John Hunter Thompson was born at Belfast, in
March, 1808. His father, an Ulsterman of Scottish descent, was a mechanic by trade.
He removed with his family to Scotland when John was but a year old, and shortly
afterwards settled for a time in Bingley, and ultimately in Bradford. Here the lad
was apprenticed, like Geller, to house painting, an occupation
which led in Thompson's case to painting of a higher order. 1.
During his apprenticeship he was sent to decorate several rooms
at St. Ives, Bingley, and so well was the work done that he gained the esteem and
friendship of Major and Mrs. Ferrand. He was instructed about this time in a course
of Anatomical drawing by a Bradford doctor whose name does not transpire, and he
ultimately placed himself under the tuition of Mr. William
Robinson, of Leeds, the drawing master of the Bronte
family. This gentleman taught Thompson the art of portrait painting to
some purpose, for we find that the latter soon established a reputation in this
branch of art. It was during Mr. Robinson's tuition that Thompson became acquainted
with Branwell Bronte, who, after having failed to obtain a Royal
Academy Scholarship, was sent to Mr. Robinson with a view of his adopting portrait
painting as a profession. Between the two students an acquaintance was struck up
which afterwards ripened into a warm friendship.
After studying for some months in Leeds, Branwell took
apartments in Bradford with the object of setting up as a portrait painter. Here he
and Thompson worked together, the latter often giving the finishing touches to
Branwell's work. The inherent restlessness and instability of Branwell's character
soon asserted themselves, for we find that he gave up his work in Bradford, where
he does not seem to have given universal satisfaction, judging from a letter to
Thompson dated May 17th, 1839, and quoted in Leyland's "Bronte
Family" (Vol. I. p. 176). Thompson kept up his acquaintance with Branwell for some
time after the latter's departure from Bradford to Haworth, the two often
exchanging visits. Thus ended the Bronte episode in Thompson's career, and although
he would not think of the matter at the time, it is probable that his claim on the
attention of posterity will depend quite as much on this connexion as upon his own
life's work, however important this may be.
Thompson was genial and sociable to a degree, and being a good
raconteur was naturally in great request in his own circle of friends. When Mr. Sam
Oddy kept the Queen Hotel in Bridge Street, a company of artistic people were wont
to congregate there, none being more welcome than Thompson, whose stories and jests
were greatly appreciated by the frequenters of the place. In 1858 he painted the
portrait of Mr. Oddy : an excellent likeness according to those who knew him well.
Mr. William Oddy, the son of the last named gentleman, has in his possession a
portrait of one of his father's workmen named James Clough, who is represented in
the act of grinding paint. It was executed by Thompson in 1838, on a stout board,
and was intended for, and used as, a sign for the painter's shop, during a period
of 25 years; first at Westgate, and afterwards at Ivegate, and Market Street.
Exactly 50 years after, and shortly before his death, Thompson gave it a few
renovating touches, and it is now dignified by a gilt frame and placed inside the
shop in Market Street.
A welcome guest in his own circle, he was equally welcome
amongst a company of literary men of no mean ability, who were in the habit of
meeting at the George Hotel in Market Street, then under the
presiding genius of Mrs. Reaney. Here he became acquainted with
[Robert] Storey, [Edward] Collinson, [John] James,
[William] Dearden, Daniel Salt, the grandfather of Sir Titus Salt,
and many others whose names are of more than local significance; and he
particularly prided himself on a copy of the "History of Bradford," which
had been presented to him by John James, the author of the book.
Later in life he became intimate with Mr, Waterhouse, of
Armstrong's Hotel, some of whose friends, notably Mr, John Schofield, of Park Road,
generously assisted Thompson in his declining years. Mr. Waterhouse possesses
perhaps two of the best specimens of Thompson's work, two portraits, one of the
artist himself, and the other of Dr. Riley the schoolmaster. They are now in the
bar of Armstrong's Hotel.
It is hardly desirable to furnish a complete list of his
paintings, if that were possible, yet it may be well to place on record some of
those which are still in the neighbourhood. There are three portraits of Thompson,
all by himself, the first, which is dated 1839, is a very small panel, and is
delicately painted. It is now in the possession of his son-in-law. The second is a
much larger work, already alluded to as being in the possession of Mr. Waterhouse,
while the third one, dated 1873, is owned by Mr. Dobson, Gilder, of Leeds Road.
There is also a portrait of the first mayor of Bradford, Robert
Milligan, painted by Thompson, who was naturally proud of the fact of
having Mr. Milligan as a sitter. He also painted the portraits of Edward
Sloane, John Nicholson, and Rev. Henry
Dowson, the last named being a full sized portrait which is now placed in
In the way of picture painting he does not seem to have done
anything very noteworthy. He painted a view of "Scarbro','' and "Falstaff selecting
his Recruits," but these do not call for particular comment. As an artist he was a
good draughtsman, a fact due probably to his training in anatomical drawing, and
this is apparent in the firm and often vigourous modelling observable in his
portraits. This, coupled with an intelligent appreciation of the subtleties of
flesh painting, enabled him to produce some excellent work in portraiture.
During Mr. Thompson's residence in Bradford he lived in several
neighbourhoods.3. In 1853 he resided
at 13, Belgrave Place, and afterwards in Elizabeth Street, while the latter part of
his life was spent with his married daughter, who lived in St. Mary's Road,
Laisterdyke. He died at the latter place on December 8th, 1890, at the ripe age of
82 years, and was buried at Scholemoor Cemetery.
Butler Wood, 'Some Old Bradford Artists', The Bradford
Antiquary, 1895, pp. 208-209