East is East – Or is He?

I had three questions on finding this 1887 oil painting titled “Sculling along the Thames” for sale on eBay: is it art, where was it painted and who is the sculler? Picture reproduced by permission of Matthew Charlton/Surrey Fine Arts.

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”.

An 1886 portrait of Vicat Cole by Arthur Stockdale Cope. Cole did not use his first name, George, presumably to distinguish himself from his father, also a landscape painter called George. Vicat was his mother’s maiden name. (Picture: Public Domain).

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.

The Pool of London by George Vicat Cole (1888). This picture realised the most money during the artist’s lifetime when it sold for £2,000. Picture: tate.org.uk (Creative Commons Licence CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Unported).

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.

This is a pre-1887 view of Putney Embankment as the existing road was laid in that year – which must have been very soon after Cole did his painting.
A view of Leander’s Putney Boathouse. Leander occupied the site from 1866 to 1961. East’s was to the right.
Another view showing, left to right, London, Leander, East’s and Clasper’s. Thus, Leander and East’s seem to have occupied the site now taken by the boathouses of King’s College School, HSBC, Dulwich College and Crabtree. Clasper’s is now occupied by Westminster School Boat 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. 

Cole’s sculler (left) and WG “Bill” East (right). The painting is not exactly a photo-realistic representation of East, but it seems highly likely that it is him – especially when all else is considered.

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.

Most famously, Bill East won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge in 1887, the year of Cole’s painting. Perhaps it was done to mark this event? This newspaper report on the 1887 Doggett’s gives a summary of East’s precocious career to that date.
East’s 1887 Doggett’s badge (Dominic Winter Auctioneers) and a picture taken in 1906, nearly twenty years after the Coat and Badge win.
After winning Doggett’s, East’s most notable victory was in 1891 when he won the prestigious professional title of English Sculling Champion when he easily defeated George Perkins on the Tyne. However, he never defended this title. This medal is engraved “Presented to WG East Champion Sculler of England by the Proprietors of The Sportsman London Nov 30th 1891”. Picture: Dominic Winter Auctioneers.
East retired from professional sculling by 1904 and this obituary emphasised his success in his career as coach. Also in 1904, East published an instructional book titled Rowing and Sculling.

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.

The above obituary also missed the fact that East (left) was coach to the American Benjamin Hunting Howell (right), who, in the colours of Trinity Hall, Cambridge (1898) and Thames RC (1899) won the Winfield Sculls and Henley’s Diamonds in both 1898 and 1899. Picture: The National Rowing Foundation.
In 1898, East was appointed a Royal Waterman and, in 1901, he became the King’s Bargemaster, a post that he held until his death in 1932. Here, he is pictured between Ernest Barry (left) and Richard Turk (right).
East was in charge of the Royal Barge when King George V and Queen Mary attended Henley Royal Regatta in 1912. He is shown here in practice, sitting on the stern at the tiller.
Like many other champion scullers (and his father), in later life East became a publican. Between 1911 and 1932, he ran The Pigeons Hotel, in Richmond, south-west London (sometimes called The Three Pigeons). Shown here on a postcard, it was appropriately sited next to the popular Messum’s Boathouse. The sign above the landing stage (arrowed) proudly and simply proclaims “WG East”.

3 comments

  1. A wonderful article, especially as I love the stories of the old professional and amateur scullers, but the comments on the painting annoyed me. There are too many people who fancy themselves as art critics. It is a lovely painting and one should just enjoy it.

  2. Dear Tim,

    I was very interested to read your article on W G East, up to your usual high standard !

    I agree with you that Cole painted the LRC clubhouse somewhat inaccurately – there were 8 windows not 6 at the front originally and the balcony doesn’t seem to feature at all. I believe the rendering of East is in what I believe is called the “naïve” style. You would have been mistaken in thinking that the “Pool of London” painting was done by the same painter, which looks much more professional ! Did you acquire the painting ?

    You may like to know that the Company of Watermen and Lightermen hold East’s London badge in its collection. He won the Club’s coat, badge and freedom in 1882. Do you have a copy of the Company’s booklet “Collection of Uniforms, Coats and Badges” where the badge is illustrated? If not, I can get a copy for you. The booklet was originally published in 2010 and I helped with producing it, in a very small way, when I was on the Library and Heritage Committee. I provided a list of winners which hangs in our Long Room; the Company also have a rare example of the coat + badge from 1900 in the collection.

    Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,

    Julian

  3. This is all really interesting research, and you’ve done an amazing job of researching the subject of this painting – such an interesting story and very well told here with lots of interesting visual evidence. However, there’s one problem: the painting is certainly not by George Vicat Cole and the monogram is a fake . (It is not even a correct copy of Vicat Cole’s monogram). The painting has nothing in common with Cole’s style and certainly not by a trained professional artist. It looks as if it might be a copy from a commercial chromolithograph or photograph like the ones you reproduce, by an amateur artist. Cole would never have (and never did) paint anything like this — have a look at his work on the artuk website and you’ll see his signature and his handling of water and sky. He never painted architectural subjects (the only exceptions being Westminster, 1891 and the Pool of London, which you illustrate). Many fakers or ‘devils’ added the ‘VC’ mongram to inferior paintings in the later nineteenth century when Cole’s works were valuable. Some of these have found their way into museums in the UK, but even the fakes don’t look anything like this one. There’s further information in my book ‘The Cole Family: Painters of the English Landscape’ (Portsmouth City Art Gallery, 1988) and in Robert Chignell’s ‘Life and Paintings of Vicat Cole, RA,’ published by Cassell in 1897. All best and happy to discuss, Tim Barringer (timothy.barringer@yale.edu)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.