22 March 2019
By Chris Dodd
Twenty-one years ago, Redgrave was the name of the rowing game. Continuing his exclusive series for HTBS, Chris Dodd recounts the River & Rowing Museum’s connection with local, national and international hero Steve on camera, canvas and ceramics.
The creators of the River & Rowing Museum were fortunate to be creating when British Olympic sport hit rock-bottom in Atlanta in 1996. Team GB came home from Georgia with only one gold medal to parade on the top deck of a topless bus, and that was owned by Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, champions among coxless pairs on Lake Lanier. When Prime Minister John Major spurred revival by adding an elite sport fund to the National Lottery, rowing was raring and ready to go. Atlanta was Redgrave’s fourth consecutive Olympic gold and Pinsent’s second, and when the RRM opened in 1998, the two of them were half way to adding another in Sydney 2000, with Tim Foster and James Cracknell in a four. Redgrave was the athlete of the age, and we at the RRM basked in his aura.
The idea of a photo-shoot for Steve with his trophies and medals on the RRM steps was photographer Peter Spurrier’s. The collection would not be complete without the half dozen challenge cups that he had won at Henley, so I telephoned Regatta HQ in the forlorn hope of borrowing them. Secretary Richard Goddard, bless him, sent the pots over on an open trailer towed by a tractor. ‘When shall I pick them up?’ asked the driver. We had half of Henley’s priceless silverware on a building site for the best part of a day.
When the artist Justin Mortimer was asked to paint Steve, he had recently earned notoriety when his portrait of Queen Elizabeth was unveiled. Commissioned by the Royal Society of Arts, it depicted her head floating away from her body against a yellow background. Mortimer explained that he wanted to get away from the normal ‘sycophantic’ portraits of royals. His Redgrave, commissioned by Edington Charitable Trust for loan to the museum, also has its subject floating on the canvas. One reason for liking it is that the image is challenging; it is not of an oarsman sitting in a boat or standing with oar aloft.
Three generations of Redgraves turned out for the private view, and most appeared quizzical when they first saw Mortimer’s interpretation of the favourite son. I’m not sure what an exit poll would have concluded, but after a round of excellent nibbles and libations, I think most departed happy. The canvas was certainly a surprise and, for me, a pleasant one.
An iconic feature of the museum is Sean Henry’s painted bronzes of Redgrave and Pinsent who face you as you enter the car park. The sculptor said he wanted to capture the years of training that lay behind the glory of their achievements, as well as the glory itself. Thus Henry has them standing on the dock in timeless, crumpled training garb, holding an oar apiece and facing the river where they accomplished their work.
By eschewing GB strip and medals clutched on a presentation podium, the sculptor has portrayed the two greatest oarsmen of the late twentieth century as ageless. As their notoriety recedes behind a lengthening line of men and women who have stepped up to Olympic heights, Redgrave and Pinsent – now eminences behind Henley Royal Regatta – continue to look to the river, ready to take on the day. I salute Sean Henry’s testament to the sport that they, and we all, love.