JOHN HENSHALL the ARTIST – 26 October 1913 to 3 September 1996

John Henshall was one of Stockport’s true creative sons, an all-round artist in the broadest sense.

Known primarily as an accomplished watercolour painter, his painting skills extended through oil and other media to beautiful calligraphy and illumination, as many Rolls of Honour around the country attest. His creative talents in the arts encompassed the composition of music, poetry and the writing of Limericks, of which he was devilishly fond.

A pianist who often got hissed
When trying to do battle with Liszt
Decided he would
Drink as much as he could
For he seemed to play better when piszt.

Just before he died he had completed his autobiography, “Two Returns to Stockport,” which will be published here in the future. It is illustrated with original photographs, sketches, scraper-boards and pen-and-wash drawings of his childhood home in Briscoe Street, long since demolished.

Born in 1913, one of his earliest recollections was of his father, “carrying me, when I was just under three, on his shoulder all the way to the station when joining up in 1916. Within a matter of weeks he was in the front line and within six months he was out of it all after having been badly wounded at Ypres and lost for two nights in a shell hole during a gas attack. He came home on crutches. In all, it took over twenty hospitals to get him patched up…”

Life was tough for a working-class Stockport family, struggling to survive after the Great War. His mother was a great leader, working hard to ensure that her family not only survived but succeeded. “When I was about twelve years old I was playing for the school football team and was afterwards invited to go along to the Stockport County football ground on the following Saturday morning, for a trial to play for Stockport Boys. I rushed home full of excitement, where I learned that I had been awarded a music scholarship for singing and had to attend my first class on – guess when? On the following Saturday morning. I have a feeling that dad would have liked me to have gone for the football trial but mother had her way and I took up the music scholarship.”

His first job was as a clerk in a Manchester solicitors’ office, where he was captivated by the beauty of the lettering of the deeds and began to study and practice the craft of fine lettering. From there he moved to the Town Clerk’s office at Stockport Town Hall. After the Second World War he moved to Wakefield Town Hall for promotion but missed his home town and creative friends. So he returned to Stockport – his first ‘return’ – in 1957 to become a self-employed artist. This was a brave move with two children at secondary school and as a fall-back his ever supportive wife Margaret (née Passmore) ran a grocery shop on Turncroft Lane for the first two years. In 1958 he set up a studio in Victoria Buildings on Lower Hillgate, in the rooms above what is now Richer Sounds.

His talents as an artist were matched by a wonderful flair for teaching art, design and lettering. He taught and encouraged many of Stockport’s aspiring artists, young and old, first at the Lower Hillgate, studio, later in the large family house in King’s Drive, Heaton Moor, and in night school classes at Peel Moat and other locations around Stockport. Above all he had a knack for exposing creative talent in those who thought they had little art within them.

A passion for capturing the dramatic beauty of North Wales in Watercolour and oil led him to move to Snowdonia in 1972. Each year he held an exhibition of paintings at Beddgelert Church Hall. He made many good friends from those who came to see his exhibitions, and a reasonable living from the extensive sales of his work.

In 1982 he moved back to his beloved Stockport – his second ‘return’ – to live in Adswood Lane East, not a mile from where he had been born almost seventy years before. Though he loved Stockport he was critical of what he considered to be a lack of cultural vision. “The loss of the Centenary Hall has been a great tragedy,” he wrote, “and it is rather a disgrace that the town does not have a proper cultural centre, concert hall or adequate art gallery instead of one which is still called, by many residents, the ‘war memorial’. It is an impressive war memorial but a poor substitute for a good art gallery.”

John Henshall exhibited at the country’s major art exhibitions, including the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour but never the Royal Academy. In 1980 he held a major retrospective exhibition of oils, water colours, calligraphy and illuminating at Leigh Art Gallery, near Wigan.

He did not like painters who adopted a single style just to be more commercial, preferring to adapt his style to suit his mood. When L. S. Lowry’s agents suggested they could represent him if he painted in a style they thought saleable, he declined. He was never pushy, always unassuming about his work. Although his paintings are represented in Stockport’s permanent collection they are rarely seen. His lettering and illuminating, on the other hand, is everywhere – Stockport School, Stepping Hill Hospital and thousands of certificates, from nurses to dance teachers. The initial capitals of his manuscripts, in burnished raised gold leaf, shine as brightly today as they did thirty or forty years ago. Such quality craftsmanship has rarely been seen since the books of hours which preceded the use of moveable type in the fifteenth century. His fine penmanship also lives on today in an unexpected form – converted into digital fonts for use in computers.

Although John Henshall is no longer with us, he will be remembered fondly by his family, former students and many friends. Fortunately, his contribution to Stockport’s artistic heritage will remain to be enjoyed for many years to come.

JOHN HENSHALL the ARTIST – 26 October 1913 to 3 September 1996

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