Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thornbury, George Walter
THORNBURY, GEORGE WALTER (1828–1876), miscellaneous writer, son of George Thornbury, solicitor, of 16 Chancery Lane, was born in London on 13 Nov. 1828. He was educated at Cheam, Surrey, by the rector, Barton Bouchier, who was husband of his father's sister Mary. Although he was destined by both parents for the church, he resolved to become an artist, and spent some time at the academy of James Mathews Leigh [q. v.] Very soon, however, he settled down to the career of a journalist and man of letters, and achieved some reputation as a versifier, a biographer, and author of popular historical and topographical sketches. He began writing for the press at Bristol, and at the age of seventeen contributed a series of topographical and antiquarian articles to Farley's ‘Bristol Journal.’ At Bristol he also published a small volume of poems.
Returning to London before 1851, Thornbury joined the staff of the ‘Athenæum,’ his earliest contributions being a series of papers descriptive of the first Great International Exhibition. These on their completion were republished in 1851, under the title of ‘The Courts of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.’
Soon afterwards he was associated with Dickens as a contributor to the later volumes of ‘Household Words;’ and when ‘All the Year Round’ was inaugurated, he proved ‘one of Charles Dickens's most valuable contributors’ (Dickens, Letters, ii. 170, iii. 239). In the service of the two periodicals he travelled widely, and wrote articles vividly depicting the United States and Palestine, the Iberian Peninsula, and European Turkey. Another series of articles in ‘All the Year Round,’ entitled ‘Old Stories Retold,’ dealt with topics like ‘Trafalgar in 1805,’ ‘Bombardment of Algiers in 1816,’ ‘The Assassination of Mr. Perceval in 1812,’ ‘The Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820,’ ‘The Two Great Murders in the Ratcliffe Highway in 1811,’ and ‘The Resurrection Men—Burke and Hare, in 1829.’ But the long series was brought to a close on account of Dickens's dislike of the sanguinary topics to which Thornbury confined the later papers. The articles were published in a volume in 1870.
To the monthly magazines Thornbury was also a frequent contributor, and in later life engaged largely in art criticism. His most important independent publication was his ‘Life of J. M. W. Turner,’ from original letters and papers (2 vols. 1861). He wrote the whole of it under the watchful observation of Mr. Ruskin; and, as Thornbury himself remarked to the present writer, it was ‘very much like working bareheaded under a tropical sun!’ As the writer of half a dozen three-volume novels, Thornbury added little to his reputation. One of these novels, called ‘True as Steel’ (1863), was based on Goethe's ‘Goetz von Berlichingen;’ another, ‘Wildfire’ (1864), was the expansion of a sketch by Diderot, and illustrated the period of the great French revolution. Thornbury's last undertaking of importance was a popular descriptive history of London, called ‘Old and New London.’ The first volume appeared in 1872, and the second just before Thornbury's death. The work was completed in four additional volumes by Edward Walford [q. v.]
Thornbury died of overwork at Camberwell House Asylum, Peckham Road, London, on 11 June 1876, and was buried on the 13th at Nunhead cemetery. He married about 1872, and his young widow and three young sons survived him.
Besides the works mentioned, Thornbury's chief publications were:
- ‘Lays and Legends, or Ballads of the New World,’ 1851.
- ‘The Monarchs of the Main, or Adventures of the Buccaneers, illustrated by Phiz,’ 1855.
- ‘Shakespeare's England, or Sketches of our Social History in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth,’ 2 vols. 1856.
- ‘Art and Nature at Home and Abroad,’ 2 vols. 1856.
- ‘Songs of the Cavaliers and Roundheads, illustrated,’ 1857.
- ‘Pierre Dupont's Legend of the Wandering Jew, translated with Critical Remarks by G. W. T.,’ 1857.
- ‘Every Man his own Trumpeter,’ 3 vols. 1858.
- ‘Life in Spain, Past and Present, with eight tinted Illustrations,’ 2 vols. 1860.
- ‘British Artists, from Hogarth to Turner: a Series of Biographical Sketches,’ 1861.
- ‘Cross Country,’ 1861.
- ‘Ice Bound,’ 3 vols. 1861.
- ‘Tales for the Marines,’ 2 vols. 1865.
- ‘Greatheart: a Novel,’ 3 vols. 1866.
- ‘Two Centuries of Song, illustrated,’ 4to, 1867.
- ‘The Vicar's Courtship,’ 3 vols. 1867.
- ‘The Fables of La Fontaine, translated into English Verse by G. W. T.,’ 4to, 1867.
- ‘The Yorkshire Worthies in the National Exhibition,’ 1868.
- ‘A Tour round England,’ 2 vols. 1870. 19. ‘Criss Cross Journeys,’ 2 vols. 1873.
[Personal Recollections; Memoir by the present writer in the Athenæum of 17 June 1876; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub.; Annual Reg. 1876; Men of the Time, 10th ed.; Illustrated London News, 24 June 1876, with portrait.]