AXEL HAIG

BIOGRAPHY: Axel Haig (1835-1921)


Axel Herman Haig was born on November 10, 1835 on the Swedish Island of Gotland; located in the Baltic Sea half way between Sweden and Russia.1  This historic island and its capital of Wisby were well known for its seafaring history as well as its extensive Swedish Gothic Architecture.2 Needless to say, these things had a profound influence on a young Axel Haig. From an early age, Haig embraced his home’s seafaring heritage and began sketching seascapes, ships, and model boats.3 At the young age of fifteen, Haig went to study naval architecture at the Swedish government dockyard of Karlskrona.4 At the dockyard, Haig began his first career as a prolific ship designer.5 After three years, Haig decided he would try and further his education in the world’s greatest maritime power: Great Britain.6   In 1856, Haig was offered a position in the Clydeside dockyards of Glasgow, Scotland where he furthered is reputation as a ship designer and draughtsman.7 Despite summer trips back home to Gotland, Haig would call Great Britain home for the rest of his life.

After three years in Scotland, Haig’s interested appeared to move from ship architecture to domestic architecture.8 It was actually the head of the shipbuilding firm Haig worked for who first commissioned Haig to design him a new house.9   In 1859, Haig officially left his post in Glasgow for an architectural position in at the Ecclesiastical Commissioners office in London.10 Haig’s career moved towards architectural draughtsman, and he became well-schooled in church, especially gothic, architectural features.   Haig’s drawing capabilities, architectural knowledge, and mastery of perspective drew him praise around Britain’s elite architecture circles.11   In 19th century Europe, an architectural draughtsman was a very distinct position from architect, and although Haig was trained as an architect, it was his draughtsmanship that drew the attention of Britain’s premier architecture firms.12

Despite working with many different architects, Haig was most notably associated with noted British Architect William Burges. Burges had championed the Gothic Revival style that had swept over Victorian England and Haig was the perfect man to capture Burges’ vastly eclectic and imaginative medieval designs.13 Burges’ designs emphasized the polychrome, medieval ornamentation, and freedom of design advocated by John Ruskin and hugely influential in Victorian Britain. Furthermore, Burges’ involvement in British art circles, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, furthered Haig’s complementary interest in the Gothic Revival.14 Haig began to be Burges’ principle draughtsman including breathtaking drawings of Burges’ design for London’s Law Court competition in 1870. Despite not winning the competition, the eventual winner, architect G.E. Street noted, “I wouldn’t mind being beaten by drawings like those,” in reference to Haig.15 Haig’s work began to appear regularly in British architecture magazines, and in the Royal Academy in London.16

Burges loved travelling across Europe, and in 1875 he suggested that Haig take a trip to Sicily.17 Haig and is wife of nine years travelled the island visiting the Cathedrals of Monreale and Capella Palatine at Burges’ insistence.18 Haig fell in love with Sicily and its cultural center of Palermo. He was mesmerized by the region’s, “Siculo-Norman art,” especially its cathedrals, with its enchanting mosaics and frescos.19 After three months in Sicily, Haig returned to Britain via Naples, Rome, northern Italy, and the Gothic capital of Venice.20 More importantly, he returned with a vast portfolio of drawings and watercolors, as well as a new passion for Europe’s great gothic cathedrals. Upon seeing the Amiens cathedral in France, Haig wrote, “I had seen very little and knew very little indeed of Gothic Art, but, in spite of my ignorance, it occurred to me decidedly that whatever else I might see in after years, anything more just in proportion, more strong in building, and more harmoniously and loftily noble.”21

Just as European travel was becoming a large part of Haig’s life, he began experimenting with the medium that would grant him fame: etching.   Haig started etching around 1877 at the request of architect Rowland Anderson. Anderson had been commissioned to make an architectural guide to Scotland, and asked Haig if he would be able to provide etched images for its reproduction. Self-taught, Haig soon began to show amazing ability in etching.22 Despite Ruskin’s distaste for etching over line-engraving, the technique was being revived in late 19th century Europe.23 Photography was replacing the market for precise line-engravings, and lithography had passed its most prolific period.24 Etching (and to an extent woodcuts), began to be the print medium most associated with the Gothic Revival.   Etching had a sense of freedom, precision, and experimentation championed by Gothic Revival artists, while its association with the novel and romantic past, and helped build its public appeal.25 In the words of Haig biographers J. Mordaunt Crook and C.A. Lennox-Boyd, Haig’s work optimized the “tension at the heart of the High Victorian dream – a vision of the future – mirrored dimly in a vision of the past.”26

From his extensive portfolio of European drawings and watercolors, Haig was able to produce etched prints for his enduring public. Many works depicted Haig’s beloved Italy, including, St. Mark’s cathedral in Venice , the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and depictions of Cefalù Cathedral in Sicily, like the one on display.27

Haig also dedicated his time to etching some of the great cathedrals of Britain, such as Durham Cathedral and many different view of Canterbury Cathedral, such as “Canterbury from the Stour (1894),” Canterbury: The Pilgrim’s Aisle, (1894) and the other image on display here, Canterbury Cathedral (1911).

Haig worked his etchings from drawings and watercolors, and usually worked in a traditional etching style; sometimes adding drypoint, or aquatint for tone.28 Haig was revered for his amazing ability as an etcher, and is fanatical and expressive visions of medieval Europe.29 Haig was also very prolific, designing over 230 etchings.30 Late in his career, Haig would return to architecture himself, but his work as an etcher was what had captivated Victorian Britain. Haig died in 1922 in a vastly different Europe than the one he had lived in most of his life. World War I had devastated the continent and destroyed its long held values. Haig lived out the final years in of his life in Surrey, England next to All Saint’s Church, the only architectural project he completely designed.31

Thomas Bagley


1 Mordaunt J. Crook and C.A. Lennox-Boyd, Axel Haig and the Victorian Vision of the Middle Ages (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984), 13.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 E.A. Armstrong, Axel Herman Haig and his Work (London: The Fine Arts Society, 1905), 2.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., 3.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., 4.
9 Crook and Lennox-Boyd, 14.
10 Ibid.
11 Armstrong, 10.
12 Crook and Lennox-Boyd, 14-15.
13 Ibid., 16.
14 Ibid., 15.
15 Ibid., 16.
16 Ibid., 19.
17 Armstrong, 15.
18 Crook and Lennox-Boyd, 19.
19 Ibid.
20 Armstrong, 19.
21 Armstrong, 48.
22 Crook and Lennox-Boyd, 21.
23 Ibid., 22.
24 Ibid., 23.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid., 30.
27 Armstrong, 48.
28 Crook and Lennox-Boyd, 24.
29 Ibid., 23.
30 Ibid., 24.
31 Ibid., 40.

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