Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Thomas, William Luson

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THOMAS, WILLIAM LUSON (1830–1900), founder of the 'Graphic' and 'Daily Graphic,' the son of a London shipbroker, William Thomas, by his wife, Alicia Hayes, was born on 4 Dec. 1830, and was educated at Fulham. On leaving school he joined his elder brother, George Housman Thomas (1824–1868) [q. v.], who was practising at Paris as an engraver on wood. In 1846 the two brothers, accompanied by Mr. H. Harrison, the brother-in-law and partner of the elder, went to America to take part in the promotion of two illustrated journals, 'The Republic' and 'The Picture Gallery.' Both enterprises failed, the health of George Thomas broke down, and the brothers returned to Europe. They spent two years at Rome, and William Thomas then joined the wood-engraver William James Linton [q. v. Suppl.] as an assistant. He soon started an engraving establishment of his own with a large staff, employed in illustrating books ('The Pilgrim's Progress,' 1857; Hans Andersen's 'Tales for Children,' 1861; 'Gulliver's Travels,' 1864, &c.) On 12 July 1855 Thomas married Annie, daughter of the marine painter John Wilson Carmichael (1800–1868) [q. v.] He was himself a painter in water-colours, and an exhibitor from 1860 at the Suffolk Street Gallery; and though he could only devote his leisure to this branch of art, he distinguished himself sufficiently to be elected on 7 Nov. 1864 an associate, and on 3 May 1875 a full member, of the Institute of Painters in Water-colours. He took a keen interest in that society, and was largely instrumental in raising the capital which enabled it to move from Pall Mall to its new quarters in Piccadilly, and in procuring in 1884 the addition of the prefix 'royal' to its title. His scheme for amalgamating the institute with the Royal Water-colour Society was unsuccessful. A collection of Thomas's own work was exhibited in 1882 under the title 'Ten Years' Holiday in Switzerland.'

As an engraver Thomas had done much work for 'The Illustrated London News.' The experience thus gained enabled him to form and carry out a scheme for the foundation of the rival journal with which his name is most closely identified. He raised the necessary capital with the aid of an elder brother, a Brazilian merchant, and other friends, and the first number of the 'Graphic' appeared on 4 Dec. 1869. 'It was a bold idea,' he wrote himself (Universal Review, 15 Sept. 1888), 'to attempt a new journal at the price of sixpence a copy in the face of the most successful and firmly established illustrated paper in the world, costing then only fivepence,' but his energy, zeal, and thorough knowledge both of art and business soon ensured the success of the venture. The Franco-German war of 1870-1 gave the 'Graphic' a great opportunity, and in times of peace there was a steady demand for a paper which contained good literary matter and drawings by such artists as Walker, Pinwell, Herkomer, Fildes, Macbeth, Gregory, Houghton, Small, and Green. Thomas had a knack of discovering rising talent, and his journal was open to all artists, whatever their method, instead of being confined to professional draughtsmen on wood. He had much to do with the introduction of photography as a means of preserving the original drawing from being destroyed in the cutting of the wood-block. He set a high standard of draughtsmanship, and his constant effort was to maintain it and to spare no cost in procuring the best work. He paid large sums to Millais and other eminent painters for Christmas pictures, and the popular 'Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare's Heroines' was due to his initiative.

For twenty years Thomas devoted almost all his time and thought to the 'Graphic;' but a scheme for another enterprise gradually shaped itself in his mind and bore fruit in the foundation in 1890 of the 'Daily Graphic,' the first daily illustrated paper published in England. The difficulties, both mechanical and financial, of such a scheme were enormous, but he overcame them as soon as improvements in process work and in machinery enabled him to get illustrations produced and printed with the requisite speed. The 'Daily Graphic' had its seasons of difficulty, but its founder faced them with imperturbable confidence and left his second paper no less firmly established than the first. Apart from his work as managing director of these journals he took an active interest in the Artists' Benevolent Institution, the Prince of Wales's Hospital Fund, and other philanthropic agencies, and was a strenuous advocate of the Sunday opening of picture galleries and museums. He died at his house at Chertsey on 16 Oct. 1900 and was buried at Woking. His wife and family of nine sons and one daughter survive him. His eldest son, Mr. Carmichael Thomas, succeeded him as managing director of the 'Graphic.' A portrait by Mr. W. Ridley, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874, is in the possession of Mrs. W. L. Thomas.

[Obituary notices, with portraits, in the Graphic, 20 Oct. 1900, and the Daily Graphic, 18 Oct. 1900; private information.]

C. D.