Not the 1873 Boat Race

“Boat-Raceana” by artist John Gordon Thomson (1841-1911) and engraver Thomas Dalziel (1823-1906), published in “Fun” on 12 March 1873. Courtesy of the Suzy Covey Comic Book Collection in the George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. Click on image to enlarge it.

14 November 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

While I was writing and researching the three-part article “Richard Henry Dana III: An American Oarsman in England” about young Richard H. Dana III’s travels in England, Scotland and the continent, I was looking for images to illustrate the piece.

In the first part, I mentioned Bob Cook, captain of the Yale’s crew at this time, who also travelled to England, during the winter term of 1872-73 to study the ‘English stroke’. As he was particularly interested in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race in spring 1873, I thought an illustration of that race might be an appropriate picture to include in the article.

I found an illustration of the 1873 race, but at the end, I decided to scrap it. What I also found during my search was the image Boat-Raceana shown on top by artist John Gordon Thomson and engraver Thomas Dalziel, the latter being primarily known for his illustrations of the work of Charles Dickens.

I found Boat-Raceana on a website called the Victorian Web, whose founder, webmaster and editor-in-chief is George P. Landow, who is Professor of English and Art History Emeritus at Brown University. Professor Landow has commented on this Thomson/Dalziel work [Landow’s comments in italics]:

The top left compares an oarsman with grotesquely enlarged arms “after training” to a tiny man with a huge egg-shaped head who represents “before training”. In the middle, one spectator of the Boat Race says to another “I say gladdy [?] English university education’s better fun than Irish, eh? On the right, “Fashion for the Boat Race 1873”, [T]he two women in the corner represent Oxford and Cambridge: the first, who holds a Latin dictionary, embodies Oxford classical learning and appropriately wears Greek or Roman dress, and the second wears clothing covered with mathematical formula, indicating Cambridge’s reputation as a leading scientific university. On the middle left, some oarsmen are “Taking in wind for the contest, while [t]he bottom panel, which is entitled “Boat race of the sister universities as it ought to be,” depicts a woman’s crew [sic! Actually, two crews as there is a second crew coming in from the right, slightly faded in the image] rowing a shell – “light blue stockings v. dark blue stockings.” – a joke in 1873 but reality today. Satire as prophesy?

What is particularly interesting with this illustration is the depiction of the women’s crew[s]. HTBS has several times brought up the question when was a women’s crew first portrayed? Although, Thomson/Dalziel’s Boat-Raceana in the March 1873 issue of Fun is an early illustration of a women’s crew, there are older ones, for example Claude Lorraine Richard Wilson Nursey’s oil painting The Wet Dock, Ipswich from c.1842 and Boat-Race of the Future in Punch magazine in 1866 – like the Boat-Raceana, a mockery of women at the oars.

Rowing historian and HTBS writer Tom Weil shows some women rowing in an early image on rowing historian Bill Miller’s eminent website “Friends of Rowing History” (www.rowinghistory.net). The image is from an autumn 1871 regatta of Harlem’s Empire City Rowing Club, which included a women’s double sculls race. The image was published on 14 October 1871 in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News.

“Ladies’ Double-Scull Race” in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News” on 14 October 1871. From the Thomas E. Weil Collection.

The always watchful and intrigue-seeking HTBS writer Tim Koch might have found the oldest picture of a woman rowing, an image from the Codex Manesse, which was produced between 1310 and 1340.

Lord Niune rowing with his mistress, though it looks like it is his manservant and the mistress’s maid who are doing the rowing. Read more about old images of women rowing in Tim Koch’s article “From Ridicule to Respect: Some Images of Women’s Rowing”.

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