21 April 2021
By Peter Mallory
On 24 July 2020, I promised HTBS readers a fuller explanation of my contribution “Lady Margaret BC Painting” in our mid-COVID show-and-tell series. Today, I am fulfilling that promise with an admittedly tedious tale worthy of the original Baker Street Irregulars combing the fog-bound gutters of 19th-century London, seeking out clues and trying to make sense out of what little documentation has survived nearly 180 years. Like most detective work, it often takes shucking a lot of oysters to find the few that contain pearls. This particular story involves a lot of friends and a lot of surprises, and for me that’s what makes life worth living.
Let’s begin with a painting hanging in the boathouse of the Lady Margaret Boat Club of St. John’s College, Cambridge, which just may be history’s earliest oil “portrait” of an individual racing eight-oared boat. I only became aware of its existence in 2016 when my good friend and fellow rowing historian John Hall-Craggs, who had rare access to the L.M.B.C. boathouse during his work on the third volume of The history of the Lady Margaret Boat Club, St. John’s College Cambridge, provided me with a blurry photo of the painting, framed under glass, which he had taken surreptitiously with his mobile phone.
Posted on the wall next to the painting is a description titled “The Lighton Painting of the L.M.B.C. Eight”, also furtively photographed for me by John. Such is the exclusivity of Cambridge college sancta santora that innocent subterfuge was required.
I will explain later why I asked John to snoop around on my behalf, but for now let me relate to you some of the fruits of my subsequent research. After a year of shameless begging, the waves suddenly parted with the intervention of another good friend, Mike Sweeney CBE, today President of Leander Club, and I was allowed to commission and pay for a very high-resolution scan of the painting in the interest of history. That scan has provided answers to several questions and posed several more. The painting is not signed, and other than the image itself, there are no markings or clues on the canvas or frame, but the information posted in the L.M.B.C. boathouse would turn out to be important in accurately identifying its subject.
What year is depicted?
For those unfamiliar with bumping, the unique form of boat racing on the Cam near Cambridge and on the Isis near Oxford, the peerless Tim Koch provided the perfect primer in 2019 on HTBS.
When competition on the Cam first began during the 1820s, there existed a Chesterton Lock about 2,000 yards downstream of the boathouses and between the town of Chesterton and Stourbridge Common. Boats would proceed to this lock, turn around and race back to a “grind,” a winch-operated ferry, situated approximately where the Trinity College Boathouse now stands. When the Chesterton Lock was removed in 1834, this stretch of the Cam became too shallow for racing, and the Old Course was abandoned, and a Modern Course was set up further downstream. Starting in March of 1835, the boats would row to Baits Bite Lock and race back to approximately where the old Chesterton Lock had stood and where the Old Course had begun.
The village of Fen Ditton, shown in the background of the St. John’s painting, is midway along the Modern Course.
Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, the unimpeachable rowing authority of the era: “From the peculiar positions of Ditton Corner and the meadows above it ladies are enabled to see perhaps the best part of a race at their ease, and without any fear of being trodden down by equestrians on the towing path.”
This would strongly suggest that the painting definitely dates no earlier than 1835, and the choice of Ditton Corner and the quality and accuracy of the depiction of the Fen Ditton church tower indicates that that the artist had visited the site, possibly sketching en plein air, a relatively recent practice among artists of the time.
The characteristics of the boat itself further narrow the possible date range. Unlike the earliest iterations of eight-oared cutters meant for racing, such as the original 1829 Oxford boat on display in River & Rowing Museum, the thole pins are mounted well above the level of the gunwales, or more accurately, the gunwales have been lowered substantially in order to save weight, a major consideration for boatbuilders competing in a cutter arms race during the post-1829 years. The disadvantage of lower gunwales is obviously a greater tendency to take on water in rough conditions.
However, in retrospect the most telling innovation in the St. John’s boat was that it was “carvel-built, viz., the edges of the planks being so brought together as to rest on one another, thus giving a perfectly smooth surface outside, [as opposed to] the old clinker-built plan—i. e. with the planks overlapping each other.”
According to Bell’s Life, carvel construction was first introduced in 1840 to the racing boats produced by the myriad boatbuilders along the London Tideway as they vied with one another for business. A Mr. Sinclair built a wager boat for a member of the Dolphin Club. “One great peculiarity in her is that the keel and stem are all in one. She is the only carvel boat ever built . . . and to the back-bone and stringers the oak planks (edge on) are fastened. Her weight is under 50lbs, and she was constructed by a regular draft. Mr. Sinclair complains of some others attempting to build boats on his plan without his permission, and he intends, we hear, to apply for a patent.”
The following spring of 1841, Bell’s Life pronounced: “It is supposed by many that a considerable deal of [water] resistance is got rid of by the carvel build, but we are not prepared to give our opinion on the subject, but feel rather inclined to doubt its advantages, particularly should the water be rough.” Carvel hulls tend to be harder to balance than clinker hulls.
For the 1841 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, “both boats were built by Messrs. Searle [of Lambeth], and were exactly alike in length (52 feet seven inches), breadth, weight, and model, the only difference being that the Oxonians had theirs carvel built.”
Any potential advantage due to the carvel hull proved insufficient on that occasion. Oxford lost the race.
However just one year later, the matter already seemed completely settled in favor of carvel construction. Carvel-versus-clinker was no longer even mentioned in the detailed descriptions of the two 1842 Boat Race cutters in The Times or in Bell’s Life.
For our purposes, this strongly suggests that the artist could not have painted the L.M.B.C. painting prior to 1842. The fact that rudder and flag have distinctive markings further suggests that he had direct access to a St. John’s cutter to use as his model.
The last clue as to the date is a connection to L.M.B.C. member Andrew Lighton. Per the Hall-Craggs purloined photo, the detailed 1953 description of the painting posted in the Lady Margaret Boathouse [with my extensive comments in brackets] reads as follows:
THE LIGHTON PAINTING OF THE L.M.B.C. EIGHT
The painting of the Lady Margaret Eight, which has been presented in memory of Mr. Benians [Ernest Alfred Benians, 1880-1952, Master of St. John’s 1833-1952], came from the home of the Hereford family of Lighton and was bought at the sale of the contents of Litley Court [an old estate near Hereford] in 1952 by a Hereford dealer. This picture, and another bought at the same time, ultimately came into the hands of R.H.H. Symonds (matric, Michaelmas 1928) [Bedford and L.M.B.C. He was in the 3-seat of the winning 1931 Cambridge Blue Boat and was long-time coach of the Bedford School first VIII, also coaching C.U.B.C. in 1938 and 1950-54]. Points to notice are that it is an in-rigger boat and that a large College flag is being flown. Such flags are not supposed to have been in use in the early years of the club, but by 1838 the flying of such flags is known.
R.H.H.S. states that the boat is of a later type than that used in 1829, the date which was assigned to the painting by the Lighton family, and that it resembles the boat of 1842-1844, of which there are coloured drawings. The Lighton painting was probably in the possession of Andrew Lighton who rowed in the first boat in the Lent term 1843. By 1845 this type of boat was obsolete [due to the introduction of metal outriggers, though Bell’s Life reports that it took a year, and it was not until 1846 that the innovation was universally adopted by boatbuilders].
R.H.H.S. sums up by saying that this is probably the Lady Margaret First Boat of 1837 or 1838 (L.M.B.C. had been Head in 1837 [and 1838]), [This is impossible, due to the carvel hull.] and that the picture was probably purchased a few years later by Andrew Lighton while an undergraduate.
Andrew Lighton was born in 1822 and was the fourth son of Sir John Leas Lighton, 4th baronet, and came up to St. John’s in the Michaelmas Term 1840, graduating B.A. in 1844. He died in 1904 [at his residence in London. Andrew had married in 1860 but had no issue. At the time of his marriage, he was living in Clifton, Gloucestershire. For some time he was a captain in the 4th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment.].
Two of his brothers were members of the College: John Hamilton Lighton (1818-1844), who came up in 1836, having succeeded his father as 5th baronet 1827. He proceeded straight to the M.A. in 1839, and Christopher Robert Lighton (1819-1875), who came up in 1839, succeeded his brother as 6th baronet in 1844, and took Holy Orders. B.A. 1843 [M.A. 1846, Vicar of Ellastone, Staffordshire, when he died].
J.M.W. [James Mann Wordie, Master of St. John’s 1952-1959] Dec, 1953
While it is troubling that the above statement has the historical inaccuracies that I have pointed out in brackets, it is the only provenance we have, and R.H.H. Symonds states that he was relying on information he was given directly by the Lighton family. Based on my research as will be described below, it is not unreasonable to accept the connection of the painting, acquired by the boat club between 1952 and 1953, back to Andrew Lighton more than a century earlier.
There is no indication that Andrew Lighton ever lived in Herefordshire, where the painting was acquired by R.H.H.S., but in attempting to trace a Lighton family connection to Hereford, I discovered the following: Reverend Christopher Robert Lighton purchased Brockhampton Court, near Hereford, in 1869, after which at least two of his eight children, Henry Alfred Hamilton Lighton, Repton and Trinity, and Christopher Robert Lighton Jr., Repton and Trinity, would in turn also occupy the house. Their father is memorialized with a stained glass window in All Saints Church, Brockhampton, placed there by his brother, Andrew Lighton. Reverend Lighton’s widow was still living in the Brockhampton environs as of 1879. She died in 1902.
In November 1882, Henry died as a resident of South Kensington.
Christopher Jr. was living in Brockhampton Court with his wife and six servants in 1882, but any connection of Brockhampton Court to the Lighton family ended in 1883 when the property was sold by the Reverend’s widow.
Called to the bar in 1874, Christopher Jr. would serve in Herefordshire as Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant and, in 1885, High Sheriff, so after Brockhampton, he and his wife presumably moved somewhere else in the area, and that might well have been Litley Court. They had four children who survived into the 20th century.
Litley Court no longer exists except as the site of a housing development and an ornamental garden. The Lighton Painting description hanging in the Lady Margaret Boathouse suggests that Litley Court might have been demolished around 1952 when its contents were acquired by a Hereford dealer. This might be verified, and its last inhabitants identified with on-site research in Hereford, but there seems to be no reason to question that the painting could indeed have been passed directly or indirectly from the childless Andrew Lighton to his nephew, Christopher Jr., and could then have remained in Litley Court for perhaps two more generations of Lightons until 1952.
So what do we know about Andrew Lighton’s rowing at Lady Margaret?
Fortunately, the early history of bumping at Cambridge is known in great detail thanks to The Bumps: An Account of The Cambridge University Bumping Races 1827-1899 by John Durack, George Gilbert, and John Marks (George Gilbert, Clare College, Cambridge, 2000). Additional information about the participation of St. John’s College in particular is to be found in The history of Lady Margaret Boat Club 1825-1890 (Johnian Society, Cambridge, 1890).
According to the Lady Margaret history and contrary to the posted boathouse description, Andrew Lighton is not listed in any 1843 boatings, but instead he is shown in the 5-seat of the 1842 Lents 1st Boat. In addition, a pewter mug in the peerless collection of my great friend, the rowing historian, preeminent collector of rowing art and artifacts, and Baker Street Irregular, Thomas E. Weil, is engraved as follows: “Lady Margaret Boat Club, St. John’s College, Cambridge, Second on the River 1842, Andrew Lighton, No. 5 1st Boat”.
Here’s where the plot thickens. The Bumps reports that during the Lent term in 1842 the L.M.B.C. 1st Boat started in 5th, rose only to 4th and returned to 5th at the end (agreeing with The History of Lady Margaret Boat Club), and during Mays, with Lighton no longer aboard, they started in 5th and fell to 6th for five races before regaining 5thon the final day. Not until 1846, two years after Andrew Lighton had graduated, did Lady Margaret ever rise to 2nd, which they did during Lents, and remaining 2nd in May.
Curious. The engraving on the mug appears quite unambiguous.
The 1842 Lents 1st Boat was the only Lady Margaret boat to contain Andrew Lighton. The mug suggests that that boat was important and memorable (however inaccurately) to Andrew, and the characteristics of the cutter in the painting, namely a carvel hull only accepted universally in 1842 and without the 1845 innovation of metal outriggers, also fits the 1842 date. Therefore, there seems no reason to question that the boat shown in the Lighton painting is the 1842 Lents 1st Boat.
Is there a pre-1842 precedent for a “portrait” of a racing eight-oared cutter?
As possibly the earliest-surviving oil painting of an individual racing eight, the Lighton Painting is significant and remarkable . . . but is it entirely unprecedented? The answer is no. For many years, Tom Weil has been fascinated by a series of prints from Oxford published sometime between the 1820s and the 1850s. “The early Oxford rowing prints, in aquatint and the newly introduced process of lithography, are among the finest rowing images conceived, drawing on some of the best British artists and printmakers of the day.” Someday, he hopes to research these prints in greater depth. In the meantime, he has provided a summary of his preliminary findings in his jewel of a book, Beauty and the Boats, art & artistry in early British rowing (River & Rowing Museum, Henley, 2005) and in recent personal discussions with me for this presentation. I will paraphrase extensively and quote from Tom’s work during the following discussion.
According to Tom, the 1822 aquatint “A Boat Race on the River Isis, Oxford”, showing a bumping race just seven years after the first such recorded contest, is “the first important rowing print.” The printmaker was John Whessell (1760-1828) following a design by John Thomas Serres (1759-1825). Per Weil, “Serres managed to capture the spectrum of elements that would characterise boat race prints for years to come: the boats and their oarsmen, the moment of truth on the river, and spectators and passersby in an idyllic setting.”
The principle alternative to the action narrative offered by Serres would be a “portrait” of a single craft and its crew, really more the craft than the crew, as throughout the period there would be no effort at all to portray recognizable individuals. Crew members tended to look more and more like identical tin soldiers.
Weil offers “Confluence of the Cherwell and Isis” as his first example of a boat portrait, drawn and etched in 1824 by John Whessell, the same man who had transferred a Serres design to the plate two years earlier. The composition is moving closer to the L.M.B.C, portrait of eighteen years later.
As is the case with aquatints, etchings can produce multiple printed copies, but etchings consist of solely ink printed on paper with no color. Often, individual copies were then hand-colored, as in the copy below.
Tom has examined and collected examples – both prints and watercolors – of a number of quite similar versions of Oxford college boats on the Isis during this early period, which he has dubbed the “Isis Navy series”. (Many of these varieties are illustrated opposite pages 11, 36, 39, 56, 85 and 97 of Rev. W.E. Sherwood’s Oxford Rowing (Oxford and London: Henry Frowde, 1900), which currently constitutes the most comprehensive compilation of such images.) Information about these prints, including the exact subject(s), the artist(s), the publisher(s) and the date(s) and location(s) of publication is almost completely lacking, and, when provided, is often contradictory. For example, copies of the aquatint above were apparently marketed throughout the years variously as depicting, inter alia, Exeter College, Merton College, and (per Sherwood) “Crew with Tam O’Shanters”. All of the variants display the Oxford skyline in the far distance; differentiating characteristics noted by Tom include the depth of and vegetation on the near bank, the depiction of bushes and trees and the placement of spectators on the far bank, and the location of boat club barges, with or without flags, and the presence or absence of other river craft (but never a racing boat in close proximity to the main subject).
The 1829 Stack aquatint, after a design by the immortal English landscape artist William Turner, eliminates most of the spectators included in background of the other example and reduces the size of the boat, making for more contemplative composition.
Tom speculates that a market for boating scenes sprang up in Oxford but not in Cambridge because of the relative sizes of the towns and Oxford’s location on the Thames in proximity to other boating towns, especially Eton, which might have provided a more fertile market for Oxford print sellers. So, if Andrew Lighton wanted a similar souvenir portrait of his 1842 L.M.B.C. eight but set on the Cam instead of the Christ Church Meadows of Oxford, he would have had to commission it himself. The artist that Lighton turned to chose the medium of oil on canvas and appears to have retained the pastoral quality of Stack while filling the canvas with the boat more like that in the previous image.
So why would Mallory be so interested in the Lighton painting?
All this might actually be sort of interesting to a geek rowing historian such as myself, but why should I care so much about a painting that there is every chance I will never ever see in person? And why did I send John Hall-Craggs into the L.M.B.C. Boathouse in the first place when I had no idea that the painting even existed?
So far, I have omitted the original source of my preoccupation, and again, my dear Watson, it involves our Baker Street Irregulars. In January of 2016, months before the Hall-Craggs caper, Tim Koch spread the word of a rowing painting coming up for online auction in Britain. Tom Weil opined as follows: “Notwithstanding a certain lack of art / skill in its realization and its dark appearance (which might be much improved by a cleaning [This turned out to be truly prophetic speculation!]), it is an important image. This is the only oil of which I am aware that, but for its setting on the Cam, reflects the pictorial approach of the Isis Navy series.”
Tom was absolutely right about the “dark appearance”. The photo accompanying the announcement showed a murky brown mess, reminiscent of the killer pea-soup London fog of 1880. Nevertheless, I was intrigued. “The game is afoot!”
The River & Rowing Museum was not in a position to purchase the painting, Tim and Tom passed, and so I asked Tom to handle the bidding on my behalf. He was successful. Together, we had pulled it off!
Weeks later when the canvas arrived at my home in California, I took it to a conservator recommended to me by the Getty Museum. She performed a tiny test in the upper left corner, and the brown melted away before our eyes. The painting must have spent many decades in a room choking with tobacco smoke, but there was now hope that the killer fog might be lifted.
Emails between Tim Koch and Mark Blandford-Baker of Magdalen College, Oxford, posited that it was Lady Margaret on the Cam with the Fen Ditton church in the background. I asked John Hall-Craggs to investigate the Lady Margaret Boathouse in hopes of confirming that it was a Lady Margaret and not a Christ Church boat, the two Cambridge colleges having similar colors and crests. Imagine my surprise when he returned with photographic evidence that my new acquisition had a twin!
It took many months, but the painting was reborn beyond anyone’s dreams, and now that I have hi-res scans of both pictures, I can confirm that they are two peas in a pod. One overlays the other perfectly, but that does not mean they are absolutely identical. Having two examples of the artist’s work product allows us to delve deeper into his work methods.
First, the Lighton painting is in much, much better shape. Having been under glass certainly must have helped, but the Mallory version has obviously had a very hard life. The Mallory surface deterioration and craquelure is especially obvious in the two flags.
It is also obvious that there was more than one hand at work. There is no question that a single person with excellent skills painted the horizontal stripes on the rowers’ shirts in both paintings, but two different people with different skill levels, perhaps a master and his apprentice, painted the bulk of the two paintings, the master responsible for the Mallory version and the apprentice painting the Lighton version.
This encourages speculation as to how two versions of the same painting of the same boat came into existence, not easy to pull off in oil. Perhaps, having been inspired by Isis Navy predecessors, two teammates in the 1842 L.M.B.C. Lents Boat came up with the idea and commissioned the project, and given that Andrew Lighton ended up with the version painted by the apprentice, perhaps it was the second teammate who was the instigator.
Who might have been the first owner of the Mallory version? Perhaps someone with access to the Lady Margaret rowing community might be able to contact descendants of Lighton and/or his teammates, possibly examining family letters or college documents, but for an outsider such as myself, there is nothing more to be done.
Perhaps some day after nearly two centuries it might be fun to reunite the two paintings briefly for a symposium at a neutral site such as the River & Rowing Museum, but I will also leave that to others.
In the meantime, the painting will continue to bring me endless pleasure. My profound thanks to all the Irregulars in my life who regularly contribute with me to our group effort to enliven and preserve rowing history.
 Bell’s, 21 March 1841
 Bell’s, 4 April 1841
 Bell’s, 8 May 1840
 Bell’s, 4 April 1841
 Bell’s, 15 June 1845