Celebrated artist and property developer in
Bradford’s Little Germany and The Swan Arcade,
John Sowden, was Art Master then Headmaster at
the Mechanics’ Institute Art School until 1901.
John Sowden, son of self employed joiner William Sowden and his wife Mary, was born in 1838 at 16
Ebenezer Street in Bradford. Keen to improve his social status, William had formed a housing club with
others of his class, and built homes in the Vicar Lane area. Being a home owner, the Sowden family had
now moved up into the lower middle-class.
A successful, substantial property owner and developer, William funded John’s art lessons. At the same
time, John was articled into the practice of architect George Knowles as his father was keen for him to
be able to earn his own living.
Artistic at an early age, John began evening art classes at the Bradford Mechanics’ Institute in 1855 and won prizes in 1858. Shortly after his graduation in 1859, he was appointed Art Master at the Institute to replace the departing James Lobley. Later, he was appointed Headmaster. He was also appointed Second Master of the Bradford School of Design.
In the early 1860s, John set up a studio in Stirling Street off Manchester Road where he became a professional artist and landscape painter. Demand for paintings was growing among the new Victorian wealthy, and John found Edward Salt, Isaac Holden and Henry Mason among his clients.
He helped set up the Bradford Artists’ Society of Painting and Sculpture, and later founded and became president of the Bradford Art Society. Between 1904 and 1906 he was Vice President of the Yorkshire Union of Artists. John exhibited at the Royal Academy several times over 19 years, firstly in 1863 with his watercolour May Blossom and Nest, and finally in 1892 with Whitby from Larpool.
In 1875, following his father’s death, John inherited considerable estate and capital. A skilled designer and architect, John became a successful property developer himself, purchasing several inner city sites for mill and residential development and warehouse building for the flourishing worsted trade. He set up in partnership with Bradford clothier and tailor, George Brown and became an early developer of the Eastbrook estate, soon to be known as ‘Little Germany’. They also purchased The White Swan Inn which they developed into the Swan Arcade, a new concept in shopping for the Victorian era. The arcade housed 65 market rooms, several warehouses, shops and offices.
John famously began to paint Bradford’s Worthies and Characters in 1887 providing a visual social record of the time. The prominent figures, or Worthies, were the notables he approved of. He refused to paint those with political or religious opinions he disproved of. His self portrait was painted in 1910.
After reading Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor, in which Mayhew commented on the casual labour market, John began to paint his Characters, a collection of paintings comprising hawkers, those who did not want regular work and those who preferred an itinerant life, working outdoors on farms during the summer months and trading on the streets in winter. He only painted the respectable; he never painted the vagrant and criminal class.
John retired as headmaster of the Mechanics’ Institute Art School in 1901 and finished painting the Worthies and Characters in 1914. He gave this collection of 358 portraits to the museum in 1921 together with his handwritten biographical notes of the Worthies in exercise books.
John died in 1926.