I am indebted for her assistance to Fiona Waterhouse, Research Assistant at the Art and Design Archive, City University, Birmingham. — Simon Cooke

The Pre-Raphaelite Movement developed in three phases, stretching from the middle of the nineteenth century until the Edwardian period, and with some of its imagery lingering into the 1920s. The Brotherhood was set up in 1848 under the direction of Dante Rossetti, J. E. Millais and William Holman Hunt; the second generation was carried forward by Frederick Sandys, Edward Burne-Jones and J.W. Waterhouse; and a final development, in the 1890s, was projected by artists such as Paul Woodroffe, Arthur Gaskin and Laurence Housman. These figures made significant contributions to the discourse of Pre-Raphaelitism, appropriating and modifying its visual language for their own purposes. There were however a number of lesser practitioners in the idiom whose art has been largely forgotten.

One such artist, active in 1890s, was Frederick Godwin Mason (1864–1939, usually identified only as ‘Fred’), an illustrator and book-cover designer who produced a small but interesting body of work. Born into a middle-class family in Yardley, Birmingham, trained at the Birmingham Municipal School of Art, and later becoming the head-teacher of the art-college in Taunton, Mason is usually consigned to the footnotes of history. Eclipsed by the greater achievements of the leading artists, he is often described, in the words of Malcolm Haslam, as a designer about whom ‘little is known’ (64).

However, Haslam overstates the case: it is possible to reconstruct the outlines of Mason’s life and to study his art in some detail. His small oeuvre of five illustrated books is especially interesting as an example of the unstable intermingling of styles in the nineties. His figurative work is essentially Rossettian Pre-Raphaelitism and his decorative borders are derived from William Morris’s Arts and Crafts arabesques; but these ornamental pieces simultaneously reflect the impact of Art Nouveau as it was practised, among others, by Aubrey Beardsley and Charles Ricketts. Always an eclectic artist who skirts dangerously close to the borders of plagiarism, Mason manipulates these competing idioms to create well-crafted images, engraved on wood, in strict sympathy with their subjects. Mason is also important as a Birmingham artist who benefitted from studying at what was then one of the most advanced institutions in the United Kingdom, and his progression from student to professional exemplifies the interlocking of training and practice. Though never considered before, these issues are explored here, drawing on unpublished material from the archive of the University of Central England and other materials.

Related material


Bibliography: Archival Material


Material in Minutes Books and slide collection of the Art and Design Archive, City University, Birmingham, UK.

Bibliography: Primary Material

A Book of Pictured Carols. London: George Allen, 1893.

The Century Guild Hobby Horse (1886–92).

Field, Michael [Katherine Harris Bradley & Edith Emma Cooper]. The Tragic Mary. London: George Bell, 1890.

The Quarto.Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1894–6.

Steele, Robert (translator). Huon of Bordeaux. London: George Allen, 1895.

Steele, Robert (translator). Renaud of Montauban. London: George Allen, 1897.

Steele, Robert (translator). The Story of Alexander. London: David Nutt, 1894.

Wilde, Oscar. Poems. London: Elkin Matthews & John Lane, 1892.

Bibliography: Secondary Material

‘Birmingham Municipal School of Art.’ Birmingham Daily Post (26 July 1892): 5.

Haslam, Malcolm. Arts and Crafts Book Covers. Shepton Beauchamp: Richard Dennis, 2012.

Morris, William. An Address by William Norris at the Distribution of Prizes to Students of the Birmingham Municipal School of Art. London: Longmans, 1898.

Valance, Aymer. ‘A Provincial School of Art.’ Art Journal (1892): 344–8.

Created 29 September 2019