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By pmallory - Posted on 30 October 2014

30 October 2014

[Another blog which relies heavily on images, sadly missing from this archive. If this subject really interests you, contact me.]

The following is a presentation I made a year ago to the Rowing History Forum at the River & Rowing Museum in everyone’s favorite rowing town in the world, Henley-on-Thames in England. It was very well received, and I think that all of you will also enjoy it.

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Today I am best known as an historian of rowing, but my lifelong study of history began with a bachelor’s degree and some advanced study in the history of art, so it is a privilege to come a third of the way around the world to speak to this august body concerning a topic that combines two of my great loves.

And with my greatest love, my dear wife Susan, in the audience, my cup runneth over!

I am here to speak about this portrait recently acquired by the River & Rowing Museum.

It is inscribed on the back of its frame “EDWd Hawks/Aged 46 years.” A Newcastle professional waterman and uncle by marriage to the famous boatbuilder Harry Clasper, Ned Hawks was probably born in 1802, which suggests this portrait shows Ned in 1848. As a rowing historian, I love it as a nearly unique personal artifact of the past of our sport. This man is one of our ancestors, lost in thought, staring over our shoulders past us, perhaps contemplating the race ahead as he is about to climb into the single shell at his feet. As an art historian, I love this portrait for its echoes of influences that go back two thousand years and as a product of the waning decades of the pre-modern era in art as we understand it today.

Before we discuss this specific painting, let me say just a word about the human portrait in the history of art. During the Middle Ages, there was very little portraiture as we understand the word today. Depictions of the human form were symbolic, such as this mosaic Christ Pantocrator – the ruler of heaven – on the ceiling of the Baptistery in Florence.

All it took was a couple of attributes, the beard, the wounds of crucifixion, the costume and the regal pose in this case, and viewers knew exactly who was being represented. And that’s all that mattered.

All that changed during the Italian Renaissance around the year 1300 AD. Giotto would paint figures in his frescoes who seemed to resemble real human beings doing real things.

St. Francis is shown here receiving the stigmata, the wounds of the crucifixion.

A century later, the Florentine painter Masaccio went a step further, painting recognizable individuals familiar to his audience. In his Trinity Altarpiece in S. Maria Novella in Florence, the donor and his wife are shown in an intermediate plane between the holy figures and the spectators, and their visages are obvious portraits, and not particularly flattering ones at that. This is portraiture as we understand it today.

In the Brancacci Chapel, also in Florence, from left to right, Masaccio painted his collaborator in the chapel, Masolino, he painted himself, Leonbattista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi in a group off to the side of one fresco panel.

And so 600 years later we know how these people actually looked!

Romans had a tradition of portraiture – think of the many busts of Roman emperors(this one is Claudius) – but this tradition was lost for over a thousand years and had to be rediscovered during the Renaissance. Remember, “renaissance” literally means “rebirth” of Classical knowledge.

So the continuous tradition of portraiture as an art form goes back only a few hundred years before our Hawks portrait from the 1840s, but I would like to point out that the specific formula that our artist employed in creating his portrait actually goes back just a couple of generations.

In the second half of the 18th Century, English portraiture was set on a very specific and rigid course by Sir Joshua Reynolds, shown here in a 1773 self-portrait now in the Royal Academy of Arts.

He formulated what has come to be called the “Grand Manner,” and how much more grand can you get than painting yourself as the reincarnation of Rembrandt contemplating a bust of Homer?

This is Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and let’s compare the Reynolds self-portrait to one by Rembrandt.

They must have gone to the same hat shop! No shrinking violet, this Sir Joshua Reynolds!

To quote Janson’s, History of Art: “Reynolds (1723-92), the President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London since its founding in 1768, was the protagonist of the academic approach to art, which he had acquired during two years in Rome.”

For six years running, Reynolds delivered a series of annual lectures to Royal Academy students. These were subsequently collected and published as his Discourses, setting out rules and theories which soon became the established standard for English art, the single most important influence on British artists during the following century, determining and, with the benefit of hindsight, inhibiting the creative capacity of generations of students in both England and America. The Academie Francaise in Paris was busy promulgating similar rules across the channel at that same time, and you may recall that the beginnings of modern art: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were controversial and revolutionary reactions against the strict Orthodoxy of the French Academy.

In the context of the Edward Hawks portrait, what were the rules set up by Reynolds in his Discourses? Let’s look at one of Reynolds’ best-known portraits, that of Augustus Keppel, painted in 1753, and now in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Although clearly depicting a recognizable individual, Grand Manner portraiture sought to elevate the sitter by conveying refinement and elegance. Such grace and class were communicated through certain standardized conventions, such as the large scale of the figure relative to the canvas, the controlled poses, often copied directly from Classical sculpture, dramatic landscape settings, often Arcadian, and a low horizon line. Details of the life of the particular subject were often dramatized by attributes, actually props, much like Christian martyrs would display t, he symbols of their martyrdom, such as the arrows of St. Sebastian, here an altar panel by Antonello da Messina, or St. Catherine of Alexandria and her torture wheel, here portrayed by Caravaggio.

Keppel was a British Naval officer during the Seven Years War and the War of American Independence. Keppel is depicted amidst a stormy seascape, and he strides away from the strong winds of the sea which came to symbolize his feats against the tumultuous waters, and his victory during the numerous wars he fought in.

Let us quickly look at another Reynolds portrait, this one of Lord Heathfield (1787, National Gallery, London):

In 1775, George Augustus Eliott was appointed Governor of Gibraltar. During the siege of 1779-83, he held the British fortress against Spanish attack, and was made Baron Heathfield in 1787. He is shown at Gibraltar during the siege, symbolically holding the key to the fortress, with a view to the peninsula in the background; a cannon points steeply down towards the sea and the sky is darkened by smoke. He is wearing what is presumably the ribbon and star of the Order of the Bath.

To quote Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: “[In the Heathfield portrait] Reynolds portrayed the features of the general’s heavy, honest face and his uniform with unidealized realism. But Lord Heathfield’s posture and the setting dramatically suggest the heroic themes of battle and refer to the actual revolutions (American and French) then taking shape in deadly earnest, as the old regimes faded into the past.”

One cannot really speak at any length about portraits of rowing personalities without at least briefly referring to the 1926 portrait of Steve Fairbairn by James Quinn in Jesus College, Cambridge, also painted in the Grand Manner.

The classical pose of a Roman emperor, this one being Vespasian, the dramatic Rococo clouds in the background, the low horizon line, the attributes – symbols of his status, Cambridge Blue blazer, Leander scarf . . . and . . . is that a Mona Lisa smile?

It was The Grand Manner which guided the unknown artist who came along half a century after Sir Joshua Reynolds and painted the Edward Hawks portrait. Let’s take another look at this fascinating artifact of rowing history.

The Classical contraposto pose is there, a bit like the Apollon Cytharède in the Naples Museum, but come on! It’s a dead ringer for Michelangelo’s David in mirror image. Can’t be a coincidence.

By the way, this gives us an opportunity to quickly make note of the relationship of head to body in both works. Michelangelo intentionally made his David’s head overly large to compensate for the original intended placement of his statue high up on the façade of the Duomo in Florence. Our 19th Century portraitist has no similar rationale. Hawks’ head is simply too small. It obviously came from one source, perhaps a portrait sitting, and the body came from the Academia in Florence, and they never really got together on canvas.

Back to the Grand Manner characteristics: large scale of the figure in relation to the canvas, check, dramatic landscape, check, low horizon line, check. Attributes? Hawks is dressed in rowing kit, holding a scull, and there is another scull and a single shell in the foreground. Check, check, check. This is a portrait self-consciously done in the Grand Manner.

Incidentally, our 19th Century artist picked the very same psychological moment as did Michelangelo, the moment of contemplation before battle . . . with the protagonist staring out into the distance. This absolutely can’t be a coincidence! Edward Hawks as David contemplating Goliath.

One can imagine our unknown 19th Century artist making a living creating such portraits. In his studio he must have had a pattern book of images of Classical and Renaissance sculptures. These were very common.

As for the background, landscape painting had become a genre of its own on the Continent and to a lesser extent in Britain during the 17th and 18th Centuries. British Grand Manner painters such as Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough made atmospheric Rococo landscape backgrounds a key part of their portraiture, even leaving their studios to paint outdoors, en plein aire, as people would later describe it. Alas, the painter of the Hawks portrait shows little skill or interest in architecture or landscape or in atmospheric effects such as one sees in John Constable's many studies of Salisbury Cathedral, this one from 1823, a contemporary English harbinger of things to come,and the background for the Hawks portrait was not painted from direct observation of the site portrayed, namely Durham Cathedral. The material errors in replicating the architectural details of the cathedral strongly suggest that the artist had little personal knowledge of the building, perhaps only second-hand from a popular etching he kept as part of a collection of inspirations in his studio.

That particular view of Durham Cathedral was as ubiquitous 200 years ago as it is today. Here is a recent photo along with a postcard from the early 20th Century.

Note that our Hawks portraitist has included the Old Fulling Mill and both riverbanks in the background of his painting, but he has filled in the actual River Wear, added a meadow in the middle ground and moved the river's edge to the foreground to suit his composition.

The real question is why Durham, but we shall set aside that issue for a moment as we attempt to answer a more fundamental question: why a portrait of Ned Hawks at all?

Tom Weil’s jewel of a book, Beauty and the Boats, published in 2005 by the River & Rowing Museum, discusses a lithograph, Thomas Cole, Champion of the Thames, from 1842, six years before the Hawks portrait.

“The first individual sports superstars were the boxers and scullers of this era, and these large [38.6cm x 68.4cm] tributes to their fame would have hung in taverns up and down the Thames.” Such a work of commercial art would have begun with an oil painting to serve as a guide for the engravers.

A similar engraving showing Ned’s uncle, Harry Clasper, was advertised for subscribers in the Newcastle Courant on 23 April 1847, the year before the Hawks portrait, but since no print has survived, the chances are the response to the ad was insufficient to justify going forward with the project. What is relevant to this discussion is that while this planned Clasper print by the well-respected engraver, R.M. Hodgetts, conceived in the words of the advertisement “in the Great Style of the Art,” i.e. the Grand Manner, while this print may never have been produced, it was to be based upon an oil painting by the hand of John Henry Mole, a painter well-known and well thought of to this day, and the painting was described in such great detail in the ad that it is hard not to infer that the painting was already in existence.

Incidentally, the Cole engraving mentioned above was also based on a painting.

The presumed date of the Hawks portrait was just a year later, 1848. What might have motivated Ned Hawks or anyone else to commission it? A possible explanation for the portrait may lie in the likelihood that in class-conscious Britain, Hawks considered himself a class above the increasingly-famous rower and boatbuilder, Harry Clasper, to whom he was related by marriage only. Hawks was a member of the large family who co-owned the Hawks, Crawshay and Sons Ironworks in Gateshead, for which Clasper had worked as a laborer for a short time. Clasper had begun his working life as a pitman (miner) at Jarrow pit, and then became a ship’s carpenter, a coke burner and a wherryman for Garesfield Coke Company before becoming the builder of the first smooth-skinned outrigged racing shells.

If Harry Clasper could have ambitions to see his image hanging behind the bar in every Tyneside pub, perhaps Ned Hawks believed he deserved to have a portrait as well. The trouble is that the painter of the Hawks portrait was not nearly the artist that John Henry Mole was, and, in retrospect, if a lithograph was ever planned, there is little likelihood that anything more than our oil painting was ever produced.

Why? First of all, Ned was not nearly as competitive a professional rower as was his nephew . . . nor Thomas Cole for that matter, and by 1848 his salad days were behind him. Hawks had once subbed for Edward Clasper in the famous Clasper Brothers four in 1844 and, after Edward’s death in April 1845, throughout that following summer, including their major win in the 1845 Thames Regatta against all comers. However, their descendant David Clasper has informed me that by the end of 1846 Uncle Ned was no longer included in the Clasper boat. Hawks continue to compete in singles and pairs, but success was never assured given that his nephew was consistently the faster sculler.

Back to the question, why Durham as the background of the Hawks portrait? Did he win some important race in Durham?

The Clasper Brothers won the 1843 coxed-fours race at the Durham Regatta without Ned Hawks, and then later, surely after Hawks had substituted for him in 1844, Edward Clasper had his 1843 medal engraved and presented it to his uncle. “WON In the Boat FIVE BROTHERS by EDW/d CLASPER, Presented to his Uncle Edw/d HAWKS as A Token of Remembrance.”

The obverse of the medal has boats racing before a background similar to the Hawks portrait. This strikes me as an interesting coincidence and no more.

David Clasper: “In June of 1846, Edward Hawks took part in a skiff race at the Durham Regatta. It was a sweepstake of 5 shillings, with £3 added for the first boat and the second to receive the entrance." Edward Hawks came in first in a boat called The Brunette, second J. Graham in a boat named The Sybil, and third W. Boyle in Change It. This was good but not extraordinary money in those days. Was this the event recalled in the portrait? No way of telling, but the date is suggestive. Nevertheless, the choice of background remains a bit of a mystery.

The oar Hawks is holding in the portrait looks to be the length of a scull, actually a bit less, and exactly what is that lying on the ground next to Hawks? Another scull? Very crudely painted. Same for the single shell in the foreground.

All this together suggests that the artist had little personal knowledge of boats or rowing, assembled the portrait in his studio far from Ned Hawks and far from Durham using a standard view of Durham Cathedral, not particularly accurate images of sculls and single shells, a description or an example of Hawks' uniform, the pose of one of the most beloved statues in all of history, and a sketch of Ned Hawks' visage, either by the artist himself or supplied to him.

And this pastiche is not combined with great or memorable artistic skill. One look at Hawks' feet discloses that he is no more standing on terra firma than St. Francis on this 12th Century altarpiece.

Let’s take another look at the physical painting itself. The actual provenance is unknown, but the back of the canvas is almost entirely unblemished. The frame is original, and with the exception of a couple of chips, unblemished as well. There is no fraying at all of the edges of the canvas.

This painting has been hidden away in storage virtually its entire life until it went up for auction earlier this year.

The inscription on the frame: “EDWd Hawks/Aged 46 years,” strongly suggests the person who commissioned the portrait and chose the words was Ned Hawks himself. The information “Aged 46 Years” serves nothing except Hawks’ own vanity.

Let’s speculate a bit about the artist himself, his name now lost in time. This could not have been only portrait he ever produced. It was done quickly and confidently. He had a routine, the familiar conventional formula supplied by the Grand Manner, surely a pattern book to refer to, a self-assured if slap-dash approach to the background and surroundings, and undeniable artisan skill at painting faces and bodies. This was an experienced craftsman who made his living putting paint on surfaces.

I imagine an unpretentious itinerant artisan traveling the countryside in a cart seeking out work. He was affordable. He could paint or repaint the sign for your shop or your pub. He could transfer stencil patterns to an interior wall. Or he could even paint a portrait now and again. And maybe on the particular day that he ran into Ned Hawks, that seemed just the right thing for Ned.

For me, all this context adds to the magic of the River & Rowing Museum Edward Hawks portrait. If I could call up this unknown artist on my mobile today, and if his prices had not risen too terribly much in the intervening two centuries, I would seriously consider commissioning him to do a similar portrait of me, especially if he could make me walk on air and give me the body of Michelangelo’s David!

Thank you for your attention. Are there any questions?