Harry Hugo Tombs was born in Christchurch on 11 June 1874, the son of Rosa Ann Hedgman and her husband, George Tombs, a printer. He attended the Christchurch Normal School and Christchurch West School and then Christ's College in 1889 and 1890. An apprenticeship as a printer in his father's firm, Whitcombe and Tombs, followed.
At the age of 21 Tombs went to Leipzig, where he spent three years studying the violin and piano. He then taught music in England before going to South Africa, where he worked on the Cape Argus newspaper in Cape Town. He also extended his concert experience, playing for a season of Gilbert and Sullivan opera. After a period spent studying art in England, Tombs returned to New Zealand about 1907. On 11 September that year he married Beatrice Atkinson in Wellington; they had one son, David.
Shortly after his return Harry Tombs became manager of the Wellington branch of Whitcombe and Tombs. In 1908 the firm took over the printing of the monthly magazine Progress, and two years later Harry Tombs himself bought the magazine. In 1915 he set up his own printing business, and the magazine, by then called N.Z. Building Progress, became a mainstay of the new firm until its publication ceased in 1924.
Tombs first established his printery in Farish Street in mid-city Wellington, but in 1918 moved to Wingfield Street in Thorndon. Here, first as Harry H. Tombs and from 1948 as the Wingfield Press, he commenced a series of publishing ventures that made his the first fine arts press in New Zealand. The first number of the quarterly Art in New Zealand appeared in 1928; it continued until 1944 and then appeared as the bi-monthly Arts in New Zealand until its expiry in 1946. A fine arts annual, Rata, edited by C. A. Marris, lasted from 1931 to 1933. Its ultimate successor, the Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand, was at first well received, though it ended with No 7 in 1951 despite support in its last years from the New Zealand Literary Fund. Each year from 1932 to 1943 Tombs published a volume of New Zealand Best Poems, and from 1931 to 1937 he produced the monthly Music in New Zealand. Edited by Vernon Griffiths, it published educational material and some criticism. Tombs was motivated in all these activities by his desire to support the practitioners of the fine arts despite an insufficient return from sales and the need to bear the deficit himself.
Harry Tombs's printery operated as a successful small commercial enterprise. Typographical excellence, however, was always one of his objectives. From 1929 he brought out three book titles that he himself had designed, in a series of deluxe editions from Fine Arts (N.Z.) Limited. Liveliness of design was particularly evident in later editions of the Year Book of the Arts when Tombs was assisted by the writer and artist Howard Wadman. For a brief period Denis Glover worked at the firm as a typesetter.
Harry Tombs practised the arts and music that he so altruistically supported. In 1928 he had held a very successful exhibition of his paintings, and from 1923 he was a regular exhibitor at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. He became an artist member in 1930 and was for two years from 1935 a member of its council. He wrote for Art in New Zealand and the Year Book of the Arts, and his book on Otago painters, writers and musicians, A century of art in Otago, was published in 1948.
Tombs was involved with music as a performer, conductor, generous patron and administrator. He was engaged as a violinist in the orchestra when the Sheffield choir toured New Zealand, he conducted orchestral performances, and in 1932 he contributed to the success of a Haydn festival. For more than 25 years a string quartet played regularly at his home and also gave public performances; his wife, Beatrice, was a member. Over a long period Tombs served on the executive of the Wellington Philharmonic Orchestra. He helped form the New Zealand Section of the British Music Society, and for many years was the representative in New Zealand of Trinity College of Music.
Beatrice Tombs died in 1951, and on 15 December that year, at Wellington, Harry married Evelyn May Rapley. An unassuming, modest and kindly man, Tombs was active in art and music into his 90s, when he still went to his printery each day. For his services to art he was appointed an OBE in 1960. He died on 2 December 1966; Evelyn had died the previous year.