Fred Mason, the son of a solicitor, came to the practice of art at the age of twenty-six. His early life and education are obscure, but it is not impossible that he tried to follow his father into the law and decided he would be better suited to art and design. He does not appear in any records until 1890, when he became a student at the Birmingham Municipal School of Art, which was then based in the purpose-built premises in Margaret Street. Mason’s position as a ‘mature student’ was relatively unusual bearing in mind that in his first year his fellow learners could have been as young as thirteen and typically aged between sixteen and eighteen. Though supporting many students with bursaries, the School was fee-paying, and it is probable that in the first instance the trainee artist had to draw on family funds to support his movement in a new direction.

Mason was fortunate in that he gained entrance to what was then becoming one of the most accomplished and influential institutions of its time and was widely regarded, in the words of an article in the Art Journal, as centrally concerned with ‘the progress of Art’ (344). Set up in 1884 by local patrons and manufacturers who wanted to improve the standard of design in locally produced artefacts, the aim of the School was to produce highly-trained artisans who would facilitate this process and enrich the Birmingham and national economy. These improvements were to be achieved by establishing the school as a forward-looking agent of Pre-Raphaelitism which trained its students as practitioners in the style of Rossetti, William Morris and the aesthetics of Arts and Crafts.

Mason’s ideas were formed, no doubt, by the impact of the gifted and efficient teachers who were appointed specifically because of their adherence to modern thinking and promulgated notions of neo-medievalism, functionalism, and the all-encompassing importance of ‘good’ art and design. The artist’s immediate influence was Arthur Gaskin, a teacher and designer whose educational practice was informed by John Ruskin’s revolutionary ideas on the value of craft as the vehicle of moral, aesthetic and social reform. He was also (in all probability) one of the students who attended Morris’s address to the college in 1894 and would have heard from Morris’s own mouth the need to overturn the ‘tyranny [of] utilitarianism’ (2) and revolutionize taste by creating beautiful things, which for the maker is ‘the greatest pleasure in the world’ (25).

Most importantly of all, Mason was trained in the manner of Pre-Raphaelitism and its practical expression in Arts and Crafts. Placed under the radical direction of the head-teacher Edward Taylor, he followed a curriculum which emphasised the practicalities of making, taking a design from the drawing-board to its materialization. This process was systematically teased out in the form of a series of experientially-based training activities or ‘Art Laboratories’, covering work in two and three-dimensional design, figure and landscape drawing, metal-work, and experimentation with materials.

The surviving records show Mason was an able student in several of these fields and distinguished himself as the author of a number of art-works. These included a design for a jug, an invitation card and a rustic scene in the form of a bas-relief as well as other pieces in two and three dimensions. Versatile and willing to experiment, he won a series of prizes, winning national awards in 1891–93 for a medallion, an oil painting of a nude, and figure drawing; he won another scholarship for £180 (1893) which enabled him to pay his fees for two years, and he was finally rewarded by gaining an appointment as an assistant teacher.

Left: The Seven Virgins from Arthur Gaskin’s A Book of Pictured Carols. Middle: Renaud Helps to Build the Cathedral. Right: Maugis the Magician. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Mason’s instructed students in figure-work and drawing and these skills were applied to his earliest published work. Under Gaskin’s direction he contributed wood-engraved illustrations to The Quest, a periodical made up of students’ drawings, and while still at the Birmingham School he illustrated Robert Steele’s translation of The Story of Alexander (1894). In 1895 he left Birmingham and took up a prestigious appointment, in recognition of his outstanding ability, as the head-teacher of the Taunton School of Art, but continued to work as a graphic designer. Following on from his initial collaboration with Steele he produced two companion volumes, designing the illustrations and covers, for Huon of Bordeaux (1895) and Renaud of Montauban (1897), and he contributed a single cut for Arthur Gaskin’s A Book of Pictured Carols (1893). These publications were well-received in The Spectator and Publisher’s Circular; they were, however, his last. Thereafter, Mason worked only as an educationalist, teaching and running the college in Taunton until his retirement in 1926. He died on 29 December 1939 at the age of seventy five, leaving his wife a small legacy of £768. Though an able teacher, his full potential as an artist was probably never realized.

Related material

Bibliography: Archival Material

Material in Minutes Books and slide collection of the Art and Design Archive, City University, Birmingham, UK.

Bibliography: Primary Material

A Book of Pictured Carols. London: George Allen, 1893.

The Century Guild Hobby Horse (1886–92).

Field, Michael [Katherine Harris Bradley & Edith Emma Cooper]. The Tragic Mary. London: George Bell, 1890.

The Quarto.Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1894–6.

Steele, Robert (translator). Huon of Bordeaux. London: George Allen, 1895.

Steele, Robert (translator). Renaud of Montauban. London: George Allen, 1897.

Steele, Robert (translator). The Story of Alexander. London: David Nutt, 1894.

Wilde, Oscar. Poems. London: Elkin Matthews & John Lane, 1892.

Bibliography: Secondary Material

‘Birmingham Municipal School of Art.’ Birmingham Daily Post (26 July 1892): 5.

Haslam, Malcolm. Arts and Crafts Book Covers. Shepton Beauchamp: Richard Dennis, 2012.

Morris, William. An Address by William Norris at the Distribution of Prizes to Students of the Birmingham Municipal School of Art. London: Longmans, 1898.

Valance, Aymer. ‘A Provincial School of Art.’ Art Journal (1892): 344–8.

Created 11 September 2019