John Hunter Thompson 1808-90


  Extract from 'Some Old Bradford Artists'.


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. 2.

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 Rawdon College.

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



John Hunter Thompson
Art UK

 Portrait of John Nicholson
(possibly by Geller)



1. William Overend Geller (1804-82). Bradford-born artist and engraver who spent most of his career in London. He retained strong ties with his family (note spelling of surname Gelder) in Bradford and the artistic community in Yorkshire. He moved to London in 1833 and his engraving (1833) of Thomas Illidge's portrait "The Phrenologist" was dedicated to Bradford Mechanics Institute. The sculptor Joseph Bentley Leyland (1811-51) spent about three years with Geller in London (c1833-5) and Thomas Illidge's portrait of Leyland was engraved by him. Geller also engraved John Wilson Anderson's 'View of Bradford' in 1837. He was a friend of John Nicholson (1790-1843) the Airedale Poet and there is a portrait of him by Geller. After Nicholson's death in 1844 Geller helped his widow Martha claim for assistance from the Royal Literary Fund. The book of his poems published to raise funds for Martha and their children included an engraving of the poet by Geller from his own painting. Geller was a friend of one the Bronte's favourite artists, John Martin. His son, William Henry Geller, was one of approximately 480 passengers on the City of Glasgow  drowned on the voyage between Liverpool & Philadelphia in March 1854.

It is not known whether Geller experimented with daguerreotypes in the 1840s but he was an early amateur photographer (probably in the 1850s) later becoming a micro-photographer producing commercial slides.  In 1864, when Fox Talbot wanted copies of photographs from Frederick Scott Archer's negatives he approached Geller. About 1864 he engraved the portrait by Richard Waller (1811-82) of Robert Story (1795-1860), the Craven Poet. In 1867 Geller returned to Yorkshire and settled in Scarborough after the Leeds artist & (1860s) photographer, William Keighley Briggs, helped to arrange employment for him as a colourist for the photographer Olivier Sarony. Twenty years earlier, Sarony was an unknown immigrant itinerant photographer. He had purchased a license to take daguerreotypes in certain parts of Yorkshire, including the Bradford area, and visited the town in August 1846. By the 1860s Sarony was one of the most celebrated and successful photographers in Victorian England.

There is more information on William Overend Geller on the microscopist website: Microphotograph maker - William Overend Geller.

2. The George Hotel was a coaching inn for the wealthier middle classes. In the early 1830s the landlord was David Reaney, a widower supporting his sons and daughters but he died suddenly in 1834. At the age of about nineteen his eldest daughter Margaret Reaney (1815-1893) took charge of the family and the business. The hotel hosted meetings including the Bradford Licensed Victuallers' Association (from 1837), the Debating Society (1838), Catholic Hibernian Society (1839) Masonic dinners and shareholders meetings of the Bradford Commercial Joint Stock Bank. In August 1842, because of the threat of Chartist riots, the 72nd & 32nd Regiments were sent to Bradford. The 32nd Regiment were billeted at a temporary barracks established in the yard of the George Hotel.

In the 1830s & 40s the George Hotel was a meeting place for local writers, artists & poets. The most talented migrated south to find employment but returned for annual reunions which are said to have included Robert Story (the Cravendale poet); William Overend Geller (London artist/engraver); John Wilson Anderson (landscape painter); Skerrit, (actor, Skerrit's Patent Theatre); John James (future historian of Bradford and biographer of Robert Story); Edward Sloane (Halifax correspondent for the ‘Bradford Observer’ and ‘Leeds Times’); Richard Waller (portrait painter & steam engine/steam-carriage inventor); Edward Collinson (lawyer's clerk, poet, historian and editor of the Bradford Times newspaper); John Nicholson (the Airedale bard); Branwell Bronte; William Dearden (Keighley schoolmaster, poet and friend of Patrick & Branwell Bronte); Joseph Bentley Leyland (sculptor); his brother, Francis A. Leyland, (bookdealer, bookbinder, publisher and printer of the Halifax Guardian) and John Hunter Thompson. When Robert Story's poem "Guthrum" was published by subscription in 1849 it was dedicated to "Miss Reaney of Bradford."

3. He is listed in IIbbetson's Directory of the Borough of Bradford, 1845. p.82 as "Thompson, John, artist and beerseller, Manchester Road."