A Yank on a Broadside

Coach and Pupil. Photo courtesy of The National Rowing Foundation.
Coach and Pupil. Photo courtesy of The National Rowing Foundation.

7 March 2016

Greg Denieffe writes:

One of our favourite sons on ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ (HTBS) is Benjamin Hunting Howell. He was a champion sculler, achieving a double-double by capturing the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley Royal Regatta and the Wingfield Sculls on the Tideway, in both 1898 and 1899.

Last year, HTBS editor G R Buckhorn fulfilled his promise to his friend, Hart Perry (1933-2011) and published a biography of Howell, A Yank at Cambridge – B. H. Howell: The Forgotten Champion. The front cover of the book featured a photograph of Howell cut from an original of him and his coach Bill East, sitting in their respective singles, their images reflected in the water.

In a recent book review in the digital edition of Rowing & Regatta, Chris Dodd wrote “It never crossed a Brits’ mind that B H Howell was a foreigner, or an American’s that he was an oarsman.” It never crossed my mind that Howell would have appeared in an earlier literary work, but I was wrong.

In 2014, American poet Ernest Hilbert and designer Kyle Harvey collaborated to produce a full-colour broadside featuring the poem Rowing in the Dawn by Hilbert and a design by Harvey that makes use of the full Howell-East photograph. This combination will appeal to HTBS types, especially the first verse of Hilbert’s brilliant poem.

“Rowing in the Dawn” by Ernest Hilbert and Kyle Harvey – Lithic Press, 2014. Broadside. Measures 11 by 17 inches. Photo: Photo E-Verse Radio.
“Rowing in the Dawn” by Ernest Hilbert and Kyle Harvey – Lithic Press, 2014. Broadside. Measures 11 by 17 inches. Photo: Photo E-Verse Radio.

A slightly different version of the poem can also be read here.

The website ernesthilbert.com gives the following information about the collaboration:

‘In 1994, Ernest Hilbert, recently arrived as a graduate student in the department of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, joined one of the “eights” rowing teams for his Oxford college, St. Catherine’s. The team acquitted itself soundly in that year’s Christ Church Regatta, held in the seventh week of Michaelmas term, winning two races though ultimately bested by the unrivaled Oriel squad. Years later, while living in Philadelphia, a city known for its boathouses and university rowing teams as well as Thomas Eakins’ iconic paintings of rowers such as the champion Biglin Brothers, Hilbert revisited his mornings on the Isis River in the poem “Rowing in the Dawn.” The poem first appeared in the Oxonian Review and is slated for inclusion in the collection Last One Out.

‘Designer Kyle Harvey remarked that “the words ‘oak,’ ‘dark,’ ‘dock,’ ‘clunk,’ ‘oarlocks,’ ‘clink’ are all vividly replicative of the sounds that wood, metal and water make. The combination of these words with the title led me to think of light in the morning, the air on the water, these sounds before the sounds of day dull them to our listening. Dawn is a magical time on the water. The primary image is a photo of courtesy of the National Rowing Foundation’s Hall of Fame. I collaged and overlaid a handful of layers to try and compliment the color and sounds of the water and sky at dawn.’

Hilbert in his office under the watchful gaze of The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake (1873) by Thomas Eakins. Photo: E-Verse Radio.
Hilbert in his office under the watchful gaze of The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake (1873) by Thomas Eakins. Photo: E-Verse Radio.

In introducing the poem when it was published in the Oxonian Review (2010) Hilbert recalled his brief but inspiring rowing career:

‘I rowed for one of St. Catherine’s “beer” eights, or social eights, at Oxford. We would haul the big wooden boat out before sun rose in the winter so we could be out of the water by the time the Blues, the serious rowers, needed the river. The Isis is what the Thames becomes when it snakes through Oxford.’

Isis, oh, Isis, you’ve inspired a real gem of a poem but what would Howell, a Cambridge Blue in 1897 and a man of the River Cam, think?

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