BRIGDEN, FREDERICK, wood-engraver; b. 20 April 1841 in Worthing, England, eldest son of Thomas Brigden, a saddler and harness maker, and Eliza Fielder; m. 13 Oct. 1868 Frances Hannah Higgens in London, England, and they had two sons and two daughters; d. 16 April 1917 in Toronto.
Frederick Brigden, with his two brothers and two sisters, grew up in an atmosphere that his brother William Henry later described as the “simple, unaffected, genuine religion” of Wesleyan Methodism. John Wesley’s concept of Christian perfection and the notions of self-help and perseverance which social reformer Samuel Smiles espoused were to govern Brigden’s attitudes towards life and work from an early age. It is apparent from his diaries, notebooks, and letters that religion was the central factor affecting his views on education, art, family life, and work. At the same time, an unwavering belief in progress through hard work led him, in spite of numerous obstacles, to become a moderately wealthy businessman.
In 1853, at the age of 12, Brigden was left completely deaf following a bout of scarlet fever. He entered a school for the deaf at Brighton where, besides following a curriculum that included sign language, French, history, mathematics, and Latin, he took courses in drawing, painting in water-colours, and wood-engraving. Demonstrating a natural ability in these fields, Brigden was encouraged to specialize and in 1858 he became a student-teacher at the school. It was also at this time that he started to keep a written record of his life.
Brigden was apprenticed in 1860 to the London engraving firm of Smith and Linton; William James Linton, one of the leading engravers of the day, was so impressed with Brigden’s skills that he waived his fees. Over the course of the next three years Brigden became an expert in the fine white-line engraving introduced and perfected by Thomas Bewick in the 18th century and continued by Linton in the 19th. At the same time Brigden attended the Working Men’s College in London, where he was a student in John Ruskin’s famous drawing classes. Ruskin’s ideas concerning art and work complemented Brigden’s religious beliefs and led to his later attitudes towards the art world in Canada. In 1894 he would express the wish that his son Frederick Henry should be content to remain an “art workman” instead of becoming an “artist” and associating with members of the Art Students’ League in Toronto. Brigden believed that art should serve a purpose, and for this reason he “always honoured” art workmen more than artists.
Following his apprenticeship Brigden was employed as an engraver by the Illustrated London News and could be said to have reached the highest position in his craft. In addition, he worked as a lay preacher for the Deptford Mission for the Deaf and contributed financially to his church and towards his brothers’ education (Thomas Edwin became a Methodist minister, William a master printer). By 1868 he felt secure enough to marry; his wife Frances, who shared his religious views, was not deaf but assisted him in his work with the deaf. In 1872, following the births of their sons George in 1870 and Frederick Henry in 1871, Frederick and Frances Brigden emigrated to Canada. In England technical inventions, in particular photography and photo-engraving, were beginning to have an impact on the employment of wood-engravers and unskilled workers had started to replace skilled ones. Brigden wrote in one of his notebooks that his earnings were declining and he had no possibility of further advancement in his career. “It is not the hard work but the hopelessness I want to escape from.”
At first Brigden worked in Toronto with Charles J. and Henry Blenkarne Beale, fellow engravers from Smith and Linton who had established a small engraving workshop. He and Henry Beale formed Brigden and Beale Wood Engravers in 1874, and then in 1877 the Toronto Engraving Company. This engraving house, along with the Toronto Lithographic Company, Bengough Brothers, and other firms, established illustration as an accepted element in the new popular press and the new styles of retail advertising. Because of Brigden’s skills as a fine white-line engraver he was much in demand by such clients as George Brown* and John Ross Robertson, who wanted illustrations for their newspapers, and Timothy Eaton*, who wanted them for his catalogues.
By 1888 Frederick Brigden was the sole owner of the Toronto Engraving Company, which was to employ a large number of artists and engravers. Ten years later his son George was business manager and Frederick Henry was art director. His family included two Canadian-born daughters and the Brigden house was always busy. Soon after his arrival in Toronto he had started Bible classes for the deaf at his house. He later organized the Toronto Mission to the Deaf, the first undertaking of its kind in Canada, and published the monthly Gospel Light (Toronto) from 1908 until his death. In addition, the family home was the meeting place for members of the Saturday Club, an arts and letters group Brigden had founded in 1888 for the artists and engravers working at his firm.
The Toronto Engraving Company increased in size, in terms of both space and employees, as Brigden adopted all the latest technology in the reproduction of visual images, gradually adding photography, photo-engraving, and a printing department. In 1904, following a brief strike, the Brigden firm became the first Canadian graphic arts firm to accept the International Photo-engravers’ Union. In 1910 the firm’s name was changed to Brigdens Limited and in 1914 a branch in Winnipeg was opened by Frederick Henry to provide artwork for the T. Eaton Company’s western catalogue. The Winnipeg office was itself a highly successful venture, with many major Canadian artists, including Charles Fraser Comfort* and Henry Eric Bergman, having their first opportunity there.
Frederick Brigden died in 1917. The company continued as a family firm in Winnipeg until 1963, and in Toronto until 1979 when it merged with Rous and Mann Press to become Rous, Mann and Brigdens. His life reflected the ideals of his era. He never wavered in his religious belief or in his trust that progress was achieved through hard work. He was also a highly talented artist and engraver whose skills were the foundation of one of Canada’s most successful graphic arts houses.
Frederick Brigden’s diaries, notebooks, and letters date from 1858 and are preserved in the Brigden family papers at MTRL, SC; in the F. H. Brigden coll. at the National Gallery of Canada Library (Ottawa); and in the A. O. Brigden collections in the Univ. of Man. Libraries, Dept. of Arch. and Special Coll. (Winnipeg) and the archives of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Examples of engravings produced by the Toronto Engraving Company are held in MTRL, SC, Picture Coll. (983-8); the Canadiana Dept. of the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto); and the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
AO, RG 22-305, no.34355. City of Toronto Arch., RG 5, F, 1872–1940. Canadian landscape, as pictured by F. H. Brigden . . . , biog. notes by J. E. Middleton (Toronto, 1944). Walter Crane, An artist’s reminiscences (London, 1907; repr. Detroit, 1968). A. E. Davis, “Art and work: Frederick Brigden and the history of the Canadian illustrated press,” JCS, 27 (1992–93), no.2: 22–36; “Business, art and labour: Brigden’s and the growth of the Canadian graphic arts industry, 1870–1950” (phd thesis, Univ. of Man., Winnipeg, 1986); The Grand Western Canadian Screen Shop: printing, people and history (Regina, 1992), 10–16; “The hothouse of Canadian art: a ‘golden age’ at Brigden’s,” Beaver, 68 (1988–89), no.1: 37–47. Directory, Toronto, 1870–1940. E. J. Nicholson, Brigdens Limited: the first one hundred years, 1871–1971 ([Toronto], 1970). F. B. Smith, Radical artisan: William James Linton, 1872–97 (Manchester, Eng., and [Totowa, N.J.], 1973).