A Study in Scarlet

A portrait of an unknown Doggett’s Coat and Badge winner that was recently offered for sale on eBay and described as “a man in uniform”.

22 April 2021

By Tim Koch

This was written before Tim Koch read Peter Mallory’s piece on the Lady Margaret BC paintings posted yesterday. However, Tim trusts that another tale of aquatic art identification will complement Peter’s wonderful article and confirm the value of collaboration by the like-minded.

As he has demonstrated on several occasions, Peter Mallory has a name for the group of his fellow rowing historians who loiter on HTBS and who regularly consult each other on matters old and aquatic: “The Baker Street Irregulars”. They are named after the gang of street urchins that were sometimes employed by Sherlock Holmes to gather intelligence. Possibly, Peter should actually call them something like “The Putney Embankment Occasionals” or “The Boathouse Row Casuals” but, this aside, he and I recently engaged in a piece of detective work that Holmes himself would have appreciated. Plus, we did it without resorting to Hansom cabs, Watson’s service revolver or seven-percent solutions of cocaine.

The story began last July, not with a visit to my chambers from a mysterious stranger that I quickly deduced to be a bankrupt Norwegian pianist recently returned from Marrakech, but with a trawl around eBay. In the section selling original art, I came across a portrait simply described as “a man in uniform” and priced at £99. As far as I knew, it seemed a competent piece of realism in oils, but my interest was mainly drawn by the fact that the “uniform” was obviously the livery of a winner of the world’s oldest continuously held rowing race, the Doggett’s Coat and Badge. The only fact that the seller knew about the painting was that it was signed by (Cyril) James Dring (1905 – 1985), a not unknown artist and the younger brother of a probably better-known painter, William Dring. 

Portrait of James Dring by his older brother, William Dring c.1932. Picture: Sarah Colegrave Fine Art.

The website artuk.org says of James Dring:

Painter in oil and watercolour. Born in London he studied at Clapham School of Art from 1920–7, then at the Royal College of Art under Sir William Rothenstein. Exhibited at the Royal Academy, Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Wertheim Gallery, in provincial galleries as well as abroad in Paris, Brussels, Sweden and the USA. The Contemporary Art Society purchased his work and the Medici Society, London, reproduced it. The Victoria and Albert Museum, Southampton Art Gallery and Brussels and Mons Museums hold examples. Between 1943–72 he taught at the St Martin’s School of Art.

Not necessarily wanting to buy the portrait myself, I alerted the Irregulars (“The game’s afoot!”) and also began to think how we could put a name to the face. The painting looked post-Second World War and seemed to be of a man in his 60s or 70s. He would have won his Coat and Badge around the age of 21, just out of his apprenticeship, so this would most likely have been between 1900 and 1920.

The Irregulars soon went into action. Greg Denieffe noted that another Doggett’s painting, one that I knew well, was also by James Dring. This was a full-length portrait of Dick Phelps, the Doggett’s winner of 1923, standing on the balcony of Thames Rowing Club in a picture held by the River and Rowing Museum in Henley.

Dick Phelps by James Dring. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.

Peter Mallory decided to buy the eBay picture and it was soon on its way to him in California. Before he had the chance to study it properly, Peter’s initial thought was “The man in the painting looks like Frank Dott, the 1942 winner, who would have been nearing 70 by the time the artist died. The facial features seem to be a match. The background is also similar to Erith, Dott’s home waters”.

The pandemic put everything on hold, and it was not until this March that Peter was able to turn his attention to Dring’s work once again. I did not think that it was Frank Dott and Peter was uncertain enough to search out images of other possibilities. Fortunately, he had a copy of Robert Cottrell’s excellent Thomas Doggett Coat and Badge: 300 Years of History and eventually found a picture of a more likely candidate: Richard George Odell, the 1902 Doggett’s winner.

On the left is Richard Odell (winner in 1902) and on the right is William Pizzey (1904). The man in the centre is identified as Ernest Barry (1903) but I have my doubts. Picture: Pizzey family.

Peter said of the above photograph, “It was probably taken in the 1950s or early 1960s and shows a strong resemblance to the portrait in head shape, hair and especially the distinctive ears”. He then contacted Susan Fenwick at Watermen’s Hall asking if any other images of Odell were available. This was likely as he had been Master of the Watermen’s Company in 1951.  

Susan was very helpful and sent a picture of a 1974 painting of Odell in the Company’s possession, one showing a face that did seem to match the one in the Dring portrait.

Richard Odell painted in 1974. Not such a pleasing picture as the Dring portrait, this may not have been painted from life in 1974 as Odell would then have been about 93 (unless he aged well).

Susan also posted the Dring picture on the Watermen’s Facebook group, something that produced lots of “likes” but no information. However, she then contacted a few of the older Doggett’s men and Past Master David Allen, winner in 1963, confidently replied, “Without hesitation it is Richard George Odell winner in 1902”. 

While this seemed conclusive, I (and probably Peter) wanted a second source of confirmation. Further, we wanted to know where the portrait was painted. The sheds and the trees in the background suggested “upriver” to me, somewhere on the non-tidal Thames. Now with a name to work with, I did some more internet searches and found an interesting advertisement in an old programme.

A page from the programme for the Coronation Royal River Pageant, 1953. Odell had clearly done well for himself since finishing his waterman’s apprenticeship 50 years earlier and had established an apparently thriving firm. Another search revealed that in 1952 Richard George Odell, Chairman, R.G. Odell Ltd., Shepperton, was given an OBE.

Shepperton, a small, pleasant town on the Thames 15 miles south west of central London, could have been the background to the Dring painting. This was confirmed with surprising ease when a search produced a 2017 article from “Shepperton Matters” a local print and online magazine. It was about the Walton Yacht and Launch Company, situated in Shepperton immediately downstream of Walton Bridge and owned by R.G. Odell from 1945 until the early 1960s, possibly 1962 when he sold off his waterbus fleet (see below). Importantly, it included a picture of the yard.

The Odell owned Shepperton boatyard pictured in the 1950s. It seems highly likely that the sheds and trees on the left are the same as those on the left of the Dring painting (shown in the inset). Photograph: Shepperton Matters.
The boatyard at Shepperton began in 1936 as the Walton Yacht Works. As this 1940 advertisement shows, it did important wartime work for the Air Ministry and the Admiralty before Odell took it over after the war.

Dring may have had a particular liking for the Thames and things associated with it. In December 1960, the society magazine The Tatler noted that he had an exhibition of River Thames Paintings at west London’s Canaletto Gallery. Online searches bring up paintings that he did of the bridges at Putney, Hammersmith, Barnes, Kew and Chelsea. Apart from Dring’s Doggett’s paintings of Odell and of Phelps, the Vintners’ Company has his portrait of Richard Turk (d.1960), a member of a well-known Kingston boatbuilding and boat hire family. 

Two more paintings by James Dring: Chelsea Pensioner and Putney Bridge.

There are more memories of the Shepperton boatyard on a website called Mort’s River Watch. Another website, “Simplonpc”, tells how Odell built up his business:

Odell came from a long line of Thames watermen and had won the coveted Doggett’s Coat & Badge… in 1902…. 

Odell entered the Thames passenger trade in 1933, having previously been involved in the lighterage business, (when he) obtained a contract with the Ford Motor Co… to ferry (employees) to their works (at Dagenham) from Westminster…

[After the Second World War, the] London Transport Board looked at providing a waterbus service… Odell began building a fleet of suitable vessels… They had wooden hulls with square sterns, and observation saloons fore and aft of a central entrance and cockpit…. 

The Times, 26 February 1948. Odell both ran the waterbus service and built the craft involved.
Mrs Attlee, the Prime Minister’s wife, opens the 1950 Thames waterbus season.

The service began… running from Putney to Charing Cross… [It] was so successful that an additional shuttle had to be provided between Charing Cross and the Tower…. The Festival of Britain was held at the South Bank in 1951 and boat services were particularly busy…  The waterbus service ended in 1962, with the Odell fleet passing to Thames Cruises Ltd…

The above mute newsreel shows the launch of Odell’s river bus service in 1948. Many Doggett’s winners are on hand though I only recognise Harry and Tom Phelps. I cannot see Richard Odell, but perhaps his son, Leslie, is in charge. Leslie Odell later became a Queen’s Waterman.

Thus, the mystery was solved. The search was not exactly “elementary” (as Hollywood, not Conan Doyle, wrote) but it was not too difficult and was not a three-pipe problem – at most, it required only a single briar of rough shag (and the internet).

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