Mason, George Heming (DNB00)

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MASON, GEORGE HEMING (1818–1872), painter, born at Fenton Park in the parish of Stoke-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, on 11 March 1818, was the eldest son of George Miles Mason, afterwards of Wetley Abbey, by his wife, Eliza Heming, daughter of Major Heming of Mappleton, Derbyshire. His grandfather was a potter, and the pottery was afterwards carried on by his father and uncle, who invented the celebrated ware called ‘Mason's iron-stone china.’ His father, who graduated from Brasenose College, Oxford, was a cultivated man, who relinquished business, became a country gentleman, and mainly devoted himself to literature and painting.

Mason went at an early age to Anderton's school at Brompton, Newcastle-under-Lyme; was afterwards educated at home, and in 1834 was articled to William Royden Watts, surgeon, of Birmingham, but after a few years the articles were cancelled. As a youth he was passionately fond of literature and of athletic exercise, and he inherited his father's taste for painting. An early oil sketch of his, entitled ‘Dummy's Turn to Play,’ still exists, in which he tried to embody a ghastly incident of the time of the plague. He was also art-critic to a local newspaper.

In the autumn of 1843 he left England with his brother Miles on a trip through France, Switzerland, and Italy. The journey was mainly performed on foot. They reached Rome in the autumn of 1845, and George took a studio there. Temporary family troubles soon compelled him and his brother to shift for themselves, and he picked up a livelihood by painting portraits of the English in Rome, and more particularly of their horses and dogs, for which he had a natural talent. Despite a serious illness and severe poverty, Mason's spirits never sank, and when the Italian war broke out, he helped to tend the wounded. His brother Miles entered Garibaldi's army as a volunteer, and eventually became a captain. During the siege of Rome, Mason and two fellow-artists, G. Thomas and Murray, were arrested as suspected spies, and narrowly escaped death. Soon afterwards Watts Russell met him at Rome, and commissioned him to paint a picture for fifty scudi. In 1851 he made a tour in the Sabine and Ciociara countries with William Cornwallis Cartwright, afterwards M.P. for Oxfordshire, and subsequently spent much time painting cattle as the guest of a gentleman grazier of the Campagna.

Mason delighted in the Campagna, and his three fine pictures, ‘Ploughing in the Campagna,’ ‘In the Salt Marshes,’ 1856, and ‘A Fountain with Figures,’ amply prove his intimate knowledge of it. When thinking out a composition, which often originated in some literary subject, he usually strolled the neighbouring country in search of particular forms and colours for the accessories. Sometimes a new subject would be thus suggested, as in the case of his ‘Ploughing in the Campagna,’ for which he deserted another work already begun.

Mason's fascinating personality procured him the friendship of all the painters and architects who visited Rome, and when Sir F. Leighton made the city his winter head-quarters, he and Mason became fast friends. Cavaliere Costa was for many years Mason's constant companion in Italy. Costa, who in the early days of their intimacy thought Mason's execution childish, recognised from the first the beauty of the sentiment which characterised all his work. They adopted together a system, which they christened ‘the Etruscan,’ of preparing their pictures in monochrome before laying on their final colours. Mason visited the Paris exhibition in 1855, and although he greatly admired the work of Decamps and Hébert, his confidence that he could excel most contemporary painters was confirmed. In 1857 he is said to have made an income of six hundred guineas. In 1858 he returned to England, married, and settled with his wife in one corner of the old family mansion, Wetley Abbey, which is situated in the midst of a park, five miles from the Potteries.

The exchange of the blue skies of Italy for the grey and misty atmosphere of England at first depressed Mason. His friend Sir Frederick Leighton stimulated him, however, to exertion, and Mason's first picture painted in England, ‘Wind on the Wolds,’ is in Sir F. Leighton's possession. Thenceforward he found inspiration in the exquisite though subdued colours of the Staffordshire country; and there followed from his brush a series of idylls which stamp him as the greatest of the idyllic painters of England.

In 1863 Costa visited him at Wetley while Mason was painting ‘The End of the Day,’ now at Windsor, and ‘Wetley Rocks,’ now belonging to the writer of this article. Afterwards they visited Paris together, and in 1864 Mason shifted his quarters to Westbourne House, Shaftesbury Road, Hammersmith, so as to enjoy the society of his brother artists, but he still passed much of his time at Wetley. At Shaftesbury Road he painted ‘The Gander,’ ‘The Geese,’ ‘The Cast Shoe,’ ‘Yarrow,’ ‘The Young Anglers,’ ‘The Unwilling Playmate,’ and ‘The Evening Hymn.’ A fastidiousness, which increased with his years, was always characteristic of him. He altered the composition of ‘The Evening Hymn’ after it was finished, and the exhibition of it was thus delayed for a year. ‘The Blackberry Gatherers’ was twice repainted; first it was winter, with a hag gathering enchanted herbs, and a fiery-eyed raven on a bare branch overhead; and then he painted it as summer, before completing it as it now stands. A little landscape in Staffordshire was begun as an effect of early spring, then altered to summer, and eventually finished as a late autumn effect, when only the last few leaves were clinging to the trees.

In 1869 he was elected A.R.A., and removed to 7 Theresa Terrace, Hammersmith, where he painted ‘Only a Shower,’ ‘Girls Dancing,’ ‘Blackberry Gathering,’ ‘The Milk Maid,’ and the ‘Harvest Moon.’ During his last years his health grew feeble, and visits to Lord Leconfield at Petworth House, or to a country house placed at his disposal by the Duke of Westminster, failed to restore it. He died of angina pectoris, on 22 Oct. 1872, at his house, 7 Theresa Terrace, aged 54, just after completing his largest, and in some respects his finest, picture, ‘The Harvest Moon.’ He was buried on 28 Oct. at Brompton cemetery.

Mason married at the parish church of Birkenhead, Cheshire, on 5 Aug. 1858, Mary Emma Wood, a daughter of Edward Gittens Wood of Bayston House, Shropshire, by whom he had two sons and five daughters. Five of his children survived him.

His three largest English compositions were: ‘The Evening Hymn,’ ‘Girls Dancing,’ and ‘The Harvest Moon;’ in the last, the scythes cutting against the sky form a magnificent composition; but it is doubtful if any exceed in poetic sentiment ‘Yarrow,’ ‘The Cast Shoe’ (now in the National Gallery), ‘Home from Milking,’ ‘The Young Anglers,’ and ‘A Landscape, Derbyshire.’

The following pictures were exhibited at the Royal Academy: ‘Ploughing in the Campagna,’ 1857; ‘In the Salt Marshes,’ ‘Campagna di Roma,’ 1859; ‘Landscape,’ 1861; ‘Mist on the Moors,’ 1862; ‘Catch,’ 1863; ‘Returning from Ploughing,’ 1864; ‘The Gander,’ ‘The Geese,’ and ‘The Cast Shoe,’ in 1865; ‘Yarrow,’ ‘Landscape, North Staffordshire,’ and ‘The Young Anglers,’ in 1866; ‘Evening, Matlock,’ and ‘The Unwilling Playmate,’ 1867; ‘The Evening Hymn’ and ‘Netley [a misprint for ‘Wetley’] Moor,’ 1868; ‘Only a Shower,’ ‘Three Studies from Nature,’ and ‘Girls Dancing,’ in 1869; ‘Landscape, Derbyshire,’ 1870; ‘Blackberry Gathering’ and ‘The Milk Maid,’ 1871; ‘The Harvest Moon,’ 1872.

At the Dudley Gallery: ‘Sketch from Nature, Angmering, Sussex;’ ‘The Clothes Line;’ ‘Landscape, Staffordshire, near Southport;’—‘Crossing the Moor’ was in an exhibition held at the Cosmopolitan Club. In 1873 an exhibition of his works was held at the Burlington Fine Arts Club; here were many of his most charming pictures and compositions which had not been exhibited before: ‘The Return from Milking,’ ‘Wetley Rocks,’ ‘Wind in the Wolds,’ ‘Ploughing in the Campagna,’ ‘La Trita,’ ‘Love,’ and ‘Home from Work.’

‘The End of the Day,’ ‘The Cast Shoe,’ ‘The Harvest Moon,’ and ‘The Return from Milking’ were etched by R. W. Macbeth, esq., A.R.A.; ‘The Evening Hymn’ and ‘The Anglers,’ by Waltner; ‘The Gleaner,’ by Damman; ‘The Blackberry Gatherers’ (for the ‘Art Journal,’ 1883), ‘Girls Dancing,’ and a small one of ‘The Return from Milking,’ by Ragamez. A woodcut of ‘The End of the Day,’ the property of the queen, appeared in the ‘Art Journal,’ 1883.

[Personal knowledge; information from friends; Royal Academy Catalogues, 1867 to 1872; Catalogue of the Burlington Fine Arts Club, 1873; articles in Architect, 27 Dec. 1879, in Contemporary Review, 1873 (by Mr. John Forbes White), Portfolio 1871 (by Mr. Sidney Colvin), in Art Journal, 1883, Men of the Reign, 1885, Spectator, Pall Mall Gazette, Times.]

G. A-n.