16 December 2021
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch mixes oils and water.
Oscar Wilde held that “All bad art is the result of good intentions”. While the painting depicted above cannot be summarily dismissed as “bad art”, its inclusion of an attempt at portraiture may well have been more the product of good intentions rather than the expression of a particular skill in that department. The picture is listed on eBay where the seller states, “It is likely that this work, titled ‘sketch’, was of personal interest to the painter…”
The painter in question was (George) Vicat Cole (1833 – 1893), a Royal Academician who, influenced by Turner and Constable, was one of the most popular English landscape painters of his time, best known for his “wide stretches of undulating fields of yellow corn, seen against angust woodlands…” Cole was not always concerned with accuracy and he preferred to depict his views in a picturesque, pre-Industrial state (for example, he did not include a prominent railway viaduct in one of his views of Windsor Castle).
The art establishment, then as now, was a little snooty about any artist liked too much by hoi polloi. One critic wrote, “The wide popularity of his work was due partly to the simple directness of his technical method, and partly to his habitual choice of attractive material”. Cole’s obituary in The Times thought that his election to the Royal Academy was “in obedience… to the popular voice, since there was no landscape artist of the time whom the ordinary frequenter of exhibitions liked so well”.
Cole’s romantic landscapes were usually devoid of human figures and those few that were included were small and remote. The picture of the sculler seems to indicate that Cole’s talent lay more in depicting places than people. I asked Darla Matthews, Henley medalist and student of the history of art, for her view:
Personally, I quite like the painting, though I’m not sure about the rendering of the sculler. I think he’s a bit disproportionate and his face is a little weird. Considering the focus of the painting is a figure sculling, he looks quite stiff and is even less dynamic than the standing figures… I would like it more if we could see the spoon of his right oar in the water.
In terms of the landscape, I like the architecture in the background… My favourite part of the work are the reflections of the light and architecture in the glassy water by the bank… I (also) like the group of standing flâneurs… (However) the perspective and composition of the painting is a little off.
In 1879 Cole’s dealer, William Agnew, commissioned the artist to undertake a linked series of paintings of the Thames ”from its source to the sea”. While he never completed the project, almost all of his works between 1879 and his death in 1893 featured views of London’s great river – though Sculling along the Thames was atypical of these. Cole had a small steam launch, The Blanche, which he used as a floating studio when painting places on the river.
The most notable picture produced during Cole’s “Thames” period was The Pool of London. A contemporary critic stated:
The Pool of London is the most ambitious though… not the most characteristic work of the artist. Nevertheless, it is full of interest and animation, the ever changing, ever dramatic commotion of the great river highway being handled with ease and precision. All type of craft are seen from tugs to giants; over them looms a halo of murk and glory.
As to the question of where the painting of the sculler was done, Cole provided a very helpful clue in the top right-hand corner: a sign saying “Wm East Boatbuilder”. In the 1881 census, the address of William East’s Boathouse was given as “Leander Rowing Club [sic], Putney”. In fact, East had the right side of the terrace depicted and Leander had the left side. The taller building on the far left is a very inaccurate representation of London Rowing Club.
The “Wm East Boatbuilder” sign also provides a none-too-subtle clue to the identity of the sculler. I hold that it is William East’s son, William Giles East (1866 – 1932), a well-known and respected professional sculler and coach.
I speculate that Cole perhaps hastily painted the background in situ and later added the sculler from a photograph. East is sitting awkwardly at the catch in a pose typically needed for the long photographic exposure times of the period. According to Cole’s biographer, Robert Chignell, after 1880 most of the artist’s works were completed in his Kensington studio rather than on the spot.
The claim in the above obituary about East training Captain Webb is peculiar. When, in 1875, Webb became a national hero by being the first person to swim the English Channel, East was only nine years old. When Webb died in 1883, East was just 17. Possibly, it was East’s father who “trained” Webb – presumably in sculling. The reference to “piloting” the Cambridge Boat Race crew after 1883 refers to instructing the cox on how best to steer the course.
In the following film clip, Bill East shows the Cambridge cox R.E. Swartwout how to steer for the 1930 Boat Race.