Click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Henry Tonks

Private Charles Deeks. Almost by accident, Henry Tonks became one of England's earliest "plastic" surgeons, and the first to document his work using pastel portrait drawings.
Everyone has probably heard stories of middle-aged men going through what's commonly come be known as a "mid-life crisis." They give up a promising career; buy a shiny new sports car; empty the bank account; and take off for some tropical paradise with a buxom blond half their age; leaving behind a wife and kids to fend for themselves--Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, or perhaps Paul Gauguin. However, can you imagine a doctor, a gifted surgeon, in fact, chucking it all to study art, paint, and eventually teach art at a major art institute? That's a highly abbreviated story of the life of the British impressionist, Henry Tonks. But don't get the wrong idea. Henry Tonks was no philandering playboy. Far from it in fact. He was a man who gradually realized he'd made a drastic mistake in his youthful choice of a career in medicine, then set about correcting it. He didn't leave home, he didn't run off with a girlfriend, or leave a wife and brood of hungry children in the lurch. Actually, he wasn't even married, and the pursuit of feminine companionship was apparently never high on his list of priorities.

A Tonks drawing of a reconstructive surgical procedure dating from around 1916.
(The enlarged area is my own enhancement.)
Henry Tonks' Father in a Wheel Chair.
Tonks was born in 1862 near Solihull (central England). His family owned a brass foundry in Birmingham. As a young man Tonks entered Clifton College in Bristol, later studying medicine at the Royal Sussex County Hospital from 1882-85. After completing his medical schooling, he moved on to the London Hospital in Whitechapel for the next five years. Tonks became a house surgeon at the London Hospital in 1886 and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1888, whereupon he moved to the Royal Free Hospital in London. In 1892, Tonks began to teach anatomy at the London Hospital medical school. Tonks' painting of his Father in a Wheel Chair (left) is from sometime after 1890.

Talented hands, whether holding a scalpel or a brush, but not a man to be trifled with.
The Little Invalid, 1912, Henry Tonks
From around 1888 and for the next three years, Tonks studied at night at the Westminster School of Art, exhibiting his work from around 1891 through at least 1895 with the New England Art Club. At some point in time he switched from teaching anatomy to teaching the drawing of anatomy at the Slade School of Fine Art (not all that big a jump when you think about it). Although the man was obviously well-grounded in both anatomy and art, he might also be considered every art student's worst nightmare as an instructor. His sharp, dry sarcasm likely drove more than one would-be artist to leave before com-pleting their training. His teaching manner was said to have been cold and derisive, his tall (six-foot, four-inch), hovering presence and grim count-enance inducing profound respect as well as abject fear in his students. Tonks' The Little Invalid (right) dates from this period in the artist's career.

An Underground Casualty Clearing Station, ca. 1915,  Henry Tonks

Auguste Rodin, 1914, Henry Tonks
World War I brought Henry Tonks back to the medical profession, first at a prisoner of war camp in Dorchester, and then at Hill Hall in Essex. There Tonks met Auguste Rodin and his wife, who were refugees. He made pastel drawings of them, though he was apparently not much impressed with Rodin's phi-losophical approach to art. Tonks, though an impressionist painter, was very much a staunch adherent to traditional draughts-manship and aesthetic ideals. The un-schooled Rodin didn't much value either. As the war progressed Tonks served on the front lines at a Red Cross hospital in France and as a member of an ambulance unit in Italy before returning to England as a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1916. It was at this time Tonks began creating pastel drawings of the mangled faces of those returning from the front, working with some of the first modern-day reconstructive surgeons operating on the cutting edge (no pun intended) of this relatively new and vitally important area of medicine. The pastel drawings (below) are not easy to look at. Tonks cut them no slack in depicting the totally horrifying faces returning from the war (and I've chosen some of the less gruesome). However, the face of Private Charles Deeks (top) is an amazing before and after example of the success such talented British surgeons were achieving as early as the second decade of the 20th-century.

Art serves medicine, the work of doctor/artist Henry Tonks, ca. 1916.
Tonks officially became a war artist in 1918, as he accompanied John Singer Sargent on tours of the Western Front. In 1918, the two witnessed a field of wounded men near Le Bac du Sud, Doullens, which became the basis for Sargent's vast canvas, Gassed. Tonks went on to Archangel on the northern coast of Russia in 1919 as a war artist with a British expeditionary force. After the war, Tonks continued in his position as Slade Professor of Fine Art from 1918 until his retirement in 1930. His satiric Sodales - Mr. Steer and Mr. Sickert (below) allows us some insight into the man's dry sense of humor and satiric disposition. Tonk's Torn Gown (bottom) suggests that though he never married, he was an astute observer of the feminine sex, which may also indicate why he never married. Henry Tonks died in 1937 at his home in Chelsea. He was seventy-four.

Sodales - Mr. Steer and Mr. Sickert, 1930, Henry Tonks. Tonks, despite his personality, was a sharp visual satirist, as skilled in caricature as he was in portraiture.
The Torn Gown, Henry Tonks


No comments:

Post a Comment