Notes from the Library (No.3, August 2010)
JOHN DIXON’S SKETCHBOOKS
John Dixon’s name is not celebrated amongst the worthies of Leeds. His many articles and poems contributed to the Leeds Intelligencer during his lifetime appeared for the most part anonymously. In slightly more recent times, he has appeared only as an appendix to G.D.Lumb’s Thoresby Society article on William Boyne (1931), and by and large he is forgotten. This is unfortunate, as well as being unfair. It is true that he was not the greatest of poets (‘Some there are who sing the praises / Of the violets and daisies, / That young Spring prepare to meet, / In modest guise or dress most sweet’, The Dandelion) and his prose descriptions tend to the inflatedly romantic, but his notebooks, a number of which the Thoresby Society Library is fortunate enough to possess, reveal that behind his printed ephemera there is not only a talented amateur artist but also a dedicated antiquarian with an excellent eye for detail.
The five sketch-books were presented to the Society in 1940 by the Rev F.C. Stott, husband of Dixon’s daughter, Jane. The first is a large leather-bound volume, not a working sketch-book but a volume containing finished pictures in pen and ink besides sketches, mainly taken from work-books, and assembled perhaps by his daughter. The other volumes are all working books consisting not only of sketches but also of detailed notes on the places that he visited. He records inscriptions on tombstones and memorial slabs, extracts from parish registers, as well as notes on details of architecture and decoration, often illustrated. One of his sketches shows a number of seventeenth-century plaster motifs (mermaids, wyverns and floral pots apparently from Huttons Hall, a house in Pudsey), actual examples of which still exist in Wakefield and Bramley. The interest of the sketch-books is, therefore, not simply in Dixon’s skill as an artist, but in the record that they provide of altered and in some cases demolished buildings. Most of his work records places local to Leeds – Aberford, Arthington, Bardsey, Barwick-in-Elmet, Beeston, Bramhope – but he also visited, and drew, Bridlington, the Devil’s Arrows at Boroughbridge, and holiday destinations like Rhuddlan Castle. His everyday work in Ripon resulted in views of Markenfield Hall, and the chapel of St Mary Magdalene in Ripon itself.
Dixon was born in 1829 and the earliest dated sketches are from the late 1840s. At that time, Boyne’s letters are addressed to Dixon at 11 Bull Ring (The Hop Office) in Birmingham and later at the Canal Office, Ripon – one referring to his being ‘in the Railway service’ – but exactly what he was doing has not yet emerged. By 1857, however, he was seeking a new job (perhaps anticipating his marriage) and had clearly written to Boyne asking for his assistance. Boyne’s reply, which is in the Thoresby archives, is not encouraging. The Librarian of the Leeds Library was retiring and Boyne had enquired of him, on Dixon’s behalf, regarding a successor: ‘there are nearly 200 applications, from military, clerical & others – some extraordinary ones among them. Mr Osborne is one, so I fear your chances are small: had there been only 4 or 5 I would have tried some of the Committee; now I am sure I should not be listened.’ Later, as he was about to leave for Natal, Boyne was no more encouraging: ‘I wish I could be of any service to you in getting a situation in Leeds, but I cannot. If you go to Leeds I do not doubt but my Brother in law Charles Pegler will be glad to serve you on my account: if you think so, use Mr Pegler: he is good-hearted, but more particularly where he takes a fancy. He has lately turned an out & out Blue: but as you have the same notions, you will be all right on that score’. In that same year, 1859, whether or not with the help of Mr Pegler, Dixon obtained the important post of Secretary and Collector at the General Infirmary at Leeds, a post which he held until 1895 – the year before he died. He had married in 1858, and he lived for some time in Leeds (at first at 6 and later at 3 Elmwood Green, in Little London). However, in 1880 he moved with his wife and daughter to Bilton near Harrogate, where he lived for the next sixteen years, dying on 10 October 1896, aged 67.
John Dixon was part of the antiquarian community in Leeds that met in William Boyne’s house in 18 Queen Square, later for many years the home of the Thoresby Society. He contributed articles to Reliquiae Antiquae Eboracenses – the short-lived antiquarian journal inspired by Boyne – and remained in contact with Boyne after the latter left to live in Nice, before finally settling in Florence. Their relationship seems very much to have been that of the master and the young man to be encouraged. Boyne frequently asked Dixon to find people he needed, especially artists to illustrate his proposed ‘History of Leeds’. This work, when it eventually appeared, was simply an expansion to seven volumes of T. D. Whitaker’s two-volume set, Loidis and Elmete and Thoresby’s Ducatus, by the addition of innumerable drawings, watercolours, engravings and prints. Though Dixon did contribute one or two drawings and water-colours himself to the completed work, the more important new work was that of John and Joseph Rhodes, W.R. Robinson and William Bowman.
John Dixon is not a great artist, but his work in the small format of the sketch-book is not only delightful but also of considerable historical importance for the Leeds area.
Illustrations: 1. East window, side aisle, Beeston Chapel;
2. Interior of Bardsey Church; 3. Plaster motifs, ?Huttons Hall,
Pudsey; 4. Bridlington Quay from the North Pier; 5. Antiquarian
sketches; 6. Barwick in Elmet from Hall Town Hill. All are taken
from the John Dixon Sketch-books in Thoresby Society, MS Box