was held at Barbizon House in the June of the same year.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the Imperial War Museums, Tate and the UCL Art Museum; Army Dental Museum (Aldershot) and Birmingham Museums Trust; and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney).
Further reading: Joseph Hone, The Life of Henry Tonks, London: Heineman, 1939; Justine Hopkins, ‘Tonks, Henry (b Solihull, April 9, 1862; d London, Jan 8, 1937)’, Grove Art Online, 2003, https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T085583; Lynda Morris, ‘Tonks, Henry (1862–1937)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford university Press, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36535