Putting Rowers on a Pedestal

As both statues and face masks dominate the news at present, the monument in Philadelphia to champion sculler John B. Kelly as currently adorned is very much ‘on trend’. Picture: The Philadelphia Inquirer.

15 July 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch looks at some fine figures.

One of the many unexpected things that has happened in this turbulent year is that statues of long-dead and often obscure men have generated passionate debate and violent action and reaction. Until the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, public statuary was typically ignored by most people, most of the time. However, in the words of historytoday.com, suddenly statues ‘have become lightning rods for wider conflicts between competing visions of history’. A remarkable list of some statues recently removed worldwide is on Wikipedia.

The fallen Christopher Columbus statue outside the Minnesota State Capitol, taken down by a group led by members of the American Indian Movement on 10 June. Picture: Tony Webster/Wikipedia.

Fortunately, the (admittedly few) public statues of oarsmen that exist around the world have escaped controversy – with one possible exception.

I am using a specific definition of the term ‘statue’, that is a large carved or cast three-dimensional representation of a specific or generic person. Thus, I have not included such things as obelisks or columns – such as the memorials to the Australian professional scullers William BeachHenry Searle or Edward Trickett, (splendid though they are).

Further, I am only looking at images of rowers or scullers involved in the sport of boat racing, not at figures who happen to be holding an oar for some artistic reason or practical purpose such as the ferryman at Lake Balaton in Hungary, the ‘Monument to the Men of the Sea’ in Castro Urdiales, Spain or the ‘Girl with an oar’ statues in Russia.

John B Kelly Snr, Philadelphia, USA

Kelly unmasked. The monument by Harry Rosen is bronze on a granite base with a combined height of over three metres. It is located in Fairmount Park, just off Kelly Drive (named after John’s son) near the finish line of the Schuylkill River course.

John B. Kelly Snr. (1889-1960) appears in a single scull in this monument erected by the ‘Friends of Jack Kelly’ in 1967. A native Philadelphian, Kelly was Olympic champion in the single and the double in 1920 and in the double in 1924. He was father to the actress Grace Kelly and to John Junior, an Olympic bronze medalist and two-time Diamonds winner.

Edward ‘Ned’ Hanlan, Toronto, Canada

The stone plinth and bronze statue of Ned Hanlan, the World Professional Sculling Champion, 1880 – 1884, together stand at nine metres high (though the man himself was only 1.75 metres).
The Hanlan monument by Emanuel Hahn was originally placed in the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto but in 2007 was moved to Hanlan’s Point in Toronto Island Park.

With the hyperbole reserved for a local lad, the front of Hanlan’s plinth says, ‘Edward Hanlan, the most renowned oarsman of any age whose victorious career has no parallel in the annals of sport. Born and died in Toronto, July 12 1855 – January 4 1908’. The rear of the plinth summarises Hanlan’s career, one in which he was the ‘victor in three hundred consecutive races’. Some call him ‘the father of modern rowing technique’ and it is certainly true that he made best use of the new innovation, the sliding seat.

Hanlan’s resumé engraved on the rear of the stone plinth.

Sir Steve Redgrave CBE and Sir Matthew Pinsent CBE, Henley-on-Thames, UK

In 2002, it was Bronze for Redgrave and Pinsent, sculpted slightly larger-than-life and sited outside the River and Rowing Museum in Henley. Picture: Wikipedia.

Steve Redgrave (b.1962) was the first endurance athlete to win five gold medals in successive Olympic Games. Matthew Pinsent (b.1970) won four successive Olympic golds, three of them with Redgrave. In addition, Sir Steve won nine World Championship Golds and Sir Matt won ten (with the pair having seven of their World’s victories together).

Sculptor Sean Henry said at the unveiling:

Although these sculptures honour two 21st century heroes, it wasn’t just the winning of the medals which inspired me, but the sheer scale of their endeavor – the weeks, months and years of training behind the glory. That’s why I’ve re-created the two rowers in their training clothes and designed them to stand facing the river on which their careers were built.

Sir Steve Redgrave CBE, Marlow, UK

Just down the road from Henley, another Redgrave statue is on its own in Higginson Park, Marlow. Steve is in rowing kit and wearing his five Olympic Gold Medals.
The bronze statue is by Neale Andrew and was unveiled by The Queen in 2002.

Ann Glanville, Saltash, UK

Ann Glanville (1796 -1880) of Saltash, Cornwall, called herself ‘The Champion Female Rower of the World’. Here, Ann is made from fibreglass while rowing historian Tom Weil is carbon-based.

A working waterwoman, Ann’s racing career in variously crewed four-oared gigs stretched from approximately 1833 to 1847. In that time, she beat almost all of her female opponents and also won a few races against men.

In 2013, the statue of Ann sitting on a bench was first placed in the main shopping street of Saltash but, in 2018, it was moved to the local waterside. The life-sized figure has a sound recording of the key events of her life which can be activated by pressing her brooch.

In Britain, the graves of four famous and heroic professional Victorian oarsmen have been marked by stone statues. Three of these monuments are on Tyneside, North-East England, executed by a local sculptor, George Burn. They are to James Renforth (now outside Shipley Art Gallery), to Robert Chambers at Walker and to Harry Clasper at Whickham. In London, the last resting place of Robert Coombes is also marked by a wonderful (but now decaying) memorial.

James Renforth, Gateshead, UK

James Renforth (1842 – 1871) was the World Professional Sculling Champion between 1868 and 1871 and was one of three great Tyneside oarsmen, the other two being Harry Clasper and Bob Chambers. Because of the difficulty of finding opponents to race him in the single, he took up pairs and fours racing. He died of heart failure aged 29 during a race in Canada.

Renforth’s grave was marked by this monument between 1871 and 1985 but was then removed due to vandalism. Restored, it has been sited outside Shipley Art Gallery since 1992. Picture: Dposte46/Wikipedia.
In his dying moments, Renforth is cradled by his crewmate, Harry Kelley. It was claimed that 50,000 mourners attended Renforth’s funeral.

Robert Chambers, Newcastle, UK

Robert ‘Honest Bob’ Chambers (1831 – 1868) was a Tyne, Thames, English and World Professional Sculling Champion. He held the World title 1859 – 1865 and 1866 – 1868 and was a champion sculler on the Tyne.

Chambers’ tomb at Walker Cemetary, Newcastle. He died of tuberculosis, aged 37.
Chambers in repose with his oars lying alongside him. Sometime in recent years, the head was broken off, but it has now been restored.
An “Illustrated Sporting News” report on the erection of Chambers’ memorial in 1875.

Harry Clasper, Whickham, UK 

Henry ‘Harry’ Clasper (1812 – 1870) had a remarkable life in rowing. As an oarsman he won the Thames Fours seven times between 1845 and 1862 and was the undisputed champion sculler of the Tyne for many years. By 1860, he had taken part in 130 races and won more than £2500. Clasper also coached and can take much credit for the early success of Bob Chambers. As a boat builder, Harry Clasper developed outriggers, keelless shells, sliding seats and overlapping oar handles.

Harry Clasper stands in Whickham Cemetery overlooking the Tyne sheltered under a canopy embellished with aquatic plants and boatbuilders’ tools. Picture: Ken Fitzpatrick.
Clasper has lost his nose, but the delicate memorial is in otherwise good shape.
The inscription at the base of Clasper’s memorial.

Robert Coombes, London, UK

Robert Coombes (1808 – 1860) was a Thames waterman who was World Professional Sculling Champion 1846 – 1851. He also had success racing in fours and pairs. At Henley in 1845 (when the regatta offered events for professionals), Coombes’ four won the London Waterman’s Match. He trained Oxford for the 1840 Boat Race and Cambridge for the 1846 and 1849 contests.

As with the three other famous professionals of his time, Coombes’ life proved to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’ and, despite all his successes, he fell into poverty and died in a lunatic asylum in 1860, aged 52.

In 1866, a monument of Portland stone, 2.75 metres high, was placed over Coombes’ grave in Brompton Cemetery. On the top was an upturned wherry, over which was thrown a coat and badge and by the side were broken sculls. At each corner of the tomb were four figures representing champions of the Thames: Robert Coombes, in his rowing costume, holding a broken scull; Tom Cole wearing his Doggett’s Coat and Badge; James Messenger in his Thames National Regatta Coat and Badge; Harry Kelley in rowing costume. Over the years, the stone has decayed badly, and the statues have lost their heads. In 2008, it looked as though the Grade II listed memorial was going to be restored but, sadly, this did not happen.

Coombes’ grave in 2014. Picture: Edwardx/Wikipedia.
Viewed from another angle, 2014. Picture: Edwardx/Wikipedia.

Not all statues of oarsmen are of specific people, some are generic rowing figures (there are no women depicted that I know of).

The Spirit of St Catharines, Ontario, Canada

Located in Rennie Park near the site of the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, the impressive bronze statue is ’To honour the athletes, coaches and volunteers of St Catharines who continue to have a significant impact on the sport of rowing’. It was sculpted by Perry P. Wakulich in 1999.

‘The Spirit of St Catharines’. Picture: News Alert Niagara.
A wider view of the work. Picture: News Alert Niagara.

The Rower, St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada

‘The Rower’ does not represent a specific person but is ‘an abstract personification of the (Royal St John’s) Regatta Day rower’.

The creation of Morgan MacDonald, ‘The Rower’ was installed by Quidi Vidi Lake in 2005, near to the start of the Royal St John’s Regatta course. Royal St John’s claims to be North America’s oldest annual sporting event with proof of races in 1816 and the suggestion that there were fishermen’s races in the  18th century.

Boats for Royal St John’s are supplied by the organisers and are coxed, six-oar and fixed seat shells. Men row a 2.45 km course, women half that, and all crews are required to race to buoys, turn around and race back to the start. Although a women’s race was recorded in 1856, women have only had continuous participation since 1949.

The sculptor’s website says:

… the sculpture as a whole is fragmentary and incomplete, suggestive as opposed to realistic. The rowing shell central to the racing event this work honours is representationally absent here; the figure of the rower… is instead sitting at a point where the bronze arc of water that sweeps out from behind the blade of the oar meets up with a highly stylised chunk of cast metal that eludes in only the loosest possible way to anything remotely akin to a vessel.

‘The piece is ‘suggestive as opposed to realistic’. Picture: theartofmorganmacdonald.com
I do not know if the sculptor intended this, but there are times when the lake rises and ‘The Rower’ is surrounded by water giving the piece a different dimension. Picture: theartofmorganmacdonald.com

Unidentified installation, Calgary, Canada

A statue of an oarsman in Elbow River Park, Calgary, Canada. Picture: James Cameron.
Viewed from behind.

Surprisingly, the Internet cannot tell me anything about the above sculpture and these are two of only four pictures that I can find online. It seems strange that such an elaborate piece is so obscure. Can anyone help?

Monumento al Remero, Tigre, Argentina

‘The Monument to the Rower’ was installed in 1982 near to the confluence of the Tigre River with the Luján River in Tigre in the Provence of Buenos Aires. The magnificent club house of the La Marina Regattas Club is in the background.

The plinth reads: ‘The People of Tigre. To those who brought glory to Argentinean rowing’. Unveiled five months after Argentina’s ignoble defeat in the Falklands / Malvinas War, perhaps it was erected in a fit of patriotism?

The base of the statue also has a plaque for each of the 15 rowing clubs of the Paraná Delta, many showing the strong foreign presence that historically existed in Argentina. Their Anglicised names are: Buenos Aires Rowing Club (founded by Britons in 1873); Tigre Sailing Club (Britons, 1896); Canottieri Italiani Club (Italians, 1910); Rowing Club Teutonia (Germans, 1890); Hacoaj Nautical Club (Argentine Jews, 1935); Regatta Club America (Argentines, 1920); Argentine Hispanic Racing Club (Spaniards, 1913); La Marina Regattas Club (Argentines, 1876); L’Aviron Regatta Club (French, Belgian and Swiss, 1920); Scandinavian Rowers Club (Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes, 1912); San Ferando Club (Argentines, 1923); Swiss Club of Buenos Aires (Swiss, 1913); Nahuel Rowing Club (Argentines, 1916); Rowing Club Argentino (Britons and Argentines, 1905); Tigre Boat Club (Britons, 1888).

Der Ruderer, Hluboká na Vltavou, Czech Republic

‘Der Ruderer’ (‘The Rower’) was cast in Germany in 1938 by the Czech born sculptor, Hermann Zettlitzer (1901 – 1957). It is now on display in the art museum called the South Bohemian Gallery, Hluboká na Vltavou, Czech Republic. Picture: Pavel/Travels with LPSPhoto.

Hermann Zettlitzer was greatly influenced by Auguste Rodin and he initially studied and worked in Prague and Vienna but moved to Berlin 1937. Here he focused on the ideal male and female form and Der Ruderer was clearly a fine example of this. However, in 1940 it became tarnished by association when Hitler saw it at the annual ‘Great German Art Exhibition’ of Nazi approved work and bought it for his planned art museum in Linz.

‘Der Ruderer’ at a Nazi exhibition of ‘sporting art’.

During the war, a large part of Hitler’s personal art collection was hidden in a monastery in Vyšší Brod, a south Bohemian town near the Austrian border. After the war, the collection was not, as was much plundered art, moved to Munich for redistribution but was kept in Vyšší Brod, somehow unnoticed by the outside world. In 2009, a 1945 letter from one of the monks mentioning the treasure was found by author Jiří Kuchář and this alerted the authorities. Three of the biggest sculptures in Hitler’s collection were found on display in a park outside Hluboká nad Vltavou Castle: ‘The Seedsman’ by Willi Knapp, ‘Aphrodite’ by Wilhelm Wandschneider and ‘The Rower’ by Hermann Zettlitzer.

A 2009 article on a website on looted art wrote that the South Bohemian Gallery immediately put them into store ‘for security reasons’ and said that they would no longer be displayed as they did not ‘fit the spirit of the gallery’, claiming that it is why they have been placed outdoors to that point. However, a 2013 piece on the Radio Prague International website seems to indicate that the statues were still then in the park, but a planned South Bohemian Gallery exhibition had drawn people’s attention to them and some had objected to a display of art part of which had once belonging to Hitler. However, as Jiří Kuchář said at the time:

I really don’t think that any of these three sculptures can be described as Nazi art. Before I made it public that they belonged to Adolf Hitler, everyone liked the statues at Hluboká very much. All of a sudden they became a problem, but the statues themselves are not to blame for this.

Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, views the muscular form of ‘Der Ruderer’ at an exhibition in 1938. The top Nazis were poor physical types and a joke ran that the true Aryan was ‘as blond as Hitler, as slim as Göring and as tall as Goebbels’.

In the 1950s, it was officially decided that Zettlitzer was not an active Nazi during the time of National Socialism and he was allowed to work again. ‘Der Ruderer’ also seems to have been rehabilitated and, looking at recent pictures, it appears that it is now on public display inside the South Bohemian Gallery, albeit in a slightly tatty corner of a glasshouse.

History repeats itself

The pulling down of the statue of George III by the ‘Sons of Freedom’ at the Bowling Green, New York, in July 1776. Picture: Library of Congress.

Allegedly, the metal from the downed statue of George III was made into musket balls for use by George Washington’s army against the British – a somewhat literal illustration of the power of statuary. As the first President (along with many other Founding Fathers) was once a slave owner, some have suggested that it is now statues of Washington that should be taken down.

Ultimately, perhaps all statues will suffer the same fate as the great image of Ozymandias.


  1. James Renforth did not actually die “while rowing” although that is written on his plinth. It makes for a more dramatic story, but as reported in the press at the time, after collapsing unconscious he was driven the mile and a half back to the training quarters and put into his own bed. Here he briefly regained consciousness and said a few words, before dying shortly afterwards. This was all reported in the press at the time and the full account can be seen in his Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Renforth

  2. One of the older Irish rowing clubs has a statue of an oarsmen outside it. I saw a photo of it in the last year or two but I can’t remember which one it was. Thought it was Athlunkard or Shannon but not showing up when I searched online.

    • It is in front of Athlunkard Boat Club. From their Facebook page: “The statue in our boat club was cast in 1926 by Stan Quinn, a sculpter and artist who lived in Keeper View Terrace.
      The model for the statue was Jimmy Quinlivan, a senior champion oarsman with the club in 1923.
      This statue is the only one of its kind in the country. It used to be surrounded by sculpture of swans cast in concrete and surrounded by a stone wall underneath the statue. Water used to come out of the mouths of the oarsmen [on the plinth] which flooded the well which gave the impression that the swans were floating.”

      • That is a fine and unusual statue, thanks for posting the photo. Looking at it, though, it seems more likely to me that the oarsmen are merely holding up the statue on their shoulders and it is the cherubs underneath, whose mouths are clearly puffed out in a blowing position, who would have been blowing out the water. I have just commented on the matching Facebook page to ask if there is anyone alive today who remembers the fountain when it was still working.

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