The Fitzwilliam Museum: Where the Lion lies down with the Ox*

When Rachel Hopkins designed the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race Men’s Blue Boat trophy in 2000, she included two interchangeable finials for the lid. One in the shape of the CUBC lion is displayed following a Light Blue victory, and the other in the shape of the ox represented on the City of Oxford’s arms surmounts the trophy following a win for the Dark Blues.

12 November 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch is drawn towards shiny things.

Considering that the origins of the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race go back to 1829 for the men and (officially) 1927 for the women, it is surprising that the first trophy for the men was awarded as late as 1977 and, for the women, as early as 1936. Another perhaps unexpected aspect of these trophies is how little they have been seen; they are usually put in public view only for a few minutes when placed in the hands of the exuberant winners at the finish when they are then covered in various fluids including sweat, spittle and alcohol. 

The Cambridge Blue Boats do the double in 2018. Two trophies are clearly better than one.

However, a recent press release from the Boat Race Company says:

Until now, the two Blue Boat trophies have resided in the offices of sponsors and only brought out on Race Day. In 2020, it was decided that responsibility for safe storage of the trophies between Boat Races should pass to the winning University. The 2021 Men’s and the Women’s Boat Races were won on April 4th by Cambridge University Boat Club, giving a unique opportunity to display both trophies side by side in The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Dr Vicky Avery, Keeper of Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam, was quoted in the press release saying:

…the Blue Boat trophies are actually significant examples of contemporary British silver… For the first time in Boat Race history, people will be able to see for themselves just how beautiful these iconic trophies are, and appreciate all the skill and thought that has gone into their design and making…. 

The men’s trophy is pictured at the Presidents’ Challenge for the ultimately cancelled 2020 race and is held by the two Presidents for that year: Oxford’s Augustin Wambersie, left, and Cambridge’s Freddie Davidson, right.
Eyes on the prize before the 2019 Women’s Boat Race.

On 8 November, the day before the trophies went on display to the public, there was a small press call and launch event at the Fitzwilliam. At the same time, a splendid blog by Dr Avery, “Showing Your Mettle, A long form story from the Fitzwilliam Museum and CUBC” went live. It is a wonderfully researched and original piece.

The Fitzwilliam was founded in 1816 and is the art and antiquities museum of the University of Cambridge. Its website says, “See everything from Egyptian coffins to Impressionist masterpieces; illuminated manuscripts to Renaissance sculpture; rare coins to Asian arts.” Sadly, this exhibit seems to have ended.
The CUBC Men’s President, Charlie Marcus (left) and CUBC Women’s President, Bronya Sykes (right) guard the Fitzwilliam’s Boat Race Trophy exhibit. It will be in place until 27 March, but whether it will return to the museum or not will depend on the performance of Charlie and Bronya and their friends on Boat Race Day, 3 April.

In the picture above, on the top shelf are the current Men’s Boat Race Trophy (The Aberdeen “Quaich” dating from 2000) and the current Women’s Boat Race Trophy (The Newton Trophy dating from 2014). Below are three more modest trophies. On the right is the Francombe Cup, the first Women’s Boat Race trophy, named after its donor, Miss Betty Francombe. It was presented from 1936 until some point before 1989. On the left is the Men’s Reserve Boat Race Trophy (The Isis-Goldie Cup) first presented in 1977 and also the Women’s Reserve Boat Race Trophy (The Osiris-Blondie Cup) which was commissioned by the 1991 Blondie Crew.

To complete the record of current Boat Race trophies, I am including this picture taken in 2020 showing the Lightweight Boat Race prizes. The men compete for the evocative “Spirit of Ecstasy” on the left, while the splendid trophy for the women’s race on the right was especially commissioned in 2014.
A view of the “launch event” from one of the museum’s galleries.
The guest on the left seemed overdressed.
Among the guests were Jane Kingsbury (left) and Carol Williams (right), the joint authors of  Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941 to 2014: The Struggle Against Inequality (2014). Jane and Carol were also in the winning CUWBC boat of 1972 but at that time the Women’s Boat Race trophy, the Francombe Cup, was lost. At the launch event however, Dr Vicky Avery (centre) finally presented them with their prize – 49 years late. Picture: Michael Jones/The Fitzwilliam Museum.

The idea of a trophy for The Boat Race only came in with sponsorship. Before that, the relevant University Boat Club gave each crew member a silver medal, though certainly not on the day and possibly with little ceremony when they did.

In 1937, OUBC gilded the silver medal it gave to each of their victorious crew members, probably in celebration of the end of thirteen years of Cambridge domination.

The sponsors for the men’s race have been Ladbrokes (1976–1986), Beefeater (1987–1998), Aberdeen Asset Management (1999–2003), Xchanging (2004–2012) and BNY Mellon (2013–2019). Between 2013 and 2019, Newton Investment Management, a part of BNY Mellon, sponsored the women’s race. Since 2021, Gemini has sponsored both.

David Searle (one-time Executive Director of The Boat Race Company Ltd) told Dr Avery that, before Ladbrokes sponsorship:

There was no ceremony after the Race and the crews simply got out of the boats and a few individuals were interviewed… For the 1977 Boat Race… (Ladbrokes) commissioned a trophy and medals for both the winners and the losers. I don’t know how long the Losers’ Medals lasted as they were deeply unpopular, mainly because Cambridge kept being awarded them, and the 1978 Cambridge crew even threw theirs into the Thames!

The Ladbrokes Trophy (pictured here) was awarded between 1977 and 1986, with Oxford winning it every year except for 1986. Its whereabouts are now unknown but, as Cambridge were the last winners, it could be under a light blue’s bed.

When Beefeater Gin took over sponsorship in 1987, they naturally commissioned their own trophy. Here it is the hands of the 1988 Presidents, Oxford’s Chris Penny (left) and Cambridge’s Jim Garman (right).
The Beefeater Trophy was awarded between 1987 and 1998 but it too has now been lost – although I pictured this model (fairly crudely made of base metal) in the CUBC Alumni’s Putney boathouse in 2015. Its base is different to the 1988 version pictured above, possibly suggesting that a new one was given each year – though this would mean that twelve are in existence!

Aberdeen Asset Management (sponsors 1999–2003) commissioned the current men’s trophy and it has survived three changes of sponsorship since then. It seems unlikely that this wonderful piece of silverware will disappear like its predecessors.

As with the men’s race, the Women’s Boat Race has had three trophies. Annamarie Phelps told Dr Avery:

(The first) was called the Francombe Cup after its donor, Miss F.E. (Betty) Francombe, who was Stroke of the Oxford Crew in 1929 and OUWBC Coach from 1931 until 1936. She donated it the year she retired as Coach. It was lost for many years, and so a replacement trophy in the form of a shield was commissioned by Dr John Marks, a great champion of women’s rowing at Cambridge…

Newton Investment Management took over sponsorship of the Women’s Boat Race in 2011 but it kept the old Marks Shield until 2014 when it commissioned a new trophy “to mark a new era of sporting equality” ahead of the historic move of the race from Henley to the Tideway in 2015. While no offence to Dr Marks was intended, there was a view that his shield looked like a pub darts trophy.

Oxford 2014, the winners of the last Women’s Boat Race to be held on the Henley reach. They are holding the new trophy from Newton and also the rediscovered Francombe Cup which by then had been repurposed as the Victor Ludorum for the most successful university at the Henley Boat Races.

Ultimately however, the most valuable “trophy” for both winners and losers of the Men’s and the Women’s Boat Race has always been the lifelong prize of becoming “A Blue” and wearing the coveted blazer that comes with the achievement.

A final thought

While it is good news that the current and retired men’s and women’s Boat Race trophies (Blue, Reserve and, hopefully, Lightweight) are to be put on public display, it will mean that in most years the “set” will be split between Oxford and Cambridge. If so, it would seem that the Ashmolean, Oxford University’s museum of art and archaeology, would be the logical place to show the Dark Blues’ prizes. While this situation is better than the silverware spending most of the year in obscurity, would not the best idea be to keep them all together on show on neutral ground in Henley’s River and Rowing Museum – apart from their annual appearance at Mortlake? 

Addendum: On the town

Sited opposite King’s College, Ryder and Amies has supplied clothing and academic wear to students since 1864 and is today is run by the fifth and sixth generation of the Amies family. While it does cater for tourists with branded hoodies and T-shirts, it also sells much high-quality merchandise.
Under the display of university ties in the left hand window of Ryder and Amies are old club tie sample books. I would love to think that the “Ham, Beer and Cheese Club” is still going and that they would accept me as a member.

* “The lion shall lie down with the lamb” is a paraphrase from Isaiah, an image used to represent the Messianic Age of universal peace. Less spiritually, Woody Allen has observed that if the lion did in fact lie down with the lamb, “the lamb won’t get much sleep”.

2 comments

  1. Ah, Fitzwilliam, my favourite museum. Didn’t see the rowing connection, I’m sad to say, on 30 or so visits over the years.

  2. Dear Tim,

    It was a pleasure to meet you last week and thank you for this account
    of the exhibition at the Fitz.

    As ever, I really enjoy your photos. I especially liked the OUWBC rower
    eyeing the women’s cup! And, of course, the one of the three of us.

    Jane

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