Edward Atkinson Hornel

Edward Hornel (1864 - 1933) is perhaps most well known for the somewhat formulaic work of his later years. The vast number of these depictions of young girls chasing butterflies or playing amongst flowers have sadly tended to overshadow the significance of the artistic achievements of his earlier career. He has been described as one of Scotland's most brilliant colourists and is widely acknowledged as a key member of the Glasgow Boys.

Early Years and Training 

Edward Atkinson Hornel was born in Australia in 1864. His parents, a Scottish couple from Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway, had emigrated there 7 years previously. For unknown reasons, shortly before Edward's second birthday the family left Australia and returned to Scotland. Hornel attended school in Kirkcudbright where he demonstrated a natural talent for drawing. Recognising his potential, his mother, widowed when her son was 15, decided that he should attend art school. 

He was sent to the Trustee's Academy in Edinburgh in 1880 but the traditional teaching there left him uninspired and frustrated. After completing 3 years there he travelled to Belgium with fellow students - W S MacGeorge and William Walls - to continue his training at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Antwerp where, by contrast, he found his passion for painting encouraged. He studied there for almost two years and then returned home to Scotland. He rented a studio in Glasgow but chose to settle in his hometown of Kirkcudbright. Kirkcudbright remained his home for the rest of his life, but he travelled abroad, first to Japan in 1894 with George Henry, and later to Ceylon, Australia, America and elsewhere with his sister Elizabeth ('Tizzie'). 

Friendship with George Henry 

During the years that Hornel had been training the group of artists known as the Glasgow Boys had been forming. Amongst their number was George Henry. Hornel was introduced to Henry soon after his return to Scotland and they struck up a close friendship which centred around their art. They worked closely together visiting each others' studios and exchanging ideas and constructive criticism on each others' work. Working this way the two artists encouraged each other to experiment and with the work that resulted they were to lead the Glasgow Boys into their most innovative and controversial phase. 

Up until this time, the Glasgow Boys had been working mainly in a naturalistic manner inspired by the French artist Bastien-Lepage. Hornel also began working in this style but increasingly he and Henry became interested in the decorative possibilities of painting. They began to focus their attention on the canvas surface; on the creation of textures and pattern and the design of a composition. Gradually, the creation of form and a sense of perspective and even subject matter itself came to be of secondary importance to them. 

Their handling of paint became broader and large areas of flat colour appeared in their paintings. On two paintings that they collaborated on, they went so far as to apply gold leaf to areas of the canvas. The resulting works were very two-dimensional in appearance and, in parts, quite abstract. 


Colour had an important role to play in the decorative focus of Hornel's work and colour was certainly his great interest and strength. He had a brilliant and unique sense of colour and used bold harmonies which give his work a very distinctive appearance. He was influenced by the experiments in colour of French artist Monticelli who was enjoying considerable popularity amongst British artists at this time. Hornel also spoke of his admiration for Ford Maddox Brown's use of colour. 

Subject Matter 

With regards to subject matter, Hornel was at first influenced by the subject choices of Jules Bastien-Lepage and his followers amongst the Glasgow Boys who mainly painted scenes from everyday rural life - humble figures going about their work on the land. Lepage in particular, tended to use high horizon lines in these scenes which had the effect of enclosing his figures, giving them a certain psychological intensity. Both Hornel and Henry were interested in this symbolist effect but of even more interest to them was the way in which it opened up the opportunity to explore the decorative. The enclosing nature of the high horizon made it easier to do away with perspective and focus on patterns and textures. 
Woodland scenes allowed Hornel to avoid horizon lines altogether and to explore the contrasts and patterns of the vertical tree trunks against the surrounding foliage. He nearly always chose to include figures in these scenes, mostly young women and girls who become trapped in, and merged with, his mosaics of colour. This theme of groups of young girls within nature preoccupied him for the rest of his career. 


In 1891 Hornel completed a painting called Summer. This painting was to raise his profile significantly and is regarded as one of the most important and controversial paintings produced by the Glasgow Boys. It features two girls playing in a clearing amongst trees. The rich colours of their hair and clothing are repeated all across the canvas in the vegetation that surrounds them so that the whole is a mosaic of texture and colour. 

The painting was shown in Glasgow in 1892 and received considerable praise. However, it received quite a different reaction from the Liverpool public when it was exhibited there with work by other of the Glasgow Boys later that same year. Many of the works in the show were criticised for their failure to capture a likeness to what is seen in nature and Summer was singled out as the strongest example of this pursuit of the decorative. The controversy heightened when it was announced that the Walker Art Gallery intended to buy the painting. When it did, Summer became the first major work by one of the Glasgow boys to be bought by a British public collection. 

The following year Hornel and Henry decided to travel to Japan together. Their intent was to learn more about Japanese art and culture and to spend some time painting there. It was a productive time for Hornel and even after his return to Scotland he continued to work with the studies he had made there. In 1895 he held a very successful solo exhibition of this body of work. 

Later Years 

By the mid 1890s Hornel had achieved considerable critical acclaim and was enjoying success. However, his work continued to elude the interest of many potential patrons. His decorative experiments were still ahead of public taste which favoured a more realist style. In order to achieve financial success he felt he needed to broaden the appeal of his work and a change is evident in his work from this period on. Form and subject matter began to take a more prominent role again. He continued to paint young girls in nature but now they became more distinct from their backgrounds, occupying their own space. Their activities became increasingly frivolous, instead of engaging in, or resting from, the everyday tasks of rural life they now chased butterflies and pored over flowers. 

These works were popular and they did bring the desired financial success he sought. In the following years Hornel spent less and less time with Henry and, giving up his studio in Glasgow, he worked in increasing isolation in Kirkcudbright. He also began now to use photography as an aid to his work: He had local children pose for photographs for him and would later transfer these poses on to his canvases in the studio. He would use the same photographs for several works so that the same pose was often repeated. 

Hornel's experimental period was at an end and his work eventually descended into something quite repetitive and formulaic and given the commercial success of these works this is not surprising. Unfortunately however, the resulting volume of work in this later style has tended to overshadow the brilliant and innovative work of his early career. 

By this time, his interests were moving towards a project which was to preoccupy him for the rest of life, and which was financed by his continuing commercial success as a painter. In 1901 he had purchased Broughton House in Kirkcudbright, to which he later added a gallery and studio designed by the Glasgow architect, John Keppie. From 1920 and with the support of Thomas Fraser, publisher and book collector himself, Hornel resolved to create a Dumfries and Galloway Library in Broughton House, containing books either written about the three counties of Wigtownshire, the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright and Dumfriesshire, or written by authors from this area. By the time of his death in 1933, a very large collection had been gathered together, including perhaps the best private collection of Robert Burns' works. Under the terms of his will he left the house and library to the people of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright under trustees. The Hornel Trust came into operation on the death of his sister Tizzie in 1950. Broughton House is now managed by the National Trust for Scotland, and re-opened to the public last year following a major programme of building refurbishment works and conservation of the collections.

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