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Biographical entry Tonks, Henry (1862 - 1937)

MRCS 22 January 1886; FRCS 14 June 1888; LRCP 1887; LSA 1887.

9 April 1862
Solihull, Warwickshire
8 January 1937
Artist and Medical Officer


Henry Tonks was born at Solihull, Warwickshire, on 9 April 1862, second son and fifth of the eleven children of Edmund Tonks, sometime barrister of Gray's Inn, of Packwood Grange, Knowle, Warwickshire, and Julia Anne Johnson, his wife. Edmund Tonks left the bar on his marriage and joined his father's brass-foundry at Birmingham. He invented the "Tonks library fitting" for adjustable book-shelves.

Henry Tonks was educated at Clifton College, January 1877 to December 1879, and became a pupil at the Royal Sussex Hospital, Brighton in 1879, and whilst there had already begun to draw; he tried without success to sell his drawings at a shop in Brighton. He filled the post of house physician in 1887, and his skill as a draughtsman led to his taking the place temporarily as an assistant demonstrator of anatomy. He went to Germany in 1888, and whilst visiting the Dresden Gallery determined to devote himself to art. On his return to England, Sir Frederick Treves appointed him house surgeon at the London Hospital. At the end of his term of office he was elected senior medical officer at the Royal Free Hospital, whence he derived the bias in favour of the work and enthusiasm of women students which lasted throughout his life. During his tenure as senior medical officer he wrote to Frederick Brown, head of the Westminster School of Art, asking whether he might become a pupil. In 1892, when Brown was appointed Slade professor in succession to Alphonse Legros, he invited Tonks to become his assistant, his colleagues being P Wilson Steer (afterwards OM) and C Koe Child. Brown retired in 1917, and was succeeded by Tonks who held the post until 1930, when he resigned with the complimentary title of emeritus Slade professor and the honorary Fellowship of University College, and was succeeded by Randolph Schwabe. Tonks, though he was not the founder of the New English Art Club, was one of its earliest and strongest supporters. In October 1936 many of his works were on view in Rooms XIX and XX of the Tate Gallery, which at his death in 1937 contained seven of his paintings.

During the war of 1914-18 Tonks worked with a French Red Cross Hospital and later with a British Ambulance Unit in Italy. On his return to England he was commissioned, 1 January 1916, as temporary lieutenant, RAMC, and did valuable work both at the Cambridge Hospital, Aldershot, and at the Queen's Hospital, Sidcup, Kent. The Army Medical collection at the Royal College of Surgeons Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields contains sixty-nine pastel drawings and three pen-and-ink sketches by him, which are striking portraits of men who were treated for facial injuries received during the war. In 1918 he visited France as an artist with John Sargent; he visited Ypres and spent a night under shell-fire at an advanced dressing station. In 1919 he accompanied the British expedition to Murmansk. His drawings of the Murmansk expedition and his picture of "An underground clearing station, Arras" are in the Imperial War Museum collection. Tonks died unmarried at his house, 1 The Vale, Chelsea, SW, on 8 January 1937.

Tonks was a caricaturist by way of pastime and an artist by profession. As an artist and teacher he raised the Slade School to a high degree of perfection. His masterpiece "The Bird Cage" hangs in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. He was very tall, very thin, and very caustic, living the life of an ascetic epicure, but a few minutes' conversation discovered humour and sympathy, above all sympathy with youth. He nourished the most conscientious side of everyone he influenced, and to know him was to be influenced at once. The spell of trying to gain or keep his approbation never broke. His face did not easily register pleasure, but the brilliant eyes over his formidable nose glowed with sincerity and positive hunger to behold excellence. In February 1937 his friends subscribed to set up in the Slade School a portrait bust of Tonks in bronze by his pupil A H Gerrard, which was presented on 25 November 1937; they also founded an annual Henry Tonks prize for drawing at the Slade School. A memorial-exhibition of his works was held in June 1937 at Barbizon House, Henrietta Street, Cavendish Square; and an inscribed tablet was placed on his house in The Vale, Chelsea. His self-portrait, in the Tate Gallery, is reproduced as frontispiece to Hone's Life; a portrait-drawing by Powys Evans was published in The London Mercury, 1930, 22, 295.

The vicissitudes of art, new words for old ideas. The Times, 2 March 1932, pp. 13 and 14.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Joseph Hone The life of Henry Tonks, London, Heinemann, 1939, with self-portrait and photographs; The Times, 9 January 1937, p 14b, with portrait, 11th p 8b, 12th p 14b, 13th p 14d, and 15 January; Lancet, 1937, 1, 160; Brit med J 1937, 1, 150. See also The Times, 28 June 1930, p 130, with portrait, and 7 October 1936].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England