A happy ending for work of Victorian artist who brought literature to life

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An artist whose work brought to life many of English literature's greatest characters and chronicled the social conditions of the Victorian age is to be honoured, 85 years after his death.

A collection of work by Hugh Thomson, whose illustrations gave form to the personalities described in classics such as William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Jane Austen's Emma, is to go on permanent display in his home town in Northern Ireland after being rescued from a suitcase where they lay forgotten for 30 years.

Thomson was born in Coleraine in 1860 and became an accomplished painter after his family moved to Kilrea in the south of the Borough. However it was as an illustrator that his talents shone and he was discovered by the prestigious publishing firm, Marcus Ward of Belfast.

Under the tutelage of John Vinycomb, he worked withartists such as Kate Greenaway, J W Carey and Walter Crane before moving to England in 1883. While working for the publishers Macmillan, he earned a reputation as one of the top illustrators of his time, alongside Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac.

Commissioned to illustrate works by Charles Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Oliver Goldsmith, Austen Dobson, George Eliot and Shakespeare, he was responsible for creating many of the interpretations still associated with a number of legendary literary characters.

"His work offers insight into the social conditions of the Victorian period and his attention to detail records and brings to life the historic landscapes, people and social customs during this period," said a spokeswoman for the National Art Collections Fund, which has given a grant of £40,000 to help acquire the works. "The collection represents a substantial and definitive body of Thomson's work."

The 540 watercolours and drawings in the collection - bought by Coleraine Museum from a couple who were given the collection by a nephew of the artist - include original drawings for Vanity Fair andEmma.

Coleraine Borough Council now intends to create a Hugh Thomson Study Room within the Town Hall and a series of travelling exhibitions are being planned. "We are delighted that with this collection our museum now holds the largest known body of his work and the importance of it being returned to his home town cannot be underestimated," said Timothy Deans, mayor of Coleraine.

Although his name may not be readily recognised by the general public many of Thomson's works are - until recently characters created by him to illustrate works by J M Barrie were used worldwide on boxes of Quality Street chocolates.

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