30 December 2021
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch wonders when viewers become voyeurs.
It is popularly supposed that, following the 1914 – 1918 War, British women rapidly achieved a great deal of personal, political and social emancipation. Despite the fact that, for most females in the 1920s and 1930s, hair remained unbobbed, jazz unheard and cocktails unmixed, the popular image of the era, both then and now, is of the liberated young woman, the flapper, who enjoyed to the full pleasures and vices that her gender could previously indulge in only sparingly – if at all. These activities included sex, smoking, alcohol – and sport.
That art, another phenomenon liberated by the “War To End Wars”, should reflect the post-war changes is hardly surprising. On the subject of sport, one artist who came to be known for his depiction of post-war athletic young women was Lancelot Myles Glasson (1894 – 1959).
Glasson was born to a comfortable, middle-class family in Twickenham, south-west London, the son of a barrister. His mother’s side had money from a profitable beer bottling business and his maternal grandfather was Myles Birket Foster, an artist best known for his Victorian-era illustrations of rural scenes and of children. From 1911, Glasson attended Marlborough College, a prestigious fee-paying school.
During the First World War, Glasson served with the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment). He was promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Lieutenant in December 1914 and to Captain in April 1915. He was wounded on 4 June 1918 and had a leg amputated a week later, something that caused him pain and discomfort for the rest of his life. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1920.
A biography of Glasson’s grandfather by Jan Reynolds, Birket Foster (1984), states:
(Glasson’s) decision to become an artist was taken after the war, when he studied at Heatherley’s Art School and the Royal Academy Schools. Lancelot Glasson worked mainly in oils and exhibited at the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy.
Reynolds also thought that Glasson was:
. . . a talented figure and portrait painter, whose descent from Birket Foster is not widely known, owing to the fact that he preferred to make his own way as an artist in his own right.
From 1928 until the outbreak of the 1939 – 1945 War, Glasson had paintings accepted every year but one by the Royal Academy of Arts for its famous annual open Summer Exhibition: 1928 The Bather; 1929 Repose; 1930 Venus Walking; 1931 Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe; 1932 The Young Rower; 1933 The Four; 1934 The Swimmer; 1935 The Sun Bathers and Dacre Castle; 1936 The Runners and Arabella Unpacks; 1938 Arabella Resting.
During the Second World War, Glasson became one of the chief organisers of British camouflage projects, enlisting the help of fellow artists. A researcher involved in a 2007 camouflage history project, Fergus Durrant, suggests that Glasson may have also been involved in intelligence work at this time. After the war, Glasson was occupied by running the family beer bottling business and painted only intermittently. He had one more picture accepted by the Royal Academy, Sarah in 1949. He died in 1959.
Glasson’s most celebrated painting was The Young Rower, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1932 and which, according to Jan Reynolds, “attracted immediate attention” and was chosen as the Royal Academy “Picture of the Year” by the art critic of the News Chronicle, Gui St Bernard. Timothy Wilcox, author of A Day in the Sun: Outdoor Pursuits in Art in the 1930s (2006) wrote that it was
…one of the most celebrated sporting paintings of the decade… (It) made Glasson’s name (and) it was widely reproduced…
Glasson was part of a diverse grouping of artists, the inter-war British realists. They attempted to be modern without being abstract, to produce precise figurative painting without returning to Edwardian and Victorian pastoral art. Their realism was not just in their technical attention to showing the world around them, but in their subject matter, from changing technology to the evolving role of women. Glasson himself said:
One might say that my picture represented modern girlhood, breaking away from the inhibitions of the past and eagerly enjoying the sports and pastimes once reserved to men, and in doing so manifesting herself as something full of life and health.
In a piece titled “Why critics chose The Rowing Girl” (sic) in the Daily News of 2 May 1932, it was stated that the work was painted in Glasson’s Kensington, West London, studio “from studies made on the banks of the Thames” (there is a popular but nonsensical story that it was painted on the barge of University College, Oxford). I think that Glasson could well have sought inspiration at Tom Green’s Boathouse by Barnes Bridge, then a centre of women’s rowing. Glasson was quoted:
Perhaps the reason why my picture has created so much notice is that I appear to have been struck by a new idea. The athletic river girl has not been done before. After all, it is the healthy girl that the artist admires today, not the sloping shouldered type of 60 and 70 years ago. The rowing girl has health and poise.
The Daily News of 28 April 1932 said that The Young Rower “depicts a young woman in the dressing-room of a rowing club. She is shown in black shorts kneeling to lace up her shoe. The treatment of the subject is exceptional for its lithe vitality”.
The Scotsman of 3 May 1932 called it “a beautiful study of a rowing girl, wearing shorts, and bending over to pull up her rowing socks”.
A female columnist for The Yorkshire Herald commented “… Mr Glasson’s young woman stands for sexless outdoor femininity”.
The readers of the Daily Chronicle agreed with the critics.
John Bradley of Shrewsbury wrote that it inspired me with feelings of mingled admiration, reverence and awe…
“Art Lover” writing from the Royal Societies Club, London SW1, thought it …well drawn and soundly painted…
“Adastras” of Leeds held that it was executed with the respect due to the subject giving it an uplifting dignity…
Cyril M. Strugnell of Guildford felt that the artwork depicts the clean and sportsmanlike mind of a thorough English gentleman…
Strangely, no comments made in the 1930s mention the bare breasts or suggest that the picture could have worked as well without the woman being semi-naked.
A modern view is on the Art UK website:
… “The Young Rower” is similar in style to paintings by (Doris) Procter and Laura Knight of young, unselfconscious women. In comparison, despite its cool tonality and what the “Sunday Times” reporter described as the model’s “Degas-like pose”, it has a distinctly voyeuristic quality. As Sir Thomas Monnington, President of the Royal Academy in the 1960s, later recalled, “It looked chaste, but it was quite sexy really”.
Another modern critic, Waldemar Januszczak of The Sunday Times, said:
As far as I know, Lancelot Myles Glasson never produced another image laced as strangely with art deco eroticism as The Young Rower…
Professor David Matles, writing in 2006, thought:
If… The Young Rower might be read as the kind of image which could have resulted had Degas been commissioned by the Sports Council, Glasson’s choice of a pose semi-clad in the changing room rather than dressed at the oars could, for some, make the painting less than wholesome…. The nude in art strays, as ever, over sharp cultural terrain.
In 2009, Göran Buckhorn wrote about modern reactions to The Young Rower in an early HTBS post:
In autumn 1991, the magazine “Regatta” had an ad for reproduced limited prints of Glasson’s oil painting, which were sold by The Amateur Rowing Association, ARA. For £145 you could get your own copy of “The Young Rower”. Soon the magazine’s letters-to-the-editor column was filled with both angry and supportive letters.
Two years after Göran’s 2009 piece, there was an anonymous post in the comments section of the article:
The woman in the picture was my grandmother… Freda. She passed away in 2005 at the age of 95. She had a copy of this painting hanging in her flat in Twickenham (south-west London) for as long as I can remember. She worked as an artists model for much of her early life, sitting for people such as Captain Glasson, as well as Sir James Gunn… Thank you for posting!
In 1973, The Young Rower was discussed in several editions of the Times Diary. Phyllis Hartnoll (who rowed in the 1930s) suggested that the model was actually in her underwear, not in the loose heavy cotton or wool rowing shorts of the period. This would certainly explain how they cling to the buttocks of the athletes depicted, most notably in The Runners. The photographs below showing Freda Walker in the studio suggests that she is wearing thin silk or satin shorts, materials not suitable for rowing but good for showing off the female form in a work of art.
In his 2006, A Day in the Sun, Timothy Wilcox wrote:
The (women’s) rowing crew may embody a new type of female solidarity, but, for Glasson… its image was kept quite distinct from the masculinity which characterised the male version of the sport.
I would like to think that Glasson really was a rower, but he went to Marlborough, a non-rowing school, and then went to war aged 20 and lost a leg. None of this would exclude him from rowing at some point but it all makes it seem less likely. Further, the oversized oar behind the young rower suggests that he is not too familiar with such things.
Before we are tempted to judge a man of the 1930s by values of the 2020s, it may be helpful to briefly look at what some of his contemporaries were doing – including some women. Repeating a quote from the Art UK website:
Glasson’s work was a product of its age, a time very different to now. It captured a zeitgeist that, by definition, must change. When one “spirit of the time” is replaced by another, the new age often classes what came before as wrong, ugly, mad or bad. ’Twas ever thus.