The Work of a Devil

A painting of a sculler alongside Putney Embankment, apparently with the monogram of the artist (George) Vicat Cole and dated 1887.

4 March 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch has had some written work marked by an academic for the first time since 1979.

In a recent post titled “East is East – Or is He?”, I reproduced the above image of an oil painting currently for sale by a British art dealer. I attempted to discover who the sculler depicted was, where he was, and also to say something about the artist, apparently a popular Victorian landscape painter named George Vicat Cole.

As to who and where the sculler was, the artist provided a very helpful clue in the top right-hand corner: a sign saying, “Wm East Boatbuilder”. East’s boathouse was close to London Rowing Club on Putney Embankment. The sign also provided a none-too-subtle clue to the identity of the sculler. I strongly suspect that it is William East’s son, William Giles East (1866 – 1932), a well-known and respected professional sculler and coach. 

The sculler in the painting (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.

While this piece of research may still stand, my blind acceptance of the artist being Vicat Cole has not as I have been corrected by a very authoritative source. The CV/resume of Tim Barringer on the website of the Yale Department of the History of Art begins: 

Tim Barringer is Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art. He specializes in the art of Britain and the British Empire since 1700, and nineteenth-century American art. Following positions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Universities of London and Birmingham in Great Britain, he came to Yale in 1998. In 2009 Tim Barringer was Slade Professor at the University of Cambridge. In 2013-14 he held a J. Clawson Mills Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In 2019 he delivered the Paul Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in London. He has held visiting professorships at York and Bristol Universities in the UK.

Tim Barringer under the gaze of an admirer. Picture: Yale Department of the History of Art.

Professor Barringer generously wrote:

Many thanks for the interesting post: you’ve done an amazing job of researching the subject of this painting – such a compelling 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. 

Examples of his work on the Artuk website will confirm the difference between his signature and his handling of water and sky and the painting you reproduce. Cole never painted architectural subjects (the only exceptions being Westminster, 1891 and the Pool of London, 1888, which you illustrate). 

Many fakers or ‘devils’ added the ‘VC’ monogram 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 those fakes don’t look anything like this one. This is simply a work by another artist with a fake “VC” added. 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.

Painting was the Cole family business. George Vicat Cole’s father and his son were also distinguished artists.

Tim was also good enough to comment on another one of my posts, that on Lancelot Glasson, the artist who famously painted the picture The Young Rower in 1932. It was widely lauded at the time, but many modern eyes see it very differently, some saying that it is “voyeuristic” – or worse.

I read your interesting post on Lancelot Glasson. The work is indeed very similar to that of Dod Procter and (less so) Laura Knight, but, painted by a man, it carries a different valency. It also compares interestingly to Soviet Realism of the same period – AM Gerasimov or Deyneka for example. I think the works are accomplished and, while they border on scopophilia, they do not represent young girls like the controversial work of Balthus, for example. It’s work that deserves attention now that modern figurative painters like Gerald Leslie Brockhurst are well respected once more having been marginalized by modernist taste.

The Young Rower by Lancelot Myles Glasson (1894 – 1959), 1932. Touchstones Rochdale. Oil on canvas. H 102 cm x W 76 cm.

There is, however, one part of Tim Barringer’s distinguished and extensive education that is sadly lacking:

Though I have been surrounded by boating men and women all my life, including my colleague Prof Edward Cooke who is a distinguished oarsman – and even Paul Mellon, who endowed my job, rowed for Clare College Cambridge and for Yale – I alas have never rowed myself.

It seems that Tim does not agree with the quote about rowing by the famous coach and boatbuilder, George Pocock, that includes the line:

It’s the finest art there is.

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