John Thomson, Engraver

(d. 1847)


From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Was born at Arbroath in Scotland, and came to Ireland with a regiment of Fencibles in 1798. When quartered at Ballymena he met a soldier who had been a stamper of the seals used by the Linen Board in Dublin; and through him was induced to commence business in Ann Street, Belfast, as a cutter of seals for the linen manufacturers. From this he progressed to the engraving of heraldic work on silver, book-plates and illustrations, as well as bank-notes and cheques, which he printed in colours. As early as 1753 a copper-plate press had been set up, and some work was done by Daniel Pomarede (q.v.), who was in Belfast for a time; a volume of Poems by McWilliams, printed in Belfast in 1795, has some rude etchings, and a portrait of Amyas Griffith engraved after a picture by the Belfast portrait-painter, J. Wilson, forms the frontispiece to Griffith's "Miscellaneous Tracts," published in 1788, but this was probably done in Dublin. As late as 1794 the United Irishmen in Belfast had to get their badge or ticket engraved in Dublin; the art of engraving was not permanently established in Belfast until the advent of Thomson. In 1805 he produced caricatures of the famous Castlereagh election, and he did the series of plates for Benn's "History of the Town of Belfast," published in 1823. These are:

Ornamental lettering and vignette on Title-page.

View of Belfast from the Lough.

Commercial Buildings.

Artillery Barracks.

White Linen Hall.

Poor House.

Fever Hospital.

St. Ann's Church.

Chapel of Ease.

Meeting House of the 1st Presbyterian congregation.

Roman Catholic chapel.


The Long Bridge.

MacArt's Fort.

The Kempe Stones, Newtownards.

Druidical altar in the Giants Ring.

Druidical altar at Raye Fort.

White Abbey.

Maps and plans.

Eight of these plates were used for R. M. Young's "Town Book of Belfast," published in 1892; they were then in possession of James Graham, Thomson's last surviving pupil. Thomson illustrated "The School of the Sabbath," a poem by William McComb, published in Belfast in 1822. He was noted for his ornamental lettering, of which the title-page of Benn's book is a good example, and he did a set of copies for James Spence, a writing-master in Belfast. A large plate by him represents a well-known character in old Belfast, "Tantra Barbus"; and another local celebrity, "Corky Bendy," a bow-legged fiddler, was also engraved by him. Among Thomson's book-plates the following are in the Franks collection in the British Museum: "Rev. Edward Hincks" and "George F. Ledlie," both signed J. Thomson sculpt. Belfast. He also engraved watch-paper subjects. By his profession Thomson accumulated a fortune which, about 1825, he invested in the business of the Old Park printing works; but the business collapsed through bad management, and Thomson lost all his savings. Undaunted by the disaster he resumed his profession as an engraver, and worked for many years in his house at the corner of Castle Street and Fountain Street, where he died in the spring of 1847.

Besides JAMES GRAHAM mentioned above, Thomson had a pupil, JAMES BELL, who succeeded him as the principal engraver in Belfast; his grandson is at the present time a seal-cutter in Sydney, N.S.W., and the engraver of the plates for the New South Wales postage stamps. Following Bell, in Belfast, were his apprentices, THOMAS SMYTH, a clever engraver (b. 1820, d. 1907), who in 1845 entered into partnership with his elder brother, JAMES SMYTH, an heraldic painter (d. 1883).

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