Thomas Kershaw

Thomas Kershaw 1819-1898
"Prince of Grainers & Marblers"
A Brief history & tribute to his life & works
by Stewart Mc Donald. 2004

In April 2004, the Painting Craft Teachers Association & Bolton Museum & Art Gallery held a month long joint exhibition entitled "The Painted Illusion" The exhibition featured work by the country's leading decorative painters, past & present. Centre piece of the exhibition was work by Thomas Kershaw, a painter & decorator who served his apprenticeship at Bolton. Along side his Bolton collection were several panels loaned by The Worshipful Company of Painter Stainers, & Edinburgh's Telford College. The exhibition brought together nearly all of Kershaw's Panels for the first time since the great World Exhibitions of the mid 1800s.

KERSHAWS ST REMY MARBLING, ON SLATE, BOLTON MUSEUM & ART GALLERY
In the mid nineties, I began studying decorative painting at the Bill Holgate Studio of Graining & Marble Arts, in Clitheroe, Lancashire. It was during my very first class that I first heard the name of Thomas Kershaw. As my interest in graining & marbling increased during that course, it was a quite natural question that I asked Bill during one of his lessons; "Bill, who is the greatest ever Grainer & Marbler"? Without the slightest hesitation he answered "THOMAS KERSHAW"! He then proceeded to look out some photographs that he had taken of Kershaw's panels to show me. By this time the whole class had stopped work to gather round these photos. He then confounded us all by telling us he had died almost a hundred years before, and was like Bill, a Lancashire lad! The photos were amazing; I spent the rest of the day getting as much information as I could from Bill about this man and his work. As the other students returned to work, Bill realized he had lit a fire in me, and promptly disappeared into his house. He returned with a massive leather bound book, which was probably as old as Kershaw himself! I spent hours reading the dozens of pages in the book about the life & work of Thomas Kershaw. Bill proved himself to be an absolute oracle about Kershaw & his work, & for the next five years most of our conversations invariably ended up about Kershaw. I asked Bill where his panels were kept, and he told me that being a Bolton apprentice, Kershaw had donated many of his panels to Bolton Museum & Art Gallery in his will. I hastily phoned to arrange a viewing appointment with the curator at Bolton, just a short trip from Clitheroe, to see his panels. (See top of page) On arriving at the museum the curator escorted me to the back of the galleries where they were kept, in huge pull out display cases.

KERSHAWS WALNUT GRAINING, ON WOOD, VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM,LONDON
When I first saw them I was stunned. They were flawless beyond belief! The intricate detail and depth he had produced was remarkable, the vibrancy of colour; the contrast between light & shade breathtaking, each one looked like a freshly quarried piece of exquisite marble, or a newly cut piece of rare exotic wood. He had even marbled on huge pieces of slate, so they would feel cold to the touch, just like real marble! Centre piece was a huge pair of double doors he had grained in oak, its panels expertly painted in leaf, flower & fruit ornamentation. And all rendered over 150 years ago!! No wonder that to this day he has yet to be surpassed. For many years after that when I traveled down to attend Bills workshops, it became an annual pilgrimage to also travel to Bolton Museum & Art Gallery to view and photograph his panels, and to this day, I still make a point of going to view them whenever I am in England.

KERSHAWS SIENNA MARBLING, ON SLATE , BOLTON MUSEUM & ART GALLERY
Kershaw's work is still as popular today as it was when he was at the height of his fame. Every year, visitors & painters from all around the world travel to Bolton to see his work. Along with his panels at Bolton, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London have a selection on display, along with huge columns he marbled in Breche' Violet at the entrance to the Museum. Telford college in Edinburgh also have a collection, including an amazing Trompe' Loeil Panel which he painted & gave to his daughter as a wedding gift; (she married Thomas Bonner, of the famous Bonner painters of Edinburgh)

Thomas Kershaw was born in Standish near Wigan, in 1819. He was apprenticed to a local Painter & Decorator, Mr. J. Platt, of Bolton, at the age of 12, for a period of nine years, for which Kershaw's Father paid Platt the pricey sum of 23 a year. In return his employer undertook to employ & teach him his trade, & to keep him in food & clothes only, during this time; no other remuneration to change hands whatsoever. The working time in those days was not 8 hours a day, but 10, with an extra 4 hours extra expected each day, Saturdays included.
KERSHAWS ROOT OF OAK GRAINING, ON SLATE, BOLTON MUSEUM & ART GALLERY
Kershaw immediately showed some artistic skill in his early years, painting small pictures for which he had a ready sale. It was with these proceeds that he bought his first set of graining tools & set to work, buying a piece of wainscot oak from the local timber merchants, with which he spent many hours in his spare time trying to imitate. These efforts were soon rewarded, and he began to show the wonderful aptitude for graining & decorative painting, which would eventually gain him world wide reputation. He was soon teaching those who had taught him, & his reputation was spreading far & wide. When Kershaw completed his apprenticeship he promptly gave notice, much to his employer's dismay. He had decided that to be regarded as the best, he must cross swords with the best, & they were to be found where all the ambitious folk of that day were; London! On arriving in London he found that his reputation preceded him, & he was much sought after. Messrs William Cubitt, one of London's largest & most respected firms lost no time in engaging his services. Amongst Cubitt's employees was the famous Scottish decorative painter McPherson, who was up until that time regarded as the best grainer in the Country. Much curiosity had been aroused to see how the young Lancashire lad would acquit himself against the famous Scotsman. Kershaw's moment of truth had arrived.

KERSHAWS AMERICAN COTTON WOOD GRAINING, ON WOOD, BOLTON MUSEUM & ART GALLERY
Any doubts about his reputation were immediately dispelled, for Kershaw at once showed his amazed associates that a new star had risen, such was the flawless perfection and speed of his Graining. McPherson immediately conceded. Kershaw's "real wood" graining was soon the topic of the whole trade in the great city, many saying they had never seen wood "grow" so rapidly and perfectly in front of their very eyes, his graining being completely indiscernible from the real thing. Kershaw very soon had all Cubitts graining work to himself, and practically all the best graining work in London. This was very much to the chagrin of the powerful trade unionists at the time, who charged him with doing just too much work. Kershaw's answer was typically boorish. The more they annoyed him, the more work he would do. They promptly left him alone.

KERSHAWS BRECHE VIOLET MARBLING, ON SLATE, BOLTON MUSEUM & ART GALLERY
In the mid 1840s, Thomas Kershaw gave notice to his employer once again; to forge a career on his own, as a chance of world wide fame was beckoning. The Great London Exhibition of 1851 was forthcoming, and he regarded this as his great opportunity. It was at this time he learned about the art of marbling, and endeavored, with characteristic gusto, to perfect this branch of decorative art. Perfect it he did, and he set about producing his panels in time for the exhibition, all of which were done in his spare time. Kershaw revealed his panels at the exhibition under the heading; "Imitation of marbles and woods, for house decoration". His panels were a sensation, and won him the prize medal, and secured him many lucrative contracts at home and abroad, the Russian ambassador offering him a commission to grain & marble the interior of the imperial palaces of St. Petersburg.

KERSHAWS SATIN WOOD GRAINING, ON WOOD, WORSHIPFULL COMPANY OF PAINTER STAINERS, LONDON
The Exposition Universelle at Paris in 1855 saw Kershaw excel his feats of 4 years previous. He again won the gold medal to great acclaim. But trouble was brewing. Such was the perfection of his panels, a number of French master painters accused him of being a charlatan, refusing to believe Kershaw's work was painted by his own hand, but in fact, that they were the "real thing"; being merely thin veneers, or the surfaces had been transferred onto the panels by some other unknown means of trickery. Kershaw's answer was typical. He would do a public demonstration of his skill. This he carried out satisfactorily, his demonstrations viewed by no less than 700 French painters. In their journal "Le Journal de Manuell de Painteurers" Sept. 15th 1855 it reads: "We regret that our inferiority to the Englishman is incontestable, and have to acknowledge that his panels must be regarded as masterpieces". Of course this did Kershaw's reputation no harm at all, and on returning to London he was awarded many lucrative contracts, amongst them Prince Albert commissioning him to carry out marbling of columns in Buckingham Palace & Osborne House.

KERSHAWS RED LEVANTO MARBLING, ON SLATE, BOLTON MUSEUM & ART GALLERY
The London Exhibition in 1862 saw Kershaw consolidate his reputation, with yet another gold medal. Again leading the way with new decorative effects he had mastered, including elaborate, beautifully executed panels of imitation embossed leathers, damask silks, tapestries & gothic & Venetian wall decoration. On inspecting one of his panels, a member of the decorative arts committee, Mr.J.G.Grace declared it "Real Damask Silk".

In 1860 Kershaw was granted the freedom of the city of London in appreciation of his achievements. When Thomas Kershaw died in 1898, he left 158,267 to his beneficiaries. By today's standards that would be over 10 million, a remarkable sum, produced by his own hand, and surely a reflection of his incredible genius. His financial & decorative success remains an inspiration to all who follow.

Sadly, in 2002, my great friend & mentor Bill Holgate passed away. It is true that at the time of his passing he was regarded as one of the best living Grainers & Marblers. Without Bills guidance & teaching I would never have been able to pursue my career in the Decorative Arts, & would have never have heard of his idol, Kershaw. This is as much a tribute to Bill Holgate, as it is to Kershaw. He is sadly missed by all who knew & were taught by him.


KERSHAWS GRAINED & DECORATED DOUBLE DOORS, RECLAIMED FROM ENGLISH STATELY HOME. BOLTON MUSEUM & ART GALLERY