In the late 19th century, Dundee became one of the major art centres of Britain. When the Dundee Graphic Arts Association was founded in 1890, many of Scotland’s most notable artists wrote from Edinburgh or London to express their opinions of the city in the most enthusiastic terms. John Pettie claimed that “Dundee has been and is one of the art centres of the North”, while William Darling McKay proposed it as “perhaps the most vital centre of art appreciation in Scotland.”
At the beginning of the 19th century, Dundee was a small but reasonably prosperous town noted for its shipbuilding and linen production. The rapid development of the jute industry saw the population quadruple and an extraordinary amount of wealth generated for the factory owners, many of whom turned to art collecting as a way of showing off their new-found prosperity. They sought out and befriended leading painters of the day such as William McTaggart and George Paul Chalmers, commissioning them to create pictures for their ever-increasing mansions. But they also began to encourage local talent for the first time.
Before the mid-19th century, even the most talented Dundee artist had to travel to make a living – to Edinburgh and London in the case of the Simson brothers (George, William and David); to Italy and India for George Willison; and to Paris and Rome in the case of John Zephaniah Bell. Writing in 1906, the architect and art collector T S Robertson recalled those painters that stayed in Dundee and tried to make ends meet: “There were three artists in Dundee 50 years ago who were all portrait painters – Harwood, Stewart, and Macgillivray [sic]… Dundee in those days was not able to support three portrait painters, and although Harwood, as far as I know, never painted out of Dundee, the others occasionally had to find employment in neighbouring towns.” Of these three painters, George McGillivray is better known for his topographical paintings; John Stewart is known only through a few surviving medical portraits; but the best-known and most intriguing character is Henry Harwood.
Untitled etching by Henry Harwood (University of Dundee Museum Services)
Born in Ireland in 1803, Harwood was the son of Lieutenant Coleshurst, who had retired from the Royal Navy and married an actress, changing his name to Harwood when he too took to the stage. He died when young Henry was still in infancy and his widow came to Dundee seeking work in the theatre (another increasingly popular profession at the time). Harwood soon earned a reputation as a painter, his first major commission being a monumental frieze for the Shoemakers’ Room in the Trade House, representing the procession of St Crispin (now on permanent display in The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum).
In 1821 he achieved considerable notoriety when he created his best-known work, a caricature of Dundee worthies called The Executive, which was widely reproduced as an engraving. Satirising the town’s most influential men was not an obvious route to success – indeed it had already seen the end of another artist’s career. Robert Mudie came to Dundee in 1808 as drawing master at the Academy. His interest in politics led him to join the Town Council, but when he began writing satirical accounts accusing his fellow councillors of corruption, they took a dim view of his sense of humour and he was forced to resign his post and flee to London (where among other things he became editor of the Sunday Times).
The Executive, engraving after a painting by Henry Harwood (University of Dundee Museum Services)
Unlike Mudie, Harwood seems to have been forgiven, since he later received various commissions by members of the Town Council for more flattering portraits. These included Provosts William Lindsay and Alexander Lawson, and his clients also included the local aristocracy – Lord Kinnaird commissioned him to paint “Whistle o’er the lave o’t”, a humorous scene of a hen-pecked husband. It was later acquired by the dentist Dr John Stewart and was singled out by the Dundee Courier as a particular highlight of his extensive art collection.
Harwood’s early success was not sustained. “His admirers were thus encouraged to expect him to rise to greater eminence than he did,” T S Robertson recalled. Financial problems were not helped by a struggle with alcoholism, and he died “in straitened circumstances” in 1868. Robertson felt that his ultimate failure was caused by “his not being able to come into contact with associates at least as capable as himself.” But, as was later reported in the City Echo, “several of those who appreciated his genius erected a memorial over his grave in the Eastern Cemetery. The [site] is enclosed with a railing – a portion … having been set aside as a burying ground for artists who may die in Dundee, having neither friends nor relatives to afford them a last resting-place.”
This magnanimous scheme was led by Robert Cowie, owner of the Theatre Royal in Castle Street. Cowie had previously worked as a painter and decorator and was known for his extensive knowledge of art. He had sat for a portrait by Harwood (as had various other theatrical figures in Dundee) and owned several other examples of the artist’s work. A group calling themselves “Robert Cowie Inst. Artists” purchased three lairs in the Eastern Cemetery, Harwood being interred in the first. As it transpired, only one other person was ever buried in one of these lairs – a decorative painter called John P Jerome who died aged 24 in 1873, leaving a widow and child.
Harwood is an interesting example of the precarious nature of the artistic profession, both financially and socially. Although he struggled to maintain respectability during his lifetime, Harwood’s paintings became fashionably collectible in the decades following his death, and many are now in the city’s permanent collection. Later critics did not hesitate to sing his praises – in Dundee Celebrities of the Nineteenth Century, William Norrie described Harwood as “an artist whose presentiments were such as only genius could give.” By the end of the Victorian era, Dundee would be home to dozens of professional artists, working as painters, sculptors, printmakers and newspaper artists. The rapid growth of art education in the city, and the establishment of membership bodies such as the Graphic Arts Association, helped professionalise the art workers of Dundee – but it all came too late for Henry Harwood.
By Matthew Jarron,
Curator of Museum Services,
University of Dundee
Part of this text is drawn from my forthcoming book Independent and Individualist: Art in Dundee 1867-1924 (Dundee: Abertay Historical Society, 2015).
Anon, ‘Dundee Artists’, Celtic Annual 1918-9, pp15-17.
The City Echo May 1908.
Dundee Courier 13/4/1877.
Dundee Courier 8/3/1886.
Dundee Graphic Arts Association Annual Report 1890 (Dundee Central Library, Local History Centre).
A H Millar, ‘Sketch of Art in Dundee in the Nineteenth Century’, Graphic Arts Association Annual Report 1900 (Dundee Central Library, Local History Centre)
A H Millar, Illustrated Catalogue of the Pictures in the Dundee Corporation Collection, Albert Institute and other Departments of the Dundee Public Libraries Committee (Dundee: 1926).
William Norrie, Dundee Celebrities of the Nineteenth Century (Dundee: Wm Norrie, 1873).
T S Robertson, ‘Reminiscences of Old Dundee – Its Fine Art’, Dundee Courier 17/12/1906.
See the Your Paintings website at www.bbc.co.uk/yourpaintings/ for many fine examples of Harwood’s work.