Thomson, Hugh (1860–1920), illustrator, was born 1 June 1860 in Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, the eldest of the two boys and one girl of John Thomson (1822–1894), a tea merchant, and his wife, Catherine, née Andrews (d. 1871). His father later remarried and moved to Kilrea, Co. Londonderry. Educated at the model primary school in Coleraine, Thomson left school at the age of fourteen to join a linen manufacturer, E. Gribbon and Co., as an apprentice. When the headmaster of the local school left to take up another position, he designed a commemorative address, which in turn brought him to the attention of John Vinycomb, the head of the art department at Marcus Ward and Co. in Belfast. Despite his father's opposition he left Coleraine and became an apprentice at Marcus Ward and Co. of the Royal Ulster Works, a large and technically advanced firm of colour printers and publishers, in 1877. John Vinycomb proved to be an important influence on the development of Thomson's style of art. While at Marcus Ward, he became a member of the Belfast Ramblers’ Sketching Club.
Once he completed his apprenticeship in 1883, he moved to London. He married Jessie Naismith Miller in Belfast on 29 December 1884, and they had one son, John (b. 1886). In London he secured employment in McClure, Macdonald and McGregor's lithographic department before J. Comyns Carr, the editor of the newly established English Illustrated Magazine, recruited him as an illustrator. His first ink and pen drawing for the magazine was published in June 1884; the first book he illustrated, Charlie Asgarde by Alfred St Johnston, also appeared in 1884. The Fine Art Society of London held his first exhibition, of ninety-three drawings (a joint exhibition with Kate Greenaway), in 1887.
In 1890 he illustrated The vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith (qv), and within three weeks of publication the first edition had sold out. During the 1890s he worked as an illustrator for Black and White, Scribner's, Pear's Annual, Octopus, New Budget and the Daily Graphic. In 1891 he illustrated Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford for Macmillan, and went on to do eleven of the twenty-four books in the Cranford series. He also illustrated five Jane Austen books for Macmillan: Pride and prejudice (1894), Emma (1896), Sense and sensibility (1896), Mansfield Park (1897), and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1898). The Fine Art Society held a second exhibition of his work in 1891. The ballad of Beau Brocade (1892) was the first of four books he illustrated for Austin Dobson. These illustrations were later exhibited in 1893 and also at the 1894 Belfast Arts Society; it made him an honorary member in 1895. In 1896, he was represented at the Fine Art Society exhibition ‘A century and a half of English humorous art’. He became a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1897, but later resigned as he had failed to exhibit. He illustrated Highways and byways in Devon and Cornwall (1897), the first of twelve books in a series for Macmillan. He gained considerable satisfaction from illustrating the books on Ireland by Stephen Gwynn (qv): Highways and byways in Donegal and Antrim (1899), The fair hills of Ireland (1906) and The famous cities of Ireland (1915). In 1899 the Continental Gallery in Bond Street held two exhibitions of his work; sales of his work realised £747. Macmillan lent some of his illustrations to the Birmingham and Midland Institute for an exhibition in the same year. He achieved further distinction in 1900 when he was represented among the black-and-white artists in the British section at the Paris International Fine Art exhibition. Throughout the 1900s he continued to exhibit on a regular basis: in 1903 at the Newcastle upon Tyne Academy of Arts; in 1905 in a Doré Gallery exhibition, London; in 1906 at the Ulster Arts Club (which also elected him a member); in 1909 at the Walker Gallery, Liverpool; and in 1910, 1912, and 1913 at the Leicester Galleries. He exhibited in Dublin only once, in 1907 at the oireachtas exhibition, with ‘Dublin, from Clontarf’. In 1911 he was represented at the International Fine Arts exhibition in Rome. He maintained close links with Coleraine, visiting on a regular basis and writing weekly letters to his father.
During the war years, he suffered from ill health and experienced financial hardship. In 1917 he secured regular employment at India House, Kingsway, and this was followed by a civil-list pension in 1918. He illustrated Sir Isidore Spielmann's Germany's impending doom; the illustrations are in the Imperial War Museum. He designed the diploma for the British Arts and Crafts exhibition in Paris in 1919. Following an attack of angina pectoris, he died 7 May 1920 at his home in Wandsworth Common, London. Throughout the course of his career he had illustrated seventy books. Following his death, a number of memorial exhibitions were held: at the Leicester Galleries in 1923 and in Belfast in 1935 and 1960. In 1970 the Linen Hall Library in Belfast held a fiftieth anniversary exhibition of his work. An auction sale of 136 of his drawings was held in Belfast in 2001. The Ulster Museum in Belfast holds a number of his watercolours and drawings and a complete set of his illustrated books.