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Thomas Davidson, Deaf Artist – “he became a kindly hearted, liberal thinker”

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 16 May 2014

Thomas Davidson, R.A. (1842-1919), was an artist of great skill.  He specialised in historical naval scenes, and also created memorable paintings illustrating the work of Emily Brontë .   He had a close association with St. Saviour’s Church in Oxford Street, London, including  being part of the Deaf and Dumb Debating Society, the R.A.D.D., and on the Committee of the Charitable and Provident Society for the Deaf and Dumb (Ephphatha).

Gilby says in his as yet unpublished memoirs, “The Men and women who were the backbone of the social club at St. Saviour’s, and who were very often seen there, were Thomas Davidson, the artist, Samuel Bright Lucas (son of Mrs.Margaret Lucas, foundress of the British Womens Temperance League), C W. Moore, the wood engraver, a friend of Brangwyn and other artists, W. Emerton the Emersons, W. H. Boughten, H. G. G. Ayshford, the wood engraver, and Hay Taylor.”

Davidson was born in London on 17th of January 1842, son of ‘Thomas Davidson Esq. of Hyde Park Corner’ (Deaf and Dumb Magazine).*  The family came originally from Kelso in Scotland (British Deaf Mute).  Losing his hearing aged four, young Thomas was sent as a private pupil to Thomas Watson, at the Old Kent Road Institution, then afterwards to a ‘hearing’ school in Clapham.  He is said to have thought oral education important.  He attended the School of Art at Marlborough House, (later home to the Prince of Wales) “under the two Whichelos” according to Gilby (Ephphatha).  He also studied under “Mr. Carey of Bloomsbury, Mr. Leigh of Newman Street, and Mr. Alex. Johnston of Fitzroy Square” before going to the Royal Academy for ten years (Deaf and Dumb Magazine).  The British Deaf Mute puts a Mr. Hatherly in there as well and I expect that it would be possible to research all these people to put Davidson’s development as an artist into context.  Thomas was also the winner of Royal Academy silver medals, and in 1868 he shared a studio in Paris with Claud Calthorp, “attending M. Bonnett’s atelier”.

Davidson Nelson 001

Davidson married in 1871 and had a large family with his wife Charlotte Douglas McHeath, who was also an exhibited artist.  In 1881 they were living at 82 Park Road, Hampstead.  His second son Douglas became a student at the Academy, while other children became an architect and a ‘news correspondent in Holland’.

Davidson died in Walberswick in Suffolk where he had retired, in November 1919.

“Looking towards the Altar, and on the right, a great picture by Thomas Davidson (himself deaf and dumb) called Ephphatha dominated the Church and decidedly was its principal adornment.  We give an illustration of this picture, though the reproduction by no means conveys a proper idea of the glorious golden sunset which fills the rear ground.” (Gilby, Memoirs)

st. saviour's interior

In Peeps Into the Deaf World, Roe quotes Davidson,

All the deaf should read a great deal, and that will give them more knowledge of the world, past and present. I am a great reader, and have read history, biography, books on travel, religion, and novels, besides the daily newspapers, and it is a great comfort – this reading – to one who is deaf, and to whom little is said.

In his obituary (Ephphatha), Gilby says that his “opinions and methods in art were conservative, but in many ways he was in advance of his time, and he became a kindly hearted, liberal thinker.”

The picture of Davidson here is by his friend C.W. Moore (Deaf and Dumb Magazine, 1879)


British Deaf-Mute, 1895, 4(40), 66. (illus)

Deaf and Dumb Magazine, 1879, 7(82), 152-54. (illus)

Silent Worker, 1897

W.R. Roe, A distinguished deaf-mute artist, Peeps into the Deaf World, 1917, p.262-7 (illus)

F.W.G.G[ilby], Mr. Thomas Davidson, Ephphatha, 1920, no.45 p.576

* Thomas Davidson  This website lists his father as George, but as he is listed as Thomas Davidson Junior in the list of subscribers to St. Saviour’s (for 1861-2) on the same page and at the same address as another Thomas Davidson, it seems clear that that website is in error.  We are grateful to Dr. W. J. Lyons for this information.

Deaf artist William Agnew

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 20 December 2011

AGNEW, William (1846-1914)

Educated at the Glasgow Institution for the Deaf and Dumb by Duncan Anderson (headmaster there from 1836 until his retirement in 1869), Agnew was an amateur artist who painted series of pictures showing Queen Victoria using finger spelling to communicate with a deaf woman on the Isle of Wight. The five paintings (none of which now exists) are the “Royal Condescension” paintings of 1883, 1889 and 1900 (for the differences between them, see Britain’s deaf heritage), “true Nobility” (1897) and “Post Office, Whippingham, I.O.W.”

Much of the following is from the British Deaf-Mute article of 1892. Agnew left school to become a bookbinder, and after nine year went to work for the ‘semi-mute’ printer Mr A.F. Strathern. In about 1872 Agnew went to work for ‘Messrs Moncrief, Barr, Paterson, and Co., an eminent firm of writers in Glasgow.’ He became involved in work to gather funds for an Institute for adult Deaf in Glasgow and West Scotland, and the Queen gave her name as a patron and a £50 donation. In 1891 a Grand Bazaar raised £6,000 and a site for the Institute was purchased for £4,500.

Agnew was a strong opponant of the oral system, “and most certainly he himself is a standing proof of how the sign-manual system can educate a man.”

Agnew died on 21st December 1914.

The picture, which was exhibited at the Edinburgh Exhibition of 1890, has the following details at the bottom :

“Royal Condescension, from the original painting by , 36″ by 24″, by William Agnew. This will doubtless prove a picture of historical interest. Some years ago a Deaf and Dumb Woman namned Mrs Tuffield resided with her parents, who had charge of the Post Office at Osborne, Isle of Wight, 1874. Her maiden name was Bective Groves, and on account of her husband’s cruelty, she had been obliged to leave him. In her usual kind of way Her Majesty the Queen was in the habit of visiting this Deaf Mute, and took great pleasure in trying to lighten her sorrow by talking to her by means of the Finger Alphabet. Her Majesty lately corroborated this story, and at the same time mentioned that she is not now so proficient in the Silent Language.”

[Click onto the picture to see it at a larger size]

The picture has Agnew’s signature at the bottom left and the date 1889.

Mr. Wm Agnew. British Deaf-Mute and Deaf Chronicle, 1892, 2(14),  19. (NB. RNID Library copy shelved under The Deaf Chronicle.)

Mr. William Agnew. British Deaf Monthly, 1902, 11(131), 533-534. (photo)

Margate school for the Deaf. Silent World, 1952, Sep, 104-07. (p. 106 refers to Queen Victoria’s interest in the school and the portrait of her at the ex-pupil’s bedside)

JACKSON, P. Britain’s deaf heritage. Pentland Press, 1990. pp.148-150