The Art of Rowing

Pic 1. An evocative if not entirely accurate view of an Oxford - Cambridge Boat Race finish in mid-Victorian times. Picture: Sotheby’s.
An evocative if not entirely accurate view of an Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race finish in mid-Victorian times. Picture: Sotheby’s.

Tim Koch is a little tired after a very good lunch at Fishmongers’ Hall following the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race yesterday. In lieu of an immediate race report, here is something that he prepared earlier.

On 15 July, Sotheby’s Auction House in London sold an oil painting titled The Finish of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race at Mortlake by James Baylis Allan (1803-1896). They had wisely contacted Chris Dodd at the River and Rowing Museum for assistance with the catalogue notes and I presume it was Chris who suggested that the picture probably depicts the race of 1867, which Oxford won by half a length. The painting is a somewhat romanticised view of the day but is none the worse for that as it captures well the spirt of the occasion – which I imagine is much the same today as it was then. The majority of spectators who go down to the riverbank to see the race in person have always done so simply for ‘a grand day out’ as they have no connection with either rowing or to Oxford or Cambridge. Strangely though, it has always been such people who have been among some of the most passionate supporters of one crew or another and of Boat Race Day in general.

Pic 2
The Boat Race finish, 2013.

The camera (allegedly) never lies and while the above view of the Boat Race finish of 2013 lacks the romance of Allan’s painting, it still conveys some of the drama. The one point of reference in both pictures is the ‘Ship’ pub on the far right, an unchanging landmark. I took the photograph standing on Chiswick Bridge, but this was not an option that Allan would have had as it was only built in 1933. To spite my higher vantage point, I still could not see Barnes Bridge from the finish and I think it is safe to say that Allan used a lot of ‘artistic licence’ in his picture.

Pic 3. ‘In The Golden Days’ by Hugh Goldwin Rivière (1869–1956) c. 1900.
In The Golden Days by Hugh Goldwin Rivière (1869–1956) c. 1900.

Moving on to another image, I am very fond of the above painting which forms part of the War Memorial at Thames Rowing Club. The HTBS post on this shows the memorial in place before the recent and excellent renovations at Thames. HTBS editor Göran Buckhorn found a reference to the picture in a 1900 edition of The Art Journal:

If only for the freshness of subject, the freshness of observation, Mr. Hugh Riviere’s In The Golden Days […] is welcome. The play of sunlight on the faces of the Magdalen eight, being coached on the Upper Thames, the sense of movement, a further claim to attention.

I have had In The Golden Days as the desktop picture on my computer for a long time and have never grown tired of it. Thus, I was very interested to come across another rowing picture by Rivière, though unfortunately only as a black and white double page illustration in a 1903 edition of The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.

Pic 4. ‘At Iffley’ by Hugh Goldwin Rivière c. 1903.
At Iffley by Hugh Goldwin Rivière c. 1903.

The only clue to the crew’s identity in this monochrome picture is on the coxswain’s cap which looks like it has the three lilies of Magdalen College, Oxford. I contacted Magdalen’s rowing historian, Mark Blandford-Baker, and received this reply:

I agree the cox’s cap looks like a Magdalen First VIII cap (and therefore the blazer ditto) – red. The zephyrs could be first boat though the varying number of bands on the sleeves is a little odd – but perhaps no more so than the variety of kit a modern crew in training might wear. The oars appear to be plain (undecorated) which would be right for Magdalen at that period.

Thus the ‘Iffley’ picture probably showed a Magdalen crew and the Art Journal review claimed that the ‘Golden Days’ painting was also featured Magdalen men – but I had always thought that the picture in Thames Rowing Club showed a Thames crew. An e-mail from the club secretary, James Elder, supplied the answer:

…. if one looks at Thames Rowing Club’s painting closely, it was plainly touched up to turn the stripe on some of the oarsmen’s zephyrs into a Thames one. I think it was only acquired by TRC after World War One, to form the centrepiece of the war memorial. My suspicion is that it did originally depict Magdalen (Oxford) but at the time of TRC’s acquisition, it was touched up to turn it into a Thames /  Cambridge composite crew. Why it was made TRC / CUBC rather than simply TRC I’m not sure, although I think that around that time the club had closer links to Cambridge than Oxford.

Thus, Rivière clearly had some kind of Magdalen connection. The question for HTBS readers is: Where is the original painting of At Iffley or is there, at least, a colour picture in existence?

Copies of In The Golden Days can be purchased from ‘Allposters’, the link for British readers is here and for American readers is here.


  1. The image first shown about is very similar to the scene portrayed in a print which I donated to the RRM, described in my catalogue as follows: 01/07/1868 Col. lith. “To the Gentlemen of the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Club/ This View of Mortlake with the Boat Race April 4th 1868./ is respectfully dedicated by their obliged & obedient Servant J. Hogarth/ George Chambers Delt. T. Boys, Lith./ London, Published July 1st, 1868 by J. Hogarth & Sons, Printsellers to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales” [showing two starboard stroked eights (historically inaccurate) in left mid distance followed by a flotilla of steamers, with an immense throng along the near right shore and spectators packing several spritsail barges and cutters moored in the foreground; ref: Sabin, discussed at p. 70; Winter, discussed at p. 189 and reproduced at p. 190; m (1939) opp. p. 54, titled “The Finish of the 1868 Boat Race” [GO Nickalls collection]; 1948 Henleyex, number 77 on p. 9 (the property of G.O. Nickalls); Rickett number 53; 1990 GAGex, listed as number 7 on p. [10] (TEW Coll); Dodd & Marks (2004) illus p. 9 (TEW Coll); matted and framed (for 1990 exhibition) [x Grosvenor vendor: [Ditto]. 36 Mount St, Gros.r Sqr.e Removed from 5.Haymarket. Tinted lithograph with hand finishing. Printed area 410 x 675mm. The closing stages of the race. In the background is Barnes Bridge. The lithographer was the famous Thomas Shotter Boys. L1150.00 03/03/08]] [image] 13.375” x 26” [HRRM loan delivered 17/11/03] [BAAA04]

  2. hello
    i have an original black and white 1901 print from the fine art society of The Golden Days by Hugh Goldwin Rivière
    even from my untrained eye there appear to be differences from the original.
    the print is so more impressive in black and white.
    ive had it for 30 years and its still the only picture i have ever purchased .

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