arrison Weir was born in 1824 in Lewes, East Sussex, the son of a bank manager. This background suggests middle-class prosperity, but Weir was compelled to find employment at the first opportunity. He found an apprenticeship in the London workshop of a family friend, George Baxter, who was best known for his engravings and especially for his prints using the relatively new technique of chromolithography. Entered into business in 1837 at the age of just thirteen, Weir quickly grew dissatisfied with his job, which was routine and technical rather than creative, although it did train him in the discipline of drawing on wood and engraving the block. Like H. K. Browne (Phiz) and George Cruikshank, artists who also practised in workshops servicing the print industry, he received no instruction in the formal language of art; whatever he learned he taught himself, and was primarily an autodidact in an age when formal instruction made the difference between success and failure. However, Weir was a man of unusual vitality and determination, and his ability to draw and engrave wood-blocks was advantageous in a period when the box-wood revolution empowered publishers to produce images in great numbers, and in rapid turn-over.
His facility in wood-engraving allowed him to move from Baxter’s workshop; breaking his indentures short of the customary seven years in 1843, he gained employment in the offices of The Illustrated London News, which Herbert Ingram had founded in 1842. Weir was one of the first staff-artists and quickly distinguished himself as a designer who could produce images quickly and efficiently, and as an engraver. Proficient in both disciplines, he produced his own illustrations, drew them on wood and engraved them, while also cutting the work of others. He also began to produce paintings. One of his earliest works, a picture of a robin entitled The Christmas Carol Singer,, was purchased by Ingram and appeared as a colour-print in his newspaper. Other paintings followed quickly; from the middle of the forties he exhibited pictures at the Royal Academy and in 1849 was elected to membership of the New Watercolour Society. Between 1843 and 1880 he displayed at total of a hundred and sixteen works, a hundred alone at the New Gallery. His pictures still appear on the open market and several of his paintings were issued as chromolithographs in The Pictorial Cabinet of Marvels (1878).
Left to right: The Leopard, The Hippopotamus, The Peacock, and . [Click on these images to enlarge them.]
His paintings were however only a small part of his creative output. His principal work was in the domain of book-illustration, always drawing scenes from the natural world. These catered for adults and children. Working over the entire second half of the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth, he produced a vast quantity of work. This included poetry anthologies for adults, as well as diverse commissions for juveniles such as Mrs Trimmer’s History of the Robins , and a Victorian reprint of Mrs Dorset’s [Catherine Ann Turner’s] celebrated story of The Peacock at Home (1854). He also wrote and illustrated hand-books. Domestic Pets(1851) is a good example, and he issued several others on breeding and the care of cats, dogs and poultry. Working through a range of commissions, his versatility is impressive; though apparently working within a narrow idiom, his defining characteristic is the way in which he explores the applications of his imagery.
Some of his books (notably those on poultry) are exact, Pre-Raphaelite representations of colours and plumage; others are pantheistic celebrations of the natural world; some are satirical commentaries on mid-Victorian society; and others are moralities, versions of La Fontaine and Aesop. These approaches suggest a detailed zoological knowledge, and it is interesting to note that Weir was an expert on some of the species he represented in his work.
Well known as a naturalist, he was an obsessive keeper of pets – with homes teeming with cats and dogs – and a breeder of sundry small animals. His expertise was recognised by Charles Darwin, with whom he corresponded; their letters survive. Darwin consulted Weir on aspects of breeding and variation in domestic birds, pigs and rabbits, and the artist is acknowledged throughout Darwin’s exploration of The Descent of Man (1871). We do not know if Weir concurred with Darwin’s theories, but it is interesting to note how the professional practice of zoology is informed with the observations of a diligent amateur.
Weir was indeed the classic type of the indefatigable Victorian gentleman whose life was crammed with activity in pursuit of knowledge. Not only a pet-owning observer of animals, and (perhaps) a disciple of evolutionary theory, he was also an enthusiast who set up The Cat Club, an equivalent of Cruft’s, in 1871; a judge of pigeons and poultry, whose services were perpetually in demand by the organizers of county shows; a semi-professional breeder; and a poet who wrote passable nature verse.
These interests nourished his practice as an illustrator. As noted above, whatever he drew was informed with considerable anatomical knowledge and knowledge of the animal’s essential characteristics, and few artists working in this idiom have had such a thorough understanding of their subjects. The Dalziel Brothers, with whom he collaborated throughout a long career, have the final word on the range and depth of his achievement. Weir, they comment, was ‘a gifted and brilliant conversationalist … a genial companion and an old friend’, in all respects:
a man of many parts: poet, painter, draughtsman and naturalist; and how much the word ‘naturalist’ means in the knowledge that fitted him for the various branches of art which he encompassed in his numerous works! [p.182].
Such warmth is unusual for the Dalziels, who show little generosity for many of their collaborators. Speaking of Weir in these terms is a testament to his unusual versatility and capacity to unite the various aspects of his professional activity, leisure pursuits, close observation and sheer enthusiasm for his subject. These unities sustained him through a long professional life; he died in 1906, working to the end.
- Weir and Nature: his work for adults
- Weir, anthropomorphism, and moralizing books for children and adults
- Animals and Victorian art
- Weir’s influence: Disney and American cartoons
Primary Works Cited and Sources of Information
Blatty, Joseph. Harrison Weir: Artist, Author and Poultryman. Beech Publishing House, 2003.
Brothers Dalziel, The. A Record of Work: 1840–1900. 1901; rpt. London: Batsford, 1978.
Elwes, Alfred. The Adventures of a Bear. London: Addey & Co., 1853.
Elwes, Alfred. The Adventures of a Dog. London: Addey & Co., 1857.
Funny Dogs with Funny Tales. London: Addey & Co., 1852.
George Cruikshank’s Table Book. London: Punch Office, 1845.
Grandville, J. J. Scenès de La Vie Privée et Publique des Animaux. Paris: Hetzel et Paulin, 1842.
Graves, Algernon. The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904. Vol. 3. London: Bell, 1905.
Hibberd, Shirley. Clever Dogs, Horses, etc. London: Partridge, n. d. .
Houfe, Simon. The Dictionary of 19th Century Illustrators and Caricaturists. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Antique Collectors’ Club, 1978; revised ed., 1996.
Illustrated London News, The. 1843–66.
Ingpen, Roger. ‘Harrison Weir’. Oxford DNB. www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36817, accessed 9 March 2013.
Kingston, W. H. G. Stories of the Sagacity of Animals. London: Nelson, 1892.
Levine, George. Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the the Re-Enchantment of the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Maas, Jeremy. Victorian Painters. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1978.
Pictorial Cabinet of Marvels, The. London: James Sangster, n.d. .
Poetry of Nature, The.Selected & Illustrated by Harrison Weir. London: Sampson Low, 1861.
Redfield, James.Comparative Physiognomy; or Resemblances between Men and Animals. New York: for the author, 1852.
Stories about Birds. London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, n.d. .
Summer Time in the Country. Ed. R. A. Willmott. London: Routledge, 1858.
Turner, Catherine Ann [Mrs Dorset].The Peacock at Home.London: Grant & Griffith, 1854.
Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture. Eds. Deborah Denenholz Morse and Martin A. Danahay. Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2007.
Weir, Harrison. Animal Stories Old and New. London: Sampson Low, n.d. .
Last modified 1 April 2013