24 July 2020
By Peter Mallory
In the third installment of HTBS show-and-tell series, rowing historian and writer Peter Mallory shows one of his favourite objects in his collection, a mystery painting.
What I have to share is a mysterious painting, unsigned and with zero provenance attached, which came up for auction in Britain several years ago.
Tom Weil has long been collecting prints from the series he has named Isis Navy, and this painting seemed to be at least distantly related. Tom immediately identified the tower in the background as the church at Fen Ditton, part way along the Cambridge University race course. The colors of the jerseys suggested Lady Margaret Boat Club, and the design of the boat a date before 1845. Our suspicion was that this might be the earliest surviving oil painting of a racing eight-oared boat.
When the River & Rowing Museum decided that it was not in a position to bid successfully on it, several of us fellow historians agreed that it must not be allowed to be swallowed up in some private collection, only to disappear from sight for another century and a half, and one of us needed to acquire it. Tom won it at auction, and then asked if Susan and I would like to complete the purchase, which we were happy to do.
When it arrived at our home in Los Angeles, it turned out to be heavily stained by decades of cigar smoke, but through the brown muck it appeared that the detail might be exquisite.
But was it Lady Margaret? I consulted with John Hall-Craggs, who fortuitously was actually at the Lady Margaret boathouse working on his multi-volume history of LMBC. He recalled another painting within their inner sanctum. He took a surreptitious cell phone photo and sent it to me.
Low and behold, the paintings looked like two peas in a pod. That answered my question as to what club was represented in our version. What remained was to identify, if possible, what year, what specific crew, were the two paintings really identical, and how might such a happenstance have come about.
I will describe the quest for the answers to those questions and more in a lengthier future post on HTBS.