2 August 2017
While writing on his recent visit to view the famous school’s ‘Procession of Boats’, Tim Koch found some other rowing and non-rowing images of Eton worth sharing.
Ode by Thomas Gray, 1742
In 1742, Old Etonian, Thomas Gray (1716 – 1771), wrote “An Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”. This is not as well-known as his later “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”, but some think that the earlier work has been unjustly overlooked. The Eton poem splits into two even parts, with the first half concentrating on the past and the present, with the boys at school devoting all their energies to play and to study and not thinking of the future. In my recent piece on Eton’s Procession of Boats, I suggested that the poem included a very early reference to boat racing (‘Margent’ is an edge or bank):
Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen
Full many a sprightly Race
Disporting on thy Margent green
The Paths of Pleasure trace…
However, rowing historian Bill O’Chee informs me that the ‘sprightly races’ actually refer to swimming contests. He holds that ‘boating came late to Eton, having been preceded as a pastime by swimming’.
The second half of Gray’s poem deals with that future and the suffering that it is likely to bring. He holds that the ‘paradise of youth’ is brief and that the young should therefore enjoy it while they can. The final two lines of the final verse have entered the English language and are still popular sayings today (I had long assumed that they were Shakespeare):
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.
Canaletto spent nine years in Britain from 1746 to 1755. The National Gallery website says this about the painting:
The school is here shown from the east; it is viewed from across the river Thames. The general position of the chapel appears as it would be seen from this direction, but many of the other details of the buildings are invented.
On this picture’s first exhibition, The Spectator wrote:
Mr. TURNER, the Royal Academician, has executed a series of views in different parts of England and Wales… The view of Eton College is one of the happiest efforts of the whole. Other artists have frequently taken the same building at the same point of view, but they have forgotten to add that fine sentiment which is rarely absent in TURNER’S productions, and which in this instance is more than usually conspicuous.
Graves after Bristow, c.1834
The website promoting the book, Eton Colours, states:
Eton’s unique colours system really began in 1860 with the creation of the Field colours of scarlet and Eton blue. Although Eton blue had been used for many years before this for both the (rowing) VIII and the (cricket) XI, it was only in 1860 that colours were formalised and then used in a myriad of colours by houses and other school sports. These colours stand at the heart of Eton sports ranging from sartorial elegance to garish hues made up on the whim of the Captain of the Boats to Housemasters’ wives.
A glimpse of other items from Eton’s large ‘dressing up box’ is on a local photographer’s website.
An iconic photograph, 1937
‘Iconic’ is an overused adjective but this picture of five British schoolboys, taken in the summer of 1937, most defiantly qualifies. Its connection with Eton is indirect – but relevant. Soon after it was first published, the two boys on the left were incorrectly identified as Etonians, and this mistake has often been repeated. In fact, the two ‘posh boys’ were from Harrow School (they had just left the annual Eton – Harrow Cricket Match at Lord’s Cricket Ground). Perhaps the repetition of the error has, in some cases, been willful. Ever since its publication, the photograph has been frequently reproduced as ‘the defining image of class division’, and, of all the alleged villains who apparently perpetuate this inequality, Eton ranks very high, even above the other British public (i.e private) schools. However, like many ‘iconic photographs’ where real people are used as symbols, the facts reveal a twist.
The point of the photo is that the wealthy ‘toffs’ would grow up to have a comfortable life, full of pleasure and privilege, but the working-class boys would enjoy no such advantages and faced a future of hard work, discrimination and perhaps suffering. In fact, in this particular case, that is not how things worked out.
Thomas ‘Tim’ Dyson, the Harrow boy looking toward the camera, died of diphtheria a year after the picture was taken, and his father perished in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in 1942. The other Harrovian, looking to the left, was excused war service on health grounds but later followed a conventional path and entered his family’s stockbroking firm. However, when he reached his 40s, he began to suffer from mental illness and he eventually died, aged just 60, in a psychiatric hospital.
In 1998, The Daily Mail newspaper traced the three working-class boys who have been pictured 61 years earlier and found that all were alive and living comfortably. The website, Rare Historical Photos, summarised the Mail’s findings:
In striking contrast to (the two boys from Harrow School), all three men had reached old age and a plateau of contentment… (But) when a newspaper… had asked the three men to get together to reconstruct the picture at Lord’s, or at least their part in it, (one) had refused. Probably to be stereotyped as a poor London boy – a tough even – may have irritated a man who had made good and probably felt no nostalgia for the pre-war streets of his childhood.
Thus, ultimately (though perhaps not typically) the ‘underprivileged’ boys had a better life, something that seems to undermine the message of the photo. Possibly, the truth is not actually relevant and that the symbolism is in fact the really important thing. Perhaps the only definite that we can get from learning the facts behind the picture is that real life is very rarely as simple as sometimes we (and Class War in particular) would like it to be.