The Mystery of Rowing

Included in the approximately 2,200 illustrations Frank Earle Schoonover (1877-1972) did for books and magazines are some brilliant illustrations of rowing for the article “The Mystery of Rowing” by Walter Camp. Schoonover is here seen in his studio at the time he made the illustrations for Camp’s story. Courtesy of John R. Schoonover.

16 June 2020

By John R. Schoonover

John R. Schoonover writes about his grandfather, the artist Frank E. Schoonover, who was approached by Century Magazine to illustrate a rowing article by Walter Camp.

In 1910, noted illustrator and artist Frank E. Schoonover received a commission from Century Magazine to illustrate the story “The Mystery of Rowing” by Walter Camp, in the April issue. Interestingly, Camp excelled as a football player at Yale, 1885-1890, subsequently coaching Yale football to a stellar 67 and 2 record from 1888 to 1892. As a prolific author, however, his interest in American athletics resulted in 250 articles on a wide variety of sports, including the article in Century. “The Mystery of Rowing” chronicles the history of rowing in only eight short pages, touching on the Doggett days in England up through the late 19th century in America. He pays particular homage to the sport’s technical and physical changes, including the sliding seat, boat design and the introduction of the English stroke in 1875: “As far as the stroke was concerned, there had been little real development in rowing since the very beginning of American college rowing until a lean, tanned youth named R.J. Cook went over to England and studied the practical components of the English stroke”.

Penn boathouse

Schoonover, whose research for his commissions often included trips to the story’s venue or, in this case, the U Penn boathouse, traveled there to sketch and photograph in Penn’s gym and boathouse, this being the dead of winter. He also employed models back in his studio on Rodney Street in Wilmington, Delaware.

Model in Schoonover’s studio.

His diary entry covering the five visits he made to U Penn mention his visit on February 23: “To Phil. – Saw Dr. Mckensie at U. of P. gym. Also Ellis Ward”. Ward, professional rower extraordinaire, coached Penn intermittently from 1876 to 1912. Previous to coaching, he competed successfully with his three brothers, including victories over the notorious Biglin Brothers in 1865, and a world title in 1871.

Two of Schoonover’s dramatic illustrations embellish Camp’s text. The first, Race to the Finish, portrays one of the early Harvard vs Yale races described in the story: “the first intercollegiate boat-race in America was rowed between Yale and Harvard at Lake Winnipiseogee. [sic]”

Near the Finish

Schoonover’s remarkable ability to convey the rowers’ strain, yet accurately capture the physicality of the rowing stroke is a testament to his study under his great mentor, Howard Pyle, at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. A flotilla anxiously awaits at the finish line acknowledging the enthusiasm of rowing in the mid to late 19th century. Ironically, Mr. Pyle advised Schoonover to repaint the coxswain.

The Two Crews

Besides profiling several legendary Yale vs Harvard races, Camp also describes a famous Yale vs Atalanta Boat Club regatta in 1890. Atalantas comprised of “amateur oarsmen” rowing the professional style, took on the more “collegiate” rowing stroke of Yale. The Atalanta Club, founded in 1848, had won a few races over both Harvard and Yale during 19 years. On May 24, 1890, despite Yale’s insistence on rowing the four-mile course at New Haven Harbor, two more that the amateur’s usual effort, Atalanta accepted. Schoonover’s second illustration captures an early regatta incident near the mile post, whereupon P. Allen, the Yale stroke, broke his oar. To quote The Illustrated American Magazine, June 1, 1890, “he jumped overboard to relieve the boat of his useless avoirdupois”.

An Incident of the Atalanta-Yale Race of 1890.
Schoonover posed a model in the Penn gym on one of the rowing machines to illustrate the “incident”.

Remarkably, and with imaginative steering by coxswain R. Thompson, Yale increased their lead to win handily. Revenge was even sweeter based on the friends of Atalanta having betting odds of four to five against Yale.

Both paintings hang, appropriately, in St. Andrew’s School on the banks of Noxontown Pond, scene of competitive high school rowing since 1930. Yours truly, the artist’s grandson, tipping the scales at 84 pounds, coxed the SAS varsity in 1959 and 1960, including a victory over the Princeton freshmen in a record time of 5:11 for the Pond mile. Not surprisingly, that has been eclipsed many times over, although the distance is now 1,500 meters.

More information about Frank E. Schoonover is available at There you will find the digital version of the Frank E. Schoonover Catalogue Raisonné administered by The Norman Rockwell Museum.

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