Born in Seaton Carew in 1875, Frank Henry Mason was once a highly-celebrated marine painter and poster artist. At a young age Mason discovered that the waters of the North East were, quite literally, in his blood. After spending a number of years living with his grandfather who was a lighthouse keeper on the Tees, he was educated at a school on board the HMS Conway which was moored on the Mersey. While still a young boy of 10 or 11, he went off to sea on his grandfather’s boat before later enlisting as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy.
A keen builder and collector of ship models as well as a painter, sketcher and etcher, it wasn’t long before Mason’s life upon the sea flowed on to canvas and so our local artist was born. Now, fifty years since his death, Mason’s works have come back to the North East. We caught up with Ed Yardley who is responsible for Mason’s regional homecoming.
Like many who will visit the up-coming exhibitions in Hartlepool and Darlington, Ed has his own particular connection with Mason and his artwork. He explains, ‘as I was growing up there was always a watercolour, which will be in the exhibition, called The Return of the Fleet’. Showing trawler boats following herring shoals in the North Sea, the image captures a time when Northern fishing ports were amongst the biggest and most important in the country. As he routinely walked past his uncle’s painting Ed’s curiosity was roused so he decided to find out more about the picture and its artist. His investigation, which spans over two decades, has led to the publication of two books, the latter of which will be published in conjunction with the forthcoming exhibition at Hartlepool Art Gallery.
After growing up in the North East, Mason eventually put down roots on the Yorkshire coast, joining his family in Scarborough. He was a member of the Staithes School, a group of nineteenth-century painters who were influenced by French Impressionists such as Monet, Cézanne and Renoir, but were based in the North Yorkshire fishing village. He produced maritime paintings of the North East and Yorkshire for the rest of his life, many of which will be showcased in Hartlepool.
Ed explains how important Mason and his contemporaries were for highlighting the beauty and importance of the North East. He says, ‘back in the 1890s everyone was painting the Thames and London and if you go to the London Academy and look at the catalogues there are loads of works of the Thames by marine artists, very little of Newcastle’. But Frank Mason was an important exception. Mason’s chief work, one which Ed suggests ‘made his reputation’, was a watercolour called Power and Wealth of the Tyne. Displaying a range of different boats, the painting shows the shipyards building major battle ships for the Japenese war fleet and vessels transporting coal out of Newcastle. In the 1900s the North East was the biggest producer of coal in the country and it exported more coal to the Empire than any other port. The Power and Wealth of the Tyne shows the power the region held through its shipbuilding and the wealth it achieved by exporting coal. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy and made Mason a household name. Mason’s artwork gives a valuable insight into the history of the North East. As Ed remarks, ‘coal’s gone, shipbuilding has gone, but we can still see it through Mason’s art’.
Mason’s paintings became extremely popular with middle-class families in the early 1900s who would purchase his artwork as a souvenir or keep-sake from their holidays on the east coast. Well-to-do families from cities such as Leeds or Bradford would come over to holiday at the coast, in places like Scarborough, Whitby or Whitley Bay and would commission Mason to produce a painting that they could take home with them. For many, Mason’s paintings captured fond memories of trips away from home.
Although now based in Scarborough, Mason maintained his links with Newcastle and the North East. He married his wife in Newcastle and though he spent his summers on the Yorkshire coast he would return to the city each winter.
In addition to painting the Tyne, later in his life Mason became a poster artist working for the London & North East Railway Company (LNER). This type of work was more commission-based. When the company wanted to promote such resorts as Whitley Bay, South Shields or Redcar, they would ask him to produce a quick sketch or ‘rough’ of a poster. If they liked it then it would be produced and rolled out across the network. He also produced carriage prints for the railway companies, which would be used to fill the spaces above the seating benches in the train carriages. Reproductions of Mason’s railway posters can still be seen around the North East today. Ed Yardley has done important work tracking and cataloguing Mason’s railway posters. So far he has traced 201 posters, dating between 1910 and 1961. A complete list of these works can be found in his forthcoming book and most have been illustrated with thumb-nail images. The exhibition at Head of Steam in Darlington is devoted to Mason’s railway posters and will feature an impressive collection of these posters, many of which have a local connection.
Mason enjoyed considerable success as a commercial artist. As well as producing posters, he created a number of postcards and even designed a Christmas card for the Queen in 1937. Interestingly, he also produced British propaganda art in the Second World War. Producing such images as If Hitler Comes, which showed British battle ships in the Channel surrounded by spitfires and other aircraft, they were designed to reassure the British public that if Hitler set his sights on Britain we would not be defeated. The World War II images will form an entire section of the Ashore and Afloat exhibition at Hartlepool Art Gallery.
Mason maintained his connections with the North East throughout his life. Though later in life he lived and worked in London, to stay close to his commissioners, he served as President of the Hartlepool Art Club from 1953 until his death in 1965. It is a fitting tribute to our late, great artist that his works now come back to exhibit in the same town.
Frank Henry Mason is perhaps not now the recognisable artist that he once was, but his eclectic and diverse range of works means that these exhibitions will appeal to all art enthusiasts and those with a local interest. Mason championed the North East when most other maritime artists set their sights on the capital. His artwork shows our region in all its splendour. Many of us will remember shipbuilding on the Tyne, or remember holidaying on the East Coast, this is a chance to relive those memories through Mason’s wonderful art.
This will be the largest exhibition of Mason’s work to date, including examples of his original artwork which are on loan from the York Railway Museum, images of coal mining from Wakefield’s National Coal Mining Museum and showcasing previously unseen works from private collections. This is a unique opportunity to see some of Mason’s best art in his home town. Lets give him the homecoming he deserves.
Ashore and Afloat: The Art of Frank Henry Mason 1875–1965
Hartlepool Art Gallery, 21 March - 30 May.
Full Steam Ahead - The Railway Art of Frank Henry Mason
Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum, Tues–Sun throughout May.
Frank Henry Mason: Marine Painter and Poster Artist by Edward Yardley is available to purchase from Hartlepool Art Gallery or at www.frankhenrymason.com