Saturday, September 16, 2017

T W Holmes

Robert J. Kirkpatrick

T.W. Holmes was a prolific illustrator of boys’ story papers between the late 1890s and his death in 1929. He also illustrated a handful of books, with his speciality being transport. However, he should, perhaps, be best-remembered as a pioneering illustrator for the blind.

He was born in Newcastle in 1872, and christened Thomas William Holmes, the first of five children of William and Elizabeth Holmes. William, born in Yorkshire in 1848, had a varied career, including spells as a commercial traveller, auctioneer and grocer. His other children were Robert (born 1874), Alfred (1879), Harriet (1881), and Frederick (1883 – he also became an artist). In around 1881 the family moved to Leeds, where Holmes was educated at St. Mark’s School, Woodhouse. When he left, in 1887, he became an assistant in a Leeds chemist’s. However, his ambition was to become an artist – he had already shown an aptitude at St. mark’s – and he therefore left his job and enrolled as a full-time student at the Leeds School of Art. Within a year he had won a Silver Medal for Design in the annual competition run by the South Kensington School of Art, followed by a Bronze medal a year later. He subsequently obtained an Art Class teacher’s Certificate, and in 1889 he was taken on by the Leeds School of Art as a teacher of Elementary and Advanced Perspective.

Whilst working as a teacher, he began a second career as an illustrator. By 1893 he had given up teaching and was working in Leeds as a full-time artist, at 53 & 54 Prudential Buildings, Park Row (whilst living at 30 Norwood Terrace, Headingley). Most of his work was black and white line drawings for the cheap periodical press  –  amongst his earliest work were drawings and cartoons in the boys’ story paper Chums.

In 1894 he moved from Leeds to Shepperton, Middlesex. On 20 April 1897 he married Martha Alice Leggott (born in Bootle, Lancashire, in 1873, the daughter of William Leggott, an auctioneer) at St. Nicholas’s Church, Haxey, Lincolnshire (where she had been living with her family for many years). The couple subsequently lived at 14 Laleham Road, Shepperton (1901 census).

In January 1895 he drew the cover for the first number of The Boys’ Friend, published by Alfred Harmsworth, and he went on to illustrate numerous stories in that paper until 1922. He also worked on several other boys’ story papers published by Harmsworth (later the Amalgamated Press), including The Boys’ Herald, The Boys’ Realm, Cheer Boys Cheer, The Champion and The Union Jack, for which he illustrated many of the early Sexton Blake stories. He was also closely associated with the author Henry St. John, for whom he illustrated his “St. Basil” stories. He also supplied the covers for several issues of The Boys’ Friend Library.

Between 1904 and 1924 he provided illustrations for Chums, published by Cassell & Co., and he also supplied pictures for C. Arthur Pearson’s The Boys’ Leader, Big Budget and Scout, and for Andrew Melrose’s Young England.

In the meantime, after the outbreak of the First World War, Holmes had been asked to produce a war map for Progress, a Braille magazine published by the National Institute for the Blind. He immediately recognized an unfilled need, that of illustrations for blind readers. He taught himself to read Braille, and he also took a course in metal work and embossing at a West London Workshop. He was subsequently asked by the President of the National Institute, Sir Arthur Pearson, to take charge of the illustrations of the Institute’s Braille books.

Much of his work was on maps, plans and diagrams. Amongst the Braille books that Holmes illustrated were editions of The Outline of History by H.G. Wells; Science from an Easy Chair by Edwin Ray Lankester; The Story of the Heavens by Robert S. Ball; A History of Everyday Things in England by Marjorie Quennell; The Conquest of Civilisation by James Henry Breasyed; and English Gothic Architecture by Peter Ditchfield. He also illustrated a series of Swedish school books, on music, history, mechanics, optics, acoustics, magnetism and electricity. As an advocate of Esperanto, he became the honorary illustration editor of the international Esperanto Braille magazine Esperanta Ligilo, published in Stockholm by Harald Thilander, for whom Holmes also illustrated an Esperanto version of what had originally been published in Britain as A Picture Book for the Blind. For many years he was affectionately known as “The Blind Man’s Artist.” His last work was Flags of the Nations, which included diagrams of the flags of all the leading nations, with a brief outline of their history, and with the colours indicated by different arrangements of lines and dots.

In an article in The Beacon (a magazine published by the National Institute for the Blind) in August 1929, a friend described how engaging he was as a conversationalist, albeit with a “quiet, slow speech.” He went on to describe how Holmes once showed him “a pocket sketch book without a single margin free from some face or figure, or wall, or tree, snapped up as he passed by – and kept…..” He went on: “Needless to say, he is entranced by a map. He enters into a map’s spirit. When he was preparing a map to illustrate a Braille edition of Xenophon’s Anabasis, it was not enough for him to copy the printed plan; he himself had to take part in that eventful march of the Ten Thousand, and to know by heart the cities they visited and the deserts and mountains they crossed.”

The article also emphasized the innovative approach Holmes adopted to his work: “He has not merely used the embossed dot of all sizes and variations in grouping; he has brought into his experiments for creating a “Blind Picture gallery” the values of different surfaces, and by doing so has shown the relationship between touch and vision from a new aspect, almost bringing it into the same category as the relationship between taste and smell.”

Holmes also illustrated a handful of books for non-blind readers, the first of which appears to have been Railways, published by Blackie & Son in 1918, for which he supplied 16 colour plates. He went on to provide illustrations for Motor Wonders (T. Nelson & Sons, 1924), The Wonders of Speed (T.C. & E.C. Jackson, 1924 – re-issued by T. Nelson & Sons in 1936), and Mooring by Land, Sea and Air, written by G. Gibbard Jackson and published by T. Nelson & Sons in 1927. He also had illustrations in annuals such as The Boys’ Budget, The Lucky Boys’ Budget and The Boys’ Book of School Stories (all published by Blackie & Son). As far is known, the only novel he illustrated was a re-issue of G.A. Henty’s John Hawke’s Fortune: A Story of Monmouth’s Rebellion, published by Blackie & Son in 1925.

At the time of the 1911 census Holmes and his wife were living at Oxford Villas, Laleham Road, Shepperton. In 1928 his health began to decline, although he carried on working. He died in St. Pancras, London, on 8 September 1929, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Nicholas’s Church, Shepperton. His wife died, at 3 Commercial Road, Staines, on 8 April 1945, and was buried alongside him.

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