19th-Century ‘Champion of the World’ Joins Steve Redgrave’s Boat at RRM

On 9 January, HTBS’s Greg Denieffe wrote about an interesting painting of Edward Hawks that was up for auction at Bonhams in London. At the auction it was not revealed who the buyer was, but in a press release the River & Rowing Museum writes that it was the lucky ‘winner’. The HTBS team is delighted the RRM was the museum that managed to buy it as it means that it will be on display for everyone to see. Here follows the press release which offers the story about this iconic painting, which will soon be on permanent display at the award-winning River & Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames.

The portrait joins other rowing memorabilia of national importance, including the Coxless Four rowed to victory by Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent at the 2000 Sydney Games, and the boat from the first Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race in 1829, which took place in Henley-on-Thames.

The River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames acquired an iconic 19th-century portrait of the oarsman Edward Hawks in The Gentleman’s Library sale at Bonhams, Knightsbridge. The lot, which sold for £8,000, gained widespread media attention and a great deal of interest under the hammer because of its subject’s association with Henry (‘Harry’) Clasper, known for revolutionising the sport of rowing.

Hawks, who is illustrated in the painting in front of Durham Cathedral, was a member of the 1845 Newcastle rowing crew, captained by Henry Clasper, Hawks’s relative, that gained notoriety by winning the ‘Champion of the World’ against prize the top Thames crew at the Thames Regatta. Henry Clasper was responsible for revolutionising the art of rowing when it was one of the most popular sports in Britain through his pioneering boat and oar designs. Among other developments he created the ‘Newcastle Oar’, which had a curved blade to create a winning advantage. From initiating his rowing career as a keel man (rowing coal barges), Clasper’s inventive designs eventually led his crew to dominate the waters of Newcastle as champions.

The painting, bought from museum funding in an exciting auction, will be on public display as part of the Museum’s permanent collection in The Schwarzenbach International Rowing Gallery from the end of February. The piece adds more depth to the museum’s extensive collection of items that relate to the history of professional rowing. The acquisition of the work was funded in equal measure by a legacy from Mr David Lunn-Rockliffe, one of the Museum’s founders and a past Chairman of Trustees, and matched by a grant from the V&A Purchase Fund.

Paul Mainds, Trustee and Chief Executive of the River & Rowing Museum Foundation says:

We are delighted to have been able to acquire such a significant painting which has already generated such interest in both the rowing world and the national press. It will be the centrepiece of display about professional rowing which was so rooted in the North East of England but which had a truly international dimension. It is a great story that deserves to be told! We are hugely grateful to the V&A Purchase Fund for their support. We also feel that this acquisition is a fitting tribute to David Lunn-Rockliffe whose legacy contributed to the purchase. His ambition for the Museum was always that it should be an international focus for rowing history and a significant centre for the visual arts.

Sam Travers, a specialist in the 19th Century Paintings department at Bonham’s commented:

There was an electric atmosphere in the saleroom and a good deal of interest in this painting. The portrait transports the viewer to a time when rowing was the major sport of the North East and figures like Edward Hawks made the Tyne famous for its innovative boat design and strong crews. With the fame and success of the crew that Edward Hawks was part of and the rarity of portraits of this type, it is no surprise that there was so much interest from private collectors and museums. I’m sure this will make a superb addition to the collection at the River & Rowing Museum.

About the portrait
The full-length portrait of Hawks in distinctive rowing strip holding a scull in his right hand is inscribed ‘Edward Hawks aged 46 years’. The picture, attributed to the English School, 19th century, depicts Durham Cathedral in the background. The rarity of this painting is to have a portrait of a professional oarsman – most pictures of pro rowing from this era are regatta scenes.

‘Ned’ Hawks was a member of the Newcastle coxed four otherwise made up of four Clasper brothers who defeated the Thames watermen at the Thames regatta in Putney in 1845 to become champions of the world. Hawks, whose niece Susannah was married to Harry Clasper, was a late replacement in the crew for another Clasper brother who was drowned in an accident.

Clasper began his working life as a pitman in Jarrow, but became a publican who designed and built racing boats. The Lord Ravenscroft used by the Tyne crew in the Thames regatta was a sleek Clasper boat, and Clasper became a dominant name among several Tyneside builders who experimented with hull shapes, outriggers and oars to move boats faster. Harry’s son, John Hawks Clasper, eventually moved the Clasper boat building business to Putney.

Hawks had a distinguished rowing career… but his life ended in tragedy when he hanged himself after running into financial problems.

For more information about the River & Rowing Museum, go here and for Bonhams, go here.

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