SIR HUBERT VON HERKOMER R.A. 1849-1914: ? TIME TO REMEMBER?

I have just sent my short account of Hubert Herkomer’s life to the publishers– I don’t know how long it will take to appear in its final form – but writing it has caused me to think again about the roller-coaster that is fame.

Herkomer would have reached the pinnacle of his fame when he painted QueenVictoria in 1901 on her deathbed in Osborne House. This beautiful picture depicts Victoria swathed in tulle, a cross in her hand, surrounded by the lilies symbolizing the return of her soul to its innocent state.

But even by 1901 Herkomer’s popularity was beginning to wane –some of his portraits were described as vulgar, richly-painted photographs!  By the early1900s artistic tastes were changing. They were to alter dramatically before and during World War 1.

I think in Herkomer’s case his fall from grace can be explained in a number of ways:

1) He was born in Bavaria. Although he became a naturalized British Citizen, he neither lost, nor hid, his affection and loyalty to Germany and visited Bavaria regularly. Throughout the early 1900s he hoped that Germany and England would continue a close association and he naively chose to ignore the indications of German aggression highlighted by the British press. He suggested that these reports were journalistic ploys and seemed oblivious to the steadily increasing British resentment towards Germany. He died in 1914 just before the beginning of the war. By 1918 Germany and all German associations were ostracized.

2) He was an extremely successful artist. Unusually, he was able to support himself and later his family by his art from the age of nineteen. ‘Social Realism’ was the vehicle of his early success (Van Gogh wrote enthusiastically to his brother Theo about him), but his move to portrait painting and the huge financial rewards in this genre (£500 for a portrait, at a time when a labourer earned approximately £40 a year), must have caused resentment amongst his less successful colleagues. His unabashed, boastful enthusiasm over his achievements must have added to this resentment, it was so un- English.

3) This resentment was made public when his fellow Royal Academicians questioned his right to British Citizenship. Humiliatingly he was forced to post his re-naturalization papers in the Academy. A further example of resentment became apparent when his name was advanced as a candidate for the Presidency of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1897 (he had been Vice President for several years). When he was beaten in the election he was bitterly disappointed. He rationalised that the defeat had come about because he was ‘a forriner’.

4) He was a polymath, his enthusiasms moved quickly through many aspects of ‘the arts’: painter, zither player, actor, banjo player, carpenter, enameler, film maker, composer, art director in his art school in Bushey. This vast array of interests, all of which he entered into with passion, inevitably meant that the quality of his paintings sometimes suffered; a fact seized upon by the critics.

5) However the most important reason that Herkomer’s artistic legacy is largely forgotten is that his work was a reflection of a society that was destroyed by the First World War – in fact even before the war, art enthusiasms had moved from ‘Realism’, as artists were drawn into a vortex of permanent revolution. Artists such as Christopher Nevinson, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg, Mark Gertler vividly portrayed the horrors of the war and after the devastation, many artists decided that the war must be used as a catalyst for change, an opportunity to embrace new advances, to experiment. Herkomer, a ‘Realist’, having died just before the war, had no opportunity to defend his work or (ironically, since he was always avid to investigate new ideas), to modify his oeuvre in relation to post war realities.

Such was the continued strength of feeling against him, that ‘Lululaund’, his Gothic-type house in Bushey, the only building in Britain designed by the renowned American architect Henry Hobson Richardson of Boston, was demolished stone by stone before the Second World War and the rubble used in the construction of an airstrip for American planes in nearby Bovingdon.

These are powerful reasons that explain in part why this amazingly talented, versatile, intelligent man fell from grace. There may be similar reasons for other artists.  But I think that it is now time for Herkomer’s contributions to late Victorian art to be re-evaluated.

 

 

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