Sir Hubert von Herkomer, R.A.

25 Nov


Apart from speaking on Antarctic subjects I give talks about Hubert von Herkomer.

Herkomer came from a modest background in Bavaria, his father, following the long Bavarian tradition of working in wood, was a wood carver. Secondarily to the general European unrest of 1848, the Herkomers decided to try their luck in the States when Hubert was three. The experiment was a complete disaster: cultural/language difficulties, resentment of immigrants, lack of interest in Herkomer senior’s carvings. The family gave up sailed to Southampton, England.

His father wanted Hubert to become an artist and taught Hubert to copy illustrations from German and English magazines from a young age. When he was nineteen Hubert began selling illustrations to the numerous London illustrated journals. Also, aged nineteen he had paintings accepted, both for the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition and for the prestigious Dudley Gallery, whose artists often went on to exhibit at the Watercolour Society). From this young age he was a success. He earned his living as an artist. He never lacked work.

He had a prodigiously enquiring, inventive and wide-ranging mind; he was active in engraving, enameling, woodcuts, oils, watercolours, mechanics (he helped design a motor car), zither and banjo performing, the theatre and an art school in Bushey, Hertfordshire. Here he taught students in the way that he was certain that artistic training should be organized – out of doors, using the imagination, being faithful to each student’s talent, not copying the teacher slavishly. This was in marked contrast to the traditions of the time, which was that a student should spend his initial two years of training copying ‘casts’, plaster casts of heads, feet etc. before being allowed to attempt ‘Life’ Drawings. In addition to all this activity Herkomer, his father and his uncles furnished a huge Gothic-type house in Bushey, which he hoped would be a celebration of his family forever. – This was the only house designed in England by the famous Bostonian architect H.H. Richardson.
To fund these numerous activities he made many portraits of the great and the good and commanded big prices for these. But his early portraits were produced free of charge – a way to attract attention and commissions. One of his early portraits was of John Ruskin (John Ruskin, 1879), a watercolour. Herkomer was thirty, Ruskin twice that age; Ruskin was enthused by Herkomer’s exuberance and zither playing. Herkomer by Ruskin’s brilliant conversation.
Herkomer did the painting in a few days, colouring the background with a colour wash, making a charcoal sketch of his subject and completing the fine colour detail of the face with a hog hair brush This painting has been described as one of the great portraits of the Victorian era and shows the insightfulness of the artist It seems to show the sadness in Ruskin’s eyes and sensitivity towards Ruskin’s inner turmoil at a time when mental illness (possibly a bipolar disorder), was beginning to cloud his life: it was at this time that Ruskin was unable to testify at the famous court case, Whistler against Ruskin, which took place soon after the portrait was painted..
Ruskin was aware of the brilliant intuition behind the portrait He nominated Herkomer to succeed him as the Slade Professor in Oxford


Sir Hubert von Herkomer, R.A.

Portrait of John Ruskin.






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