Monday, July 12, 2010

Tonking and Henry Tonks

Portrait of Professor Henry Tonks, in Uniform
drawing by John Singer Sargent
signed "H.Q. Guards Division / Aug. 4th. 1918 / to my friend Henry Tonks"
Pencil and ink on paper, 24.8 x 37.1 cm (9 3/4 x 14 5/8 in.)  

I found out today - having come across the above drawing - that Singer Sargent knew Professor Henry Tonks of 'tonking' fame.  This post highlights a little about how they knew one another and what 'tonking' is.  We'll start with the latter.


'Tonking' is a method of removing excess oil from canvas by blotting with absorbent paper.  It was invented by Henry Tonks who taught at the Slade and was taught at art schools into the 1950s.

It's used to make changes to a painting by removing oil paint or to create a workable surface where paint has become too thick or the consistency is wrong and needs to be corrected (eg too much oil).

It can also be used to revive a painting which has become overworked; to adjust a painting which has failed to achieve unity in terms of treatment of different shapes, colours etc or .

This is how to 'tonk' a painting
  • place a sheet of absorbent paper (eg newspaper or kitchen towel) over a painting or part of a painting which needs to be changed
  • press down firmly and evenly on the paper
  • lift off carefully - and the paper should remove oil and paint as it is lifted
  • repeat the process until the area has had sufficient paint removed for the purpose of addressing the issue which required 'tonking'
Tonking is not included in Art-Lex which rather surprised me.

Professor Henry Tonks

Henry Tonks  initially studied medicine, became a doctor and subsequently had a successful surgical career.  However he also studied at Westminster School of Art and in 1893 he finally abandoned medicine after being invited to join the staff of the Slade School of Art in London, where he taught until 1930, became Professor of Drawing and became the Principal in 1917 - although still on the Western Front at the time.
His overriding concern with draughtsmanship and the structure of the body was apparent in his programme of copying from the Antique, from prints and from life; however, he saw this discipline as the basis for developing each artist's individuality........Tonks was himself a fine draughtsman whose knowledge of anatomy complemented his fascination with light effects. His mature works combine expressive manipulation of forms with pure, bright colour, while retaining an attraction for implicit anecdote.
Tate - Henry Tonks (1862-1937)

He taught a lot of famous painters including Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash.  Nash recalled his withering manner
"Tonks cared nothing for other authorities and he disliked self-satisfied young men .His surgical eye raked my immature designs. With hooded stare and sardonic mouth, he hung in the air above me, like a tall question mark, moreover of a derisive, rather than an inquisitive order. In cold discouraging tones he welcomed me to the Slade. It was evident he considered that neither the Slade, nor I, was likely to derive much benefit."

Tonks joined the Royal Army Medical Corps on the outbreak of the First World War and was selected to join a team pioneering plastic surgery.  As a qualified Surgeon, from 1916 to 1918 Tonks worked for pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gillies producing pastel drawings recording facial injury cases at Aldershot and the Queen's Hospital, Sidcup.  This is an example of one of his pastel drawings

In 1918, John Singer Sargent negotiated with Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister for Information about becoming a war artist, following the decision to raidly expand the number of artists in France.
Beaverbrook decided to rapidly expand the number of artists in France. He established with Arnold Bennett a British War Memorial Committee (BWMC). The artist chosen for this programme were given different instructions to those sent previously. Beaverbrook told them that pictures were "no longer considered primarily as a contribution to propaganda, they were now to be thought of chiefly as a record."

Artists sent under the BWMC programme included John Sargent, Augustus John, John Nash, Henry Lamb, Henry Tonks, Colin Gill, William Roberts, Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, Philip Wilson Steer, George Clausen, Bernard Meninsky, Charles Pears, Sydney Carline, David Bomberg, Austin Osman Spare, Gilbert Ledward and Charles Jagger. 
Art, Propaganda and Resistance in the Great War
In 1918 both Tonks and John Singer Sargent were both invited to become official war artists and were sent to the Western Front.  They both witnessed men being treated for blindness after a mustard gas attack. Whereas Sargent painted Gassed, Tonks produced An Advanced Dressing Station in France. Tonks also completed another painting with a medical theme while on the Western Front, An Underground Casualty Clearing Station (1918).

On return from the war, Tonks became the Slade Professor of Fine Art.  His most well-known work, Saturday Night in the Vale (now in the Tate) was completed just before his retirement in 1930.


I've arrived at this post via a post about John Singer Sargent (on The Art of the Landscape) and a blog post about the use of hard pastels (on Making A Mark Reviews) followed by a search for classical use of pastels in portrait drawings by Singer Sargent.  Some blog posts just emerge from what I do each day!



  1. I really really love the work of Henry Tonks, especially his conte drawings, thanks for this post. I wish there was also a resource where I could see more of his drawings!

  2. I can point you to paintings but to so many drawings. It was really difficult finding references to him which is very surprising given his impact on his students.

    You can see more Tonks' war art in the Imperial War Museum's art collection on this website

  3. Thanks ever so much for your help.


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