Beauty and the Boats

Thomas E. Weil Jr. of Connecticut might not be familiar to the man in the street or even to active rowers, but to rowing historians and scholars, his is a household name. Weil probably has the world’s largest private collection of rowing prints and memorabilia. Between 10 June and 2 October 2005 part of that collection – principally dealing with British rowing between 1820 and 1870 – was on display at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames, England. And for those of us not fortunate enough to make it to the exhibition itself, there remains this grand catalogue with perfect reproductions of its images and artefacts.

The selections were chosen by Weil for their beauty or craftsmanship, and include ancient coins, trophies, a variety of ‘pots’, medals, and other prizes, early photographs, and marvellous art works depicting galleys, the Thames, rowing at the Oxbridge universities, at Eton and Westminster, at regattas, and, of course, the watermen and professional champions. Furthermore, Weil wrote the highly informative captions, proving that he is not only a collector of the first rank, but also an art and rowing historian of distinction. He has missed neither wave, nor cloud, nor a sighing in the trees, to tell how nature and setting are equally as important as the boats and the oarsmen to a picture’s beauty. Or, as Weil expresses in the introduction, ’the rowing imagery and memorabilia of this early period reveal a desire to please or to praise’.

From Weil’s witty and scholarly captions – sometimes spiced up with anecdotes of a rowing collector’s hardships – it is easy to see that he has here selected his favourite pieces. Some have fortunate connections: for example, a medal that belonged to one of the oarsmen in the triumphant four, Victoria, that raced at Chester Regatta in 1854, is displayed along with the beautiful lithograph Chester Regatta, 1854, Race for the Challenge Cup showing the boat in the lead. (Victoria, the first keel-less racing four now hangs in the River & Rowing Museum.)

In the well-written essay The dangerously neglected legacy of rowing [to read a version of this essay click here] at the end of the catalogue Weil expesses a need not only for rowing to be recognized as a sport but also for its history to be treated as an ‘academic’ subject. Enough cannot be said of the importance of bringing – and keeping – rowing and its rich history into the limelight. Thomas Weil’s enthusiasm for teaching and sharing his knowledge, as shown in Beauty and the Boats, should be a guiding-star for rowing historians.

Beauty and the Boats – art & artistry in early British rowing by Thomas E. Weil Jr., published by River & Rowing Museum, 2005.

This review was published in Maritime Life and Traditions, No. 30, Spring 2006.

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