Sunday, June 28, 2009

Frank H. Mason

The Illustrative Art of Frank H. Mason
by Gordon Howsden

During the first half of the 20th century Frank Henry Mason was arguably Britain’s finest marine painter. He was also a highly skilled landscape painter, etcher and poster designer. As so often with artists whose talent encompasses several genres, Mason’s commercial art has received much less attention.

Mason, who was born in Seaton Carew, Co. Durham on 1 October 1875, did not have any formal art training, receiving just a basic school education before spending two years from the age of 12 on the naval training ship HMS Conway. The initial idea of a life at sea gave way to a fascination with engineering and it was whilst employed by Parson’s in Scarborough that his interest in sketching became a passion.

He received some guidance from local Scarborough artists and after successfully selling some of his work Mason decided to give up engineering and become a full time painter. He was aged about 22 at the time. A few years later he made regular trips up the coast and joined the influential Staithes group of artists, of which Laura Knight was a prominent member.

In 1900 he had the first of several paintings accepted by the Royal Academy, and he also exhibited regularly at the Royal Society of British Artists and the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. He was elected a member of the former in 1904 and the latter in 1929.

In the period leading up to the First World War Mason travelled widely and also completed his first illustrations for a book, providing mainly pen and ink studies for Lionel Cust’s Angelo Bastiani - A Story of Modern Venice. Another early venture into book illustration that leant heavily on his trips abroad was A Corner of Spain by Walter Wood. This was published in 1910, the same year that Mason made his debut as an author with The Book of British Ships. The burgeoning postcard industry was happy to make use of some of Mason’s landscapes many of which featured scenes from Scarborough and the North-East coast.

Postcard illustrated by Mason. c.1910

Shortly after war was declared in 1914 Mason was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the RNVR. His initial assignment involved patrolling the North Sea and English Channel followed by a posting to the Mediterranean and Suez Canal zone. Many of the sketches he made whilst on active service were subsequently made up into finished works that were purchased by the Imperial War Museum.

After being demobbed in 1919 Mason resumed his career in Scarborough. In 1912 he had added printmaking to his oil and watercolour work, and as the 1920s progressed he began to make a name for himself as a poster designer. The rationalization of the railway industry in 1923 resulted in the formation of four major companies and the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) were particularly impressed with Mason’s work and signed him up to an exclusive contract covering the period 1927 to 1932. A rather unusual brochure that Mason illustrated for the LNER was clearly designed for issue in North America, as the spelling of the title “Colorful England and Scotland” indicates.

The shipping companies were enjoying a golden period from the mid-1920s and Mason received quite a few commissions from Cunard among others. This work varied from small designs for postcards, various forms of advertising material including menu cards, posters and larger works in both oil and watercolour. Mason also produced a steady stream of magazine and book illustrations ranging from regular contributions to Herbert Strang’s Annual to collaborations with Frank Hendry (Shalimar), of which The Ocean Tramp, published in 1938, contains a number of superb illustrations.

Cunard menu card

This book brought Mason to the attention of tobacco manufacturer John Player & Sons, and in 1938 he was commissioned to prepare the artwork for a series of 25 large cards titled “Sea Tramps and Traders”. Shortly afterwards Player’s put Mason to work on another series, this time for a series of 50 standard sized cards, with the title of “Modern Naval Craft”. With war clouds already hovering, the latter set was given precedence, as was a follow up series of 25 large cards which used much of the artwork for Modern Naval Craft together with eight new paintings.

This latter set was titled “British Naval Craft" and it was issued in cigarette packets in October 1939, some weeks after the war had commenced. This was one of the last cigarette card sets to be issued, as due to paper shortages no new series were issued in Britain after 1939. Sadly, the set of Sea Tramps and Traders was aborted, as was a further commission for a card series based on his 1934 book illustrations for Vanishing Craft. An interesting fact connected with Modern Naval Craft was that albums of the cards were purchased just prior to the war by agents acting on behalf of the German government for issue to U-Boat captains. This was a rather unwanted tribute to the accuracy of Mason’s paintings!

Shortly after the outbreak of war the Government produced recruitment posters for the three armed services and Mason was selected to prepare the Royal Navy design. This showed a capital ship steaming through heavy seas with the caption, “The British Navy guards the freedom of us all”. The not inconsiderable fee of 100 guineas was well deserved. A similar image painted by Mason was used on the front cover of a wartime publicity booklet titled, The Royal Navy Today. Raphael Tuck produced a series of near A-4 sized publications to bolster the war effort and Frank Mason was chosen to illustrate the booklet titled, The Navy’s Here!. The Navy magazine also used Mason’s work both during and after the war and some of these illustrations appeared on postcards published by Salmon.

Mason had moved to London in 1927, residing briefly in West Hampstead and subsequently at 44 Finchley Road, St John’s Wood. In 1942, he moved to his final address, 3 Primrose Hill Studios, Fitzroy Road, Regents Park. Apart from his morale boosting illustrations, Mason also worked with a team of artists designing camouflage for ships. He was always a keen builder of model ships and during the war his hobby was put to good use. In 1945 Mason was 69 years old and it is understandable that after the war his output gradually declined. Nevertheless, he continued his poster work and carried out a number of commissions for shipping lines, particularly F. T. Everard and Sons, and some of his paintings of their fleet appeared on publicity postcards issued by the firm.

Apart from marine and landscape paintings his versatility was emphasized by his illustrations for another Raphael Tuck publication, Our Trains. The same year, 1946, he collaborated with Frank Bowen on Famous Ships, which was published in the Puffin Picture Books Series. The last book to be illustrated by Mason was the 1958 publication The Romance of the Clipper Ships by Basil Lubbock.

Frank Mason died on 24 February 1965 and, rather surprisingly, it was not until 1996 that a posthumous exhibition of his work was held by the Hartlepool Borough Council. A very informative booklet by Edward Yardley was produced to coincide with this exhibition. The books illustrated by Mason and listed below have been compiled from this booklet, the British Museum Library and my own collection.

Books by Frank H. Mason
The Book of British Ships. London, Henry Frowde, 1910; revised, London, Henry Frowde, 1911.
Ashore & Afloat. London, Press Art School, 1929.
A Book of Steamers. Glasgow, Blackie & Son, 1934.
Ship Model Making: The Brig. London, The Studio Ltd., 1935; New York, Studio Publications, 1935.
Famous Ships, with F. C. Bowen. Harmondsworth & New York, Penguin Books (Puffin Picture Books 39), 1946.

Books Illustrated
Angelo Bastiani. A story of modern Venice by Lionel Cust. London, Archibald Constable, 1904.
A Corner of Spain by Walter Wood. London, Eveleigh Nash, 1910.
North Sea Fishers and Fighters by Walter Wood. London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1911.
The Battleship by Walter Wood. London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1912.
Dickens in Yorkshire. Being notes of a journey to the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge by Charles Pascoe, illus. with James Ayton Symington. London, Pitman, 1912.
The Story of Santiago de Compostela by C. Gasquoine Hartley. London, Dent, 1912; New York, Dutton, 1912.
Alice in Holidayland. A paroldy7 in prose, verse and picture by F. W. Martindale, illus. with Noel Pocock. Leeds & London, Chorley & Pickersgill, 1914.
The Port of Hull by Sir John F. Foster, illus. with Charles Dixon. Hull, 1914.
The Diary of a “U”-Boat Commander by Etienne (Sir Stephen King-Hall). London, Hutchinson & Co., 1920.
William Beardmore and Company. Impressions of the works. Glasgow, William Beardmore & Co., 1924.
Cameos of Three Counties, from Humber to Tweed by Dell Leigh. Bungay, Suffolk, Richard Clay & Sons, 1928.
On the Line by Dell Leigh, illus. with Freda Lingstrom. Bungay, Suffolk, Richard Clay & Sons, 1928.
The Land of the Vikings. From Thames to Humber by H. V. Morton. Bungay, Suffolk, Richard Clay & Sons, 1928.
Little Ships by John Scott Hughes. London, Country Life, 1932.
Vanishing Craft, British Coastal Types in the Last Days of Sail by Frank G. G. Carr. London, Country Life, 1934.
The Romance of London’s River by James A. Jones. London, Hutchinson & Co., 1935.
Mauretania. Landfalls and Departures of 25 Years by Humfrey Jordan. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1936.
The Ocean Tramp by Frank C. Hendry. London, Collins, 1938.
Britain Keeps the Seas. Some naval incidents during the first two years of the World War by Captain J. E. A. Whitman. London & New York, Oxford University Press, 1942.
True Tales of Sail and Steam by Shalimar (Frank C. Hendry). London & New York, Oxford University Press, 1943.
The Navy's Here by Captain Bernard Acworth. London, Raphael Tuck & Sons, 1943.
With the Royal Navy by Charles Jarman. London, Raphael Tuck & Sons, 1944.
Our Trains. London, Raphael Tuck & Sons, 1946.
From the Log-Book of Memory by Shalimar (Frank C. Hendry). Edinburgh & London, William Blackwood & Sons, 1950.
The Romance of Clipper Ships by Basil Lubbock. London, Hennel Locke, 1958.

Annuals etc. containing illustrations by Frank H. Mason
Herbert Strang’s Annual. London, Oxford University Press, various editions.
The Big Colour Picture Book, illus. with others. London, Blackie & Son, 1924.
The Wonder Book of… London, Ward Lock, various titles and editions.


  1. Absolutely fascinating, Steve. Many thanks.

  2. I own an original Mason, a signed print of the same and a set of the Modern Waships cigarette cards...but had never linked the lattr with the former. thank you very much.

  3. I own a limited edition print (75, plate destroyed) entitled "East Indiaman Outward Bound Towing Past Greenwich"

    Is this the same artist? If so, is it of any value?

  4. Hi, i'm trying to find who holds the copyright, for one of Franks's WW1 naval watercolours, "fighting trawlers" cric 1915, it wasn't one of the IWM pictures, Hull muesum bought from Sothby's in 1984, My great grandad was sunk on one of the boats, in the picture. And Hull won't release a high res image without copyright premission, any thoughts? peter

  5. Tracking down who owns the copyright on Mason's work is an almost impossible task - I believe they're a good example of "orphan works".

    For the record, Frank Henry Algernon Mason was married in 1899 to Edith Annie Townley Fullam and a daughter, Edith Hillitje Mason, was born later that year. Edith (the mother) died in 1942 and Frank remarried in 1954 to Charlotte Emily Lydia Groves.

    Mason died in 1965, his daughter died unmarried in 1966 and his second wife died in 1967.

    So quite where that leaves the copyright, I've no idea.

  6. i own a original painting by frank h mason
    it called veronica and sara
    it of boats sailing
    dose an one know were i may sell this painting

    1. Tenho duas gravuras assinadas, deste pintor. Qual poderá ser o seu valor? Muito obrigada.
      Maria Reis

    2. Eu não faço ideia. Sou simplesmente um fã de obras de arte, em vez de um negociante de arte.

  7. Lots of news about Exhibitions and a new book about Frank Mason at this link:



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