Artist biography

English painter and draughtsman. He came to painting from a successful surgical career. From 1887 he studied at Westminster School of Art, and in 1891 exhibited his first paintings at the New English Art Club. In 1893 he finally abandoned medicine on being invited to join the staff of the Slade School of Art in London, where he taught until 1930. His overriding concern with draughtsmanship and the structure of the body was apparent in his programme of copying from the Antique, from prints and from life; however, he saw this discipline as the basis for developing each artist's individuality. He influenced such students as Augustus John, Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis, Mark Gertler and Rex Whistler. At the Slade he originated ‘Tonking', a method of removing excess oil from canvas with newspaper, which was taught in art schools into the 1950s.

Tonks was himself a fine draughtsman whose knowledge of anatomy complemented his fascination with light effects. His mature works combine expressive manipulation of forms with pure, bright colour, while retaining an attraction for implicit anecdote. This led him to deplore the influence of Roger Fry and Post-Impressionism. During World War I he made pastel drawings of wounded soldiers for use in plastic surgery, and painted the large Advanced Dressing Station in France: 1918 (London, Imp. War Mus.), a government commission. His other commissions include Founders' Murals (1922) for University College, London. After retiring from the Slade he continued to defend craftsmanship and observation against modernism as represented by Fry.

J. Hone: The Life of Henry Tonks (London, 1939)
Henry Tonks and the ‘Art of Pure Drawing' (exh. cat., ed. L. Morris; Norwich, Sch. A. Mus., 1985)


Article provided by Grove Art Online