Thursday, 22 September 2016

Harold Nelson, designer and illustrator and teacher at Blackheath School of Art

Early last week I was privileged to be able to visit the Art-Workers’ Guild and look through their archival material relating to the illustrator Harold Edward Hughes Nelson. This material helped me learn a bit more about Nelson as sadly his biography has been rather neglected. My interest began with the discovery that Nelson taught at the Blackheath School of Art in the early 1920’s.

Nelson was born on the Isle of Wight and is recorded as having lived in New Cross (1881), Stockwell (1901) and in nearby Catford according to the 1911 census after having grown up in New Cross.[1] Nelson studied at the Lambeth School of Art and the Central School of Art and Design. In 1901 he lived in Stockwell in the borough of Lambeth and was recorded as a Black and White Artist.

He was an established designer and illustrator when he taught at the Blackheath School of Art in the early 1920’s. On page 10 of the 1920 prospectus he is listed as the teacher of Black and White Book Illustration and Decorative Figure Work. The tuition was described as follows –
‘The course of teaching will consist of the treatment of illustration in all its branches in relation to the condition of modern process reproduction, special attention being given to all its methods. Book Illustration will be considered in regard to its place as part of the book and its relation to typography, including also the study of Initial Letters, Borders and Tail-pieces; also Decorative Figure Compositions.’

Nelson was elected as a member of the Art Worker’s Guild on 1 November 1912.[2] The Guild had been founded in 1884 as a place where the fine arts and applied arts could meet and work together on an equal footing. He became a member, having been nominated by Harold Stabler (painter and designer) and Hugh Arnold (stained glass artist), along with Reginald Frampton, a decorative painter, and C.R. Peers, an architect.[3] He had previously been a Junior Member pre-1912; continuing his membership until his death 1948.[4] Nelson produced a number of designs for the Guild including a bookplate depicting the building located at 6 Queen Square, London and also a card showing the location of the Hall. At this time Nelson had a studio at 1 Hare Court, EC4 which is revealed on the reverse of both of the designs which have a book plate initialed ‘HN’, a view of the colonnade of Hare Court and the address.[5] Hare Court housed artist studios in the early 1900’s and artists like Max Gill (brother of Eric) worked there. The architect Edward Prior had his offices at 1 Hare Court until the First World War.[6]

Nelson later became the secretary of the Guild.[7] Harold took his nephew, the portraitist Edmund, to meetings and it was here that they both would have experienced talks by artists such as Arthur Rackham and Sir Edwin Lutyens.[8] A drawing portraying Nelson survives in the collection of the Art Worker’s Guild, executed by Esther Borough Johnson. It depicts an austere gentleman in suit and tie, completed just before his untimely death in February 1948.[9]

Harold Nelson, Frontispiece featuring Self Portrait of the Artist, 1895.

Hans Schäufelein, St Luke; seated behind his desk at left in an interior and writing; the winged ox lying in a doorway at r. Illustration to Johann Schönsperger's New Testament, Augsburg 1523, woodcut, The British Museum.
Nelson's self portrait above is indebted to images like this depicting Saint Luke writing or painting the 'first portrait' of the Virgin and Child.

Nelson’s early designs, dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, harked back to earlier pictures and were influenced by Renaissance prints especially images by Durer. His self portrait, above, which was most likely the frontispiece of Harold Nelson: His Book of Bookplates Consisting of 24 Original Designs owes a debt to Renaissance images of Saint Luke like the one designed by Han Schäufelein in the collection of The British Museum. Another example of his earlier style can be seen in his book plate for Geoffrey Burton, featuring a scholarly figure sat at a desk studying a book recalling images of Saint Jerome in his library by fifteenth and sixteenth century artists like Antonello and Durer. Later works relied more upon his powerful lines rather than shading reflecting the influence of the Art Nouveau style prevalent in the 1910's and 1920’s. The reliance on flourishing lines rather than shading can be seen in the ex libris designs for Jane Nelson, Geoffrey Parkyn and Leopold d’Estreville Lefenestey (all below). Today he is remembered mainly as a designer and illustrator of ex libris book plates. The plates were produced for many individuals including those mentioned above and also organisations which included Saint Andrew’s Church, Carshalton in Surrey. Nelson was also an illustrator of books such as The Talking Beasts, Robin Hood and Udine to name a few.  His design, featuring Saint George and the Dragon, for the £1 stamp for the Postal Union Conference of 1929 is an item that is often cited when his name is mentioned.

Harold Nelson, Geoffrey Burton Ex Libris, collection of the author.
Harold Nelson, Jane Nelson Ex Libris, collection of the author.
Harold Nelson, Geoffrey Parkyn Ex Libris, collection of the author.

Harold Nelson, Leopold d’Estreville Lefenestey Ex Libris, collection of the author.
Lefenestey was a soldier and inventor and his bookplate featured an image of the ideal beauty of a young Victorian woman in a long flowing dress.

Harold Nelson, St Andrew's Church, Carshalton Ex Libris, collection of the author. 
Saint Andrews was demolished in 1964.

Nelson also produced commercial designs for products and companies: including whiskey, soap, Edison phonographs, Selfridges and other consumables.[10] He also produced covers for magazines, sheet music and concert programmes,  and frontis pieces for books including The Hub (a cycling magazine) in 1899, some covers for Cassell and Co. publishers, The Strand Magazine and Sphinx magazine, and various books including some focusing on masterpieces of British Art.[11] Another element of his work that I was not previously aware of are his outline design decorations made for photographs to be inserted. Nelson was definitely adept at developing his technique and design styles to fit new trends.[12] Although he is known mainly for his black and white designs his colour images are incredibly beautiful as can be seen in the image of a ship (inside section) from a Christmas Card design from the early 1920’s below and numerous other Christmas Cards.[13]

Harold Nelson, Christmas Card (detail of inside page), collection of the author.

As always this blog is a work in progress and I will add more information as I find it in the hope that more details on his life may lead to a renewed interest in his work. A few of the appeals that Nelson’s work holds for me are his open acknowledgement of the influence of the Renaissance Print and how accessible his ex libris book plates currently are.

[1] 1881 census shows Harold Nelson living at 85 New Cross Road at age 9 after having been born on the Isle of Wight. In the 1901 census he is listed as living at 110 Grantham Road, Stockwell which means that he moved to Catford later the same year. The 1911 census lists Nelson living with his wife Fanny and two children, Winifred and Harold Ludlow, at 115 Broadfield Road, Catford. His occupation was listed as ‘Artist’. Christmas Cards dated 1901, 1903 and 1906 show his address as 14 Broadfield Road as does his membership entry for the Art Workers’ Guild (other dates) meaning he must have moved sometime after 1906 and before the 1911 census.
[2] Nelson was one of 6 artists who appeared on the ballot paper.
[3] The ballot paper is included in the minute notes for the meeting on 1 November 1912 in front of p. 266. (AWG/1/3/15) The other artists on the ballot who were not elected included: W. Aumonier Jr, a woodcarver, the eminent Australian landscape painter Arthur Streeton and H.G. Webb a wood engraver and printer.
[4] Massé, H.J.L.J., The Art Workers’ Guild 1884 – 1934, Oxford, 1935, p. 27. The Junior Art Workers’ Guild (originally known as the ‘The Art Student’s Guild’) was founded by T.G. Jackson to enable students to receive the same benefits that Guild had provided for regular members. Nelson studied at the Lambeth School of Art and Central School of Art and Design so would have become a junior member whilst studying at one of these schools.
[5] This address appears on the reverse of both of these items. It seems most likely that these were produced to promote the new premises and therefore date from about 1912.
[6] Cook, MG, Edward Prior: Arts and Crafts Architect, London 2015.
[7] From the material viewed at the Art-Workers’ Guild this position must have been held post 1934 as Nelson does not appear in the list of notable members, Masters and Secretaries in Massé, op. cit., pp. 99 - 101.
[8] ‘Edmund Nelson Obituary’, The Independent, 13 February 2007.
[9] Thanks again to Lisa and Monica for allowing me to view the drawing. The drawing is dated 1948 and must have been completed in either January or February of that year. An image of the drawing can be found on the Bridgeman Images website –
[10] Two folders labelled drawings at the Art Workers’ Guild include a number of the products that Nelson created designs for. ‘Have You Heard of the Bibby Soap?’ featuring two elegant women perusing a bar of soap appears in Volume II of the Drawings (AWG/7/1/11). Nelson's design advertising Selfridge's, titled Labor Omnia Vincit, Selfridge & Co., can be found in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (E.229-1987) 
[11] Drawings Vol. I including the National Gallery of British Art and the Walker Art Gallery.
[12] Drawings Vol I features Nelson and his Times (with a photograph of a bust of Nelson in the centre of the design), Gems from the Galleries: The National Gallery of British Art (features a photograph of Sarah Siddons by Gainsborough) and a number of organisational charts in the Hub cycling magazine and family group illustrations (Connaught Family).
[13] A folder of Christmas Card designs in colour – many of which were created by Nelson can be seen in the Art Workers’ Guild (AWG/7/1/71 Christmas Cards 1936: Sample Book ‘B’)

1 comment:

  1. Ricketts and Shannon met Lambeth but that must have been before Nelson's time. Do you know when he was at the Central School and which courses he took? And have you been to the archive? He may well have been there when Frank Morley Fletcher was still teaching colour woodcut.