Sir Hubert von Herkomer R.A.

23 Nov

The von Herkomer Exhibition in Bushey Hertfordshire, which commemorates the centenary of the artist’s death, is remarkably comprehensive.
Herkomer was widely recognised in the UK and USA, particularly for his portraits for which he was richly rewarded. But portraits were only a part of his oeuvre. His enthusiasm and immersion in a whole variety of artistic outlets and his productivity, as well as his passion for his work, leave the modern mind stunned. Many of these obsession are shown in the Bushey exhibition: paintings of the countryside, local life in Bushey, his work as an illustrator, his poignant social realism prints, portraits, his art school and theatre, his enamels and the home he built in Bushey Lululaund with examples of family made furniture and weaving. Lululaund was his triumphant monument to his own and his family’s achievements.
His art school boasted an unconventional curriculum, he encouraged his students to draw and paint from nature and life early in their training, rather than the conventionally accepted training of students spending months and months on classical casts before being allowed to progress to ‘live’ subjects. As a student Herkomer had rebelled against this ‘mindless’ repetition and his students were encouraged to develop their individual talents, rather than slavishly copying the master. This school, unusually, did not award prizes, competition was discouraged and the student’s paintings were turned to the wall at the end of each day.
Herkomer’s remarkable ability for work meant that he could keep several projects on the go at the same time. He investigated and developed many artistic outlets. His school included a theatre and film studios as well as his art studio. He wrote and acted in his own plays. With the stage designer Edward Gordon Craig he developed an overhear “moon” light which crossed the stage and was one of the first examples of overhead lighting in the theatre I am told.
One of his best-known students was Lucy Kemp Welsh who illustrated Black Beauty. Some of her large and wonderful oil paintings are part of Bushey Museum’s permanent collection.
Herkomer’s hoped his home Lululaund (designed by the American architect H.H.Richardson), with its Arts and Crafts tradition would remain in the family forever, a lasting tribute to the craftsmanship of his father and uncles as well as himself and his architect. Sadly this did not happen (all that remains now is the entrance). This man, widely renowned in Victorian and Edwardian England, honoured by king and country, a friend of royalty, lost favour dramatically (to the point of being almost forgotten), after his death in 1914. Why? There are several reasons: Though a nationalised British citizen, he was German by birth and had always kept up his ties with Germany which he visited regularly (he built another home and a monument to his mother in his native Bavaria) and his nationality was questioned by some in the Royal Academy. Although he had always hoped for a closer association between Germany and Great Britain. World War 1 clearly put paid to these hopes. Germany and things German had left too awful a scar to be forgotten. Also, his all too obvious enjoyment of his huge success had always been resented in some quarters (not an English way of behaving). Finally the war changed public conception of art. Herkomer’s work was realistic; his portraits (which are wonderful) were derided by some as ‘richly coloured photographs’. Modernism: Braque, Picasso, Mondrian and the war artists were acclaimed and these factors fatally damaged his reputation in the immediate post war years
But he was a wonderful, versatile, talented artist; He deserves to be more widely appreciated in the UK and beyond.
I recommend a visit to Bushey Museum to see this exhibition, which is showing till January 2015

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