Glasson’s “Young Rower”: Celebration or Exploitation?

In 1932, the artist Lancelot Glasson was critically acclaimed by both the art establishment and the general public for his painting, The Young Rower, a work that centred on a semi-naked young woman in a rowing club locker room. As this press photograph shows, its success encouraged him to produce other pictures of young female athletes, including this one titled The Four.

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).

Lancelot Glasson photographed in 1938. Picture: National Portrait Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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.

One of Glasson’s early works, Still Life with Peacock Feather (1917).

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’s The Young Rower (1932) pictured at Touchstones, an art and heritage centre in Rochdale, Lancashire, and displayed as part of an exhibition marking International Women’s Day 2019. The centre is clearly in the “celebration” and not the “exploitation” camp. Photo: @JEMsoc.

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…

Examples of women supposedly typical of the new age, the captain and cox of the 1927 Oxford Women’s Crew. For many women, sport may not have continued through into marriage and family life, but it provided a brief period of female solidarity before they became sublimated into their husband’s world.

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.

A 1934 magazine piece showed just who The Young Rower was.

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.

Glasson followed up The Young Rower with The Four, here reproduced in a magazine in 1933. Were the blade colours those of a real club? This is the least revealing of Glasson’s pictures of athletic women – though the woman on the right has impractically tight pre-lycra shorts.

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.

A press photograph from 1932 showing Glasson working on The Four. Freda Walker may be in a version of the pose finally chosen for the woman second from the left in the picture.
The caption for this magazine picture tells us “Captain Glasson is a rowing man”.

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.

The background to The Four looked familiar and this picture, taken at the finish of the 1926 Boat Race, confirmed that it is the Mortlake Brewery – even though Glasson used “artistic licence” to scale down the brewery buildings so as not to overshadow the rowers.
The two backgrounds compared. The Four were boating from the site of today’s Tideway Scullers boathouse in Chiswick. However, this was built in 1984 and, as far as I know, there was no rowing club on the site before then.
In 1934, Glasson painted what could almost be called “The Young Rower 2”. In fact, he titled it The Swimmer. The swimmer is a little more mature than the young rower and, arguably, more aware of our presence. She seems to be undressing outside.
Glasson produced The Runners for the 1936 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. At first glance it appears to be a more innocent study, but he could not resist including a diaphanous top and buttock-hugging shorts. Following Phyllis Hartnoll’s remarks, we must also speculate that the women are depicted in their underwear. Picture: @OutsidersDiAlfredoAccatino. 

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:

… “The Young Rower” is similar in style to paintings by Dod Proctor and Laura Knight of young, unselfconscious women…

A magazine previewing the 1934 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition chose to juxtapose Glasson’s The Swimmer with Laura Knight’s Combing Her Hair. If the latter was done, not by a woman, but by a middle-aged man, would it be less acceptable?
A magazine of 1934 decides that Veronica Burleigh (The Squash Players), Doris “Dod” Proctor (Girl in a Chair), and Lancelot Glasson (Sun-bathers) are “Friendly Rivals in Art”. Proctor seems as casual about depicting female nudity as Glasson. Burleigh, like Glasson, shows female athletic prowess – but her women are fully and conventionally clothed.

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.

3 comments

  1. Yet another fascinating article. I have had a framed copy of The Young Rower for very many years. On the back is stuck a cutting of ‘the caption for this magazine picture’ – including the artist and model – as shown above. I have never known from which magazine it was the ‘Supplement to this Christmas Number’ but wondered if it was the Illustrated London News in 1932. At about 14″ X 10″ it could be. The much larger original can still be seen in Rochdale.

    I have seen reproductions of some of his other paintings over the years but had never come across The Four. The background as detailed in he article together with the clothes and shoes of the rowers is absolutely fascinating. It is certainly not exploitative. Does anybody know where the original is now?

  2. In his caption to ‘The Four’, Tim asks whether the blade colours – dark blue with two white bars – were those of a real club. At the time of the painting those were Quintin’s colours. It wasn’t until 1950 that Quintin changed from vertical bars to diagonal bars, to distinguish its blades from those of Bedford School, Oriel College Oxford and Peterhouse Cambridge. But Quintin was a men-only club in the 1930s.

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.