13 July 2020
By Greg Denieffe
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Jumping to conclusions can be even more dangerous. Greg Denieffe believes he has combined these two art forms in his quest to find the earliest painting of an Irish amateur rowing crew.
The sketch on top appears to be an outline for a painting or a woodcut, both of which Harry Kernoff produced on a prodigious scale. Aaron ‘Harry’ Kernoff was the son of Jewish parents of mixed Russian and Spanish descent. He was born in London in January 1900. The family moved to Dublin in 1914 because his father opened a cabinet-making business there. Kernoff’s artistic training began with night classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and he won the Taylor Scholarship in 1923. He began his working life as a woodworker in his father’s furniture business, and later this led him to the production of woodcuts. He painted mainly in oils and exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) every year from 1926. He worked from a studio at his south Dublin home, 13 Stamer Street, and the old row of boathouses at Ringsend was only a two-mile walk away.
Many of the capital’s rowing clubs boated from here until they moved to Islandbridge, some four miles upstream on the River Liffey. The clubs based here in 1934 were Commercial Rowing Club, Dolphin Rowing Club and Pembroke Rowing Club. When Commercial R.C. followed Dublin University B.C. and University College, Dublin, B.C. out west, the days of Ringsend as a rowing base were numbered. The Emergency (WWII) took Pembroke down and the last club to close, Dolphin R.C., shut up shop in 1942 rather than move with the times.
Unlike Dolphin R.C., Kernoff had no problem with going where the action was and painted this undated picture (1940s perhaps) from a height on the edge of the Phoenix Park. You can just see the road (at 5.30 on a clock-face) that runs the short distance between Islandbridge and Chapelizod. The river flows from right to left and this stretch was part of the course of Trinity Regatta; those bends are no easy-steer in a two-boat race as I know from experience of coxing an eight there in 1975.
The coxed four on the left could easily be a Trinity crew taking advantage of student hours. Regrettably, I do not think this painting does Kernoff justice. I am a big fan of his, especially his pub scenes, one of which is said to have inspired the Star Trek character, Mr Spock. Kernoff died on Christmas Day 1974 having painted everyone and everything of importance in his adopted city.
Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957) was the son of Irish painter John Butler Yeats and the younger brother of poet William Butler Yeats. Jack was born in London but raised in Ireland and won an Olympic silver medal in 1924 in the Art Competition. William, Dublin born, may just have piped this achievement as he was the awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the previous year.
The view here is from the opposite side of the river to that in Kernoff’s painting; two crews race side by side under the watchful gaze of a crowed bank. The painting was purchased from the artist by Richard Irvine Best, who bequeathed it to the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) in 1959. The gallery text is slightly misleading – Dublin University B.C. has held their regatta at Islandbridge since 1898, not 1922, albeit with the exception of the war years, which in this instance ran from 1915 to 1921:
Since 1922 the Dublin University Boat Club’s annual regatta has been held at Islandbridge, on the River Liffey in Dublin. Despite the fact that the location is just two miles upstream of the city centre, it appears rural with verdant banks. Yeats conveys the excitement of the event through the use of rough brushstrokes and by focusing on the onlookers crowded along the bank. The picture marks a move on Yeats’s part towards a freer, more expressive style, beyond reportage to a more subjective and romantic vision of life.
I bought a print (less than half-size) of this painting, more because it was available than that I like it. IMO, his Olympic medal-winning picture, The Liffey Swim, which uses a similar approach is far superior. On 24 June, our friends on row2k featured a photograph by John Gillick that he took standing in a similar position as Yeats had 95 years earlier. Check out Gillick’s picture here.
This 1878 painting showcases the Boyne Viaduct, Drogheda. Constructed between 1851 and 1854, it carries the main Dublin to Belfast railway line. It was designed to carry two tracks but a major refurbishment in 1932 reduced this to a single line. The artist R. Curzon shows a steam train travelling north and, as luck would have it, as a coxed double enjoying a row on the River Boyne. The first boathouse of Drogheda Rowing Club, founded in April 1867, can be seen in the right-hand corner, on the north side of the river under the viaduct. It was a small timber structure, built on land owned by the Drogheda Harbour Commissioners. Shortly after this painting was completed, expansion of the port led the Commissioners to propose moving the club to the south side of the river and Drogheda R.C. opened their new boathouse on 17 May 1879.
A 2013 post on HTBS has more information about Drogheda R.C. and a link to a short video of their 1921 regatta.
This delightful watercolour shows a uniformed crew returning from a row towards Passage West, Cork Harbour. As it is undated, it is proving a bit of a conundrum. It was bequeathed to the NGI in 1855 and therefore, it has to at least date from that year. The NGI itself was only founded the previous year. My first thought was that the crew depicted was one from the famous Cork Harbour Rowing Club based in Glenbrook, but that club was only formed officially in 1859. However, local paper cuttings from as early as 1831 have described rowing matches in Passage West, and in an earlier HTBS article, there is evidence of a Squadron Regatta held in Cork Harbour in 1852.
In his 1939 book History of Boat-Racing in Ireland, T. F. Hall wrote:
It is certain that there were rowing clubs in Cork in the fifties [1850s] and that rowing matches were held at that time. Lee Rowing Club was in existence in 1858 but owing to the destruction of early records the exact date of the formation of this club is unknown. Cork City Rowing Club was also in being about this time and there were other clubs at Queenstown, Milford and Youghal.
Lee R.C., on its website, claims to have been formed in 1850. Could it be one of their earliest crews, even though their current colours are red and black? Whatever the actual date, it is one of the earliest paintings of a rowing crew (other than working boats and currachs) in Ireland.
The artist James Mahony (1810-1879) ARHA was born in Cork and worked locally as a graphic artist until 1859 when he moved to London. He is more famous as an illustrator, portraying images of the Great Famine (1845-1849), which were published in The Illustrated London News and based on on-the-ground sketches he made in Clonakilty and Skibbereen in West Cork. His illustrations also appeared in several other London journals and newspapers of the day, as well as the ‘Household Edition’ of Charles Dickens’s works. Mahony died of apoplexy in London at the age of 69.
In 1839, Belfast Harbour Commissioners commissioned William Dargan, a Carlow man, no less) to cut a channel on the first bend in the River Lagan. ‘The First Cut’ opened in 1841 and a second opened in 1849. The material excavated from the first cut formed a 17-acre island, known in its early days as Dargan’s Island. In March 1849, Queen Victoria visited Belfast and Dargan became yesterday’s man; the island and its newly planted pleasure gardens were renamed Queen’s Island.
The Crystal Palace was constructed on the new island taking architectural references from Paxton’s Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, London. When it was opened in September 1851, the dome was absent, having been deferred to the following year due to a lack of funds. It was never completed, and the building was destroyed by fire in January 1864.
For the opening, the Commissioners had David Wilkie Raimbach paint an impression of the palace. The intention was to publish it as a lithograph and distribute these among patrons. Raimbach improvised and included the unbuilt dome and more importantly included a four-oared gig in his painting. This is not surprising given that the first recorded rowing club in the city was established in 1842 and that regattas had been held there every August for years thereafter.
This final rowing painting is part of the art collection owned by Belfast Harbour Commissioners and may prove to be the earliest of an Irish amateur rowing scene. It is listed as “The Old Lagan Bridge, 1830, William Henry Maguire (active c.1820-1840) (after)” but I doubt the accuracy of that claim.
What evidence is there to dismiss the date of the painting as 1830 Trinity College and is there any to support such a date? The consensus is that the first organised amateur rowing club in Ireland was the Pembroke Club, founded on 2 September 1836 by the rowing men of the University of Dublin (AKA , Dublin). The club had a flexible policy as to its membership and in 1843, a rival club was established, University Rowing Club, strictly for undergraduates of the university. In 1847, the two clubs merged and adopted the name Dublin University Rowing Club.
As in Great Britain, Ireland had its share of watermen and lightermen, particularly in ports like Dublin and Belfast. These professionals piloted cargo and passenger ships into these ports and it was inevitable that they would race each other for prestige and cash prizes.
In his book Belfast Rowing Club 1880-1982, Walter Mitchell gives an account of rowing in Ulster between 1840 and 1890. He opens the chapter by recounting an article, “Boating in Old Belfast”, by C. J. Robb published in the Belfast Telegraph on 6 May 1958:
In the year 1790, eighteen of Belfast’s waterman raced in six pair-oared boats, each with a coxswain, from the Town Dock, at the foot of High Street, to Holywood. The winners, George White, William Orr, and James Finn received a guinea each from the sovereign.
The article also contained references to boating in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries by the aristocracy and wealthy merchants from boathouses near the town centre and on the Ormeau and Belvoir Estates. Mitchell believed that Robb’s article was based on material obtained from a perusal of private records.
It is highly likely that there was rowing for pleasure in Belfast (and Dublin) before 1836. The four-oared gig depicted in the painting is manned by a uniformed crew and coxswain. They wear blue and white livery and fly a blue flag from the stern. A private boat of coxcombs may go to such lengths for a race against another private boat, but would they take such trouble for what appears to be training outing?
The first recorded rowing club in the Belfast area was formed on 8 July 1842 and imaginatively, they called themselves Northern Rowing Club. By 1843, the club had adopted an elegant attire consisting of navy-blue jackets with gilt buttons and a badge featuring the club’s initials ‘NRC’, a crown, and an anchor. Mitchell’s research confirms that the club went out of existence shortly after the death of its patron, the second Marquis of Donegall, who died on 5 October 1844. That gives a short time frame of just over two years in which the club may have featured in a painting.
However, an earlier club, originally called Northern Yacht Club, may well be featured in the painting. The July 1837 edition of The New Sporting Magazine (page 37) noted that:
The Royal Northern Yacht Club [sic] was first established in Belfast in 1824. It consists of two divisions – the Irish, whose rendezvous is at Belfast; and the Scotch, which has its rendezvous at Greenock. The total number of yachts belonging to the club is about seventy, and the field of their ensign is blue. The annual regatta of the Irish division is generally held in Belfast Lough, in June; and that of the Scotch in the Clyde, in the month following.
The website of The National Maritime Museum, Cornwall, has further information on the club’s early years:
The Royal Northern Yacht Club is, in point of seniority, the fifth oldest club in the kingdom. It has a somewhat unique history, for, though a Scotch club, it was originally formed at Belfast. It was founded in the autumn of 1824, and several Clyde yachtsmen joined it.
The first regatta was held in Belfast Lough in 1825. With so many Clyde yachtsmen in the club, a separate division was formed for the Clyde. The Irish division ultimately went out of existence, and the Clyde branch then settled down as a purely Scotch club. The prefix Royal was granted to the club under Admiralty warrant on May 10, 1830, and it continued for many years to be the only prominent organized body devoted to the sport on the Clyde.
The club’s current website confirms that the Irish division was dissolved in 1838.
I can find no information about the 1825 regatta mentioned above but there is evidence that the RNYC held gig races at its sailing regattas. Tom Weil included a print of such a race in his 2005 book, Beauty and the Boats, art & artistry in early British rowing. You can find more information and see a copy of this print here (click the picture to enlarge). It is a regatta on the Clyde, and it may date as early as 1835 (Weil dates it to c.1845). The middle gig is rowed by a crew in colours not dissimilar to the Northern Rowing Club. It has even crossed my mind that the demise of the Irish Division of the RNYC in 1838 and the formation of the NRC in 1842 may be connected.
What other evidence is there to suggest that 1830 is too early a date for the painting? Art UK lists Maguire as being active c.1820-1840 and dates the original Maguire work Bridges on the River Lagan to 1835.
A Dictionary of Irish Artists by Walter G. Strickland (1913) states that Maguire was a member of the Association of Artists founded in Belfast in 1836 and that: “Some local views by him are known: a View of Belfast, painted in 1838, belongs to Mr J. W. Wilson, and a view of the Old Long Bridge and the Toll Bridge done in 1835, to Mr Isaac Ward, of Belfast.”
The painting described as “Old Long Bridge and the Toll Bridge” by Strickland is called Bridges on the River Lagan by Art UK. We can identify the Old Long Bridge from the following print which confirms that the bridge originally built in 1682 was taken down in 1841.
The Old Lagan Bridge is ‘after Maguire’ and I believe that means it was painted by another artist, based on an original work by the named artist. If Maguire’s Bridges on the River Lagan is accurately dated, it must mean after 1835, allowing the ‘rowing’ painting a window of 1835 to 1841. All complete speculation of course but It is still the earliest date for an Irish amateur rowing scene that I can find. If only Sister Wendy (video link Impression, Sunrise by Monet) was alive – her video continues here (Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir).