The Importance of Being Ernest

A Rowing Lawson?

29 June 2020

By John R. Schoonover 

John R. Schoonover investigates if he has an original rowing painting by Ernest Lawson.

Way back in August 2012, I was the successful bidder of a painting signed by, but only attributed to, Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), noted member of “The Eight”. The subject matter, a single and double rowing on a river lined by a row of six vintage boathouses, appealed to me even more than the artist. In fact, my initial attempts to authenticate the painting met with considerable resistance from the so-called experts, not surprising considering the very modest “hammer” price, and the legal and ethical implications of determining the true authorship of artworks. I know, having co-edited The Frank E. Schoonover Catalogue Raisonné.

Lawson or not, I’ve enjoyed the painting all these years despite a strong curiosity about the venue. Certainly not Philadelphia’s historic Boathouse Row, or any other similar cluster of boathouses I know.

However, Lawson’s residency in New York City, and in Washington Heights in particular, inspired me to eventually contact Glen Umberger of the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 2019. His name had surfaced in a footnote for a Lawson painting of Harlem River auctioned at Christies in July 2019. Not only did Mr. Umberger respond that he would field my request, he subsequently emailed me a remarkable photograph of “Scullers’ Row” located then on Sherman Creek, a small tributary of the Harlem River near Washington Heights. The photograph clearly identifies the six boathouses – left to right: Nassau, Harlem, Metropolitan, Wyanoke, Cresent, and 1st Bohemian. In the distant background is a snippet of the 145th Street Bridge. It bears mention that several other boat clubs prospered nearby: Lone Star, Knickerbocker, Waiver, Atalanta, Friendship, Dauntless and the New York Athletic Club.

Scullers’ Row
Harvard shell behind Nassau Boathouse

I was astonished, to say the least, the photo almost replicated the scene in my painting, although with two singles, not a double. Had Lawson, whose proclivity for painting scenes of both the Harlem and Hudson rivers, copied this photograph, or another artist surreptitiously signed Lawson’s signature? The answer to these questions will require further investigation. However, the story of historic Scullers’ Row, the epicenter of rowing in New York City until the very early 20th century, is fertile ground for research. It even includes a very popular distaff side, Lady’s Day, pictured below circa 1900.

Ladies Day

Sadly, Scullers’ Row became a victim of urban redevelopment beginning in 1902. Several clubs moved to the Macomb’s Dam Park, but, in 1937, they succumbed to Robert Moses’s preference for public tennis courts instead of “exclusive” clubs. Ironically, the area along the confluence of Sherman Creek and the Harlem River became an environmental nightmare until recent efforts in early 2000 reclaimed the area, now designated Sherman Park. Fortunately, it resulted in the revival of rowing at the new Peter Jay Sharp boathouse, the first Community boathouse of its kind on the river in more than 120 years.

Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse

3 comments

  1. Thanks, really interesting article, which shows that rowing’s image problems go right back. Amazing that all those boat houses just disappeared over the years.

  2. The bridge in the background of the photo and the painting must be the 207th Street Bridge not the 145th Street Bridge. Sherman’s Creek was on the west bank of the Harlem River near Dyckman Street (200th Street if numbered), thus the view is to the north. A couple of the rowing clubs were still in existence in 1963 but not interested in taking on new members; they were purely social drinking clubs.

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