WEIR, Harrison (Artist/Illustrator, “British Workman”)

Harrison William Weir (1824-1906) was a nineteenth-century artist, illustrator, and writer who specialised in animal images.

© National Portrait Gallery, London
Carte-De-Visite (albumen) of Harrison William Weir by Elliott & Fry (mid-late 1860s). NPG Ax14950. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Weir was born in Lewes, East Sussex, to a middle-class family. In 1837, at the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to George Baxter, a printer and family friend. During his apprenticeship, Weir learned printing processes and techniques, including wood-block engraving and chromolithography, which were essential to his later career in periodical and book illustration. The apprenticeship gave him technical skills, but he received no formal art education.

In 1843 Weir left his apprenticeship early to join the Illustrated London News (ILN) (1842-1989), a middle-class weekly paper that became highly successful, in part because of its compelling images. According to Simon Houfe, Weir became the publication’s longest serving artist, contributing illustrations for more than five decades.<fn>Simon Houfe. “WEIR, Harrison William.” The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists 1800-1914. Woodbridge (Suffolk): Antique Collectors Club,  1978.  494.</fn> Weir also illustrated a number of books, and his images appear in a variety of popular and specialist periodicals, including Punch, the English Illustrated Magazine, the Strand Magazine, the Field, and the Poultry and Stock Keeper.

Weir started painting wildlife around the time he joined the ILN. One of his early works, a painting of a robin called The Christmas Carol Singer, was bought by the ILN‘s publisher, Herbert Ingram, and distributed as a colour print inserted in the paper’s Christmas issue. Weir’s paintings were also exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Royal Institution, and the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours.

The wood engravers George and Edward Dalziel produced prints of Weir’s work: “Harrison Weir sent us some good pictures of animals, notably “The Maiden’s Sorrow.” Weir, one of our earliest connections, is a gifted and brilliant conversationalist, brimful of anecdote–humourous and otherwise, a genial companion and an old friend. He is a man of many parts: poet, painter, draughtsman, and naturalist; and how much that word ‘naturalist’ means in the knowledge that fitted him for the various branches of art which he encompassed in his numerous works! Not the least being the many children’s books he created.”<fn>The Brothers Dalziel: A Record of Fifty Years’ Work in Conjunction with Many of the Most Distinguished Artists of the Period. London: Methuen, 1901. 182. Internet Archive.</fn>

Weir was a cat lover. He created The Cat Club in 1871 and organised the first cat show at the Crystal Palace in 1872.

Weir wrote, “From a tiny child to the present, the love of Nature has been my chief delight; animals and birds have not only been objects of study, but of deep and absorbing interest. … Among animals possibly the most perfect, and certainly the most domestic, is the Cat … the Cat, a pet or not, is of service. Were it not for our Cats, rats and mice would overrun our houses, buildings, cultivated and other lands.”<fn>Harrison Weir. Our Cats and All About Them. Tunbridge Wells: R. Clements, 1889. Internet Archive. v.</fn>

Weir regularly corresponded with Charles Darwin about birds and animals, often sharing anecdotal evidence of natural selection and mating habits. Some of the examples he shared with Darwin were drawn from his cat-show experiences. In addition to his love of cats, Weir raised and wrote about poultry, including the book Our Poultry and All About Them (1902). Weir was also employed by Gerrard & Co., a goldsmiths/silversmiths, to design trophies for race meetings, such as Goodwood and Ascot.

Weir was awarded a civil-list pension in 1891. He died on 3 January 1906 at his home in Appledore, Kent.


Additional Reading

The Brothers Dalziel: A Record of Fifty Years’ Work in Conjunction with Many of the Most Distinguished Artists of the Period 1840-1890. London: Methuen, 1901. Internet Archive.

Simon Cooke. “Harrison Weir (1824-1906)–‘a man of many parts.'” The Victorian Web.

Darwin Manuscripts. Cambridge Digital Library.

Simon Houfe. “WEIR, Harrison William.” The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists 1800-1914. Woodbridge (Suffolk): Antique Collectors Club,  1978.  494.

Roger Ingpen, “Weir, Harrison William (1824-1905),” rev. Ian Rogerson, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Online ed. edited by David Cannadine. 2004. (accessed 20 July 2016).

Harrison Weir. Our Cats and All About Them. Tunbridge Wells: R. Clements, 1889. Internet Archive.