Tag Archives: Modernism

Sir Hubert von Herkomer R.A.

10 Feb

Nestling amongst my talks on Antarctic heroes and Antarctic subjects is one on a Victorian artist, Hubert Herkomer, a man who was one of the most famous artists of the late Victorian era and the Edwardian period. Why is he there? I am not an art historian. I spent my working life as a Consultant in the National Health Service.

caption: self-portrait by Hubert Herkomer held in Bushey Museum Hertfordshire U.K.

The reason that Herkomer entered my life is that I wrote the biography of Edward Wilson, the doctor who died with Scott in 1912. Wilson and his wife made their home in Bushey, Hertfordshire. When I visited Bushey Museum to learn more about my subject, I found they were more interested in their celebrity Herkomer, who had lived in the town for forty years.

Caption: Lululaund Gothic style(built from 1880-1884). Designed by the American architect H.H.Richardson(Boston Mass.USA).

I learnt that during these years, in addition to the most prodigious artistic output he was a talented musician, ran an art school, wrote the music, the words and acted in plays and, with his father and uncles, built a huge Gothic house, designed by H.H. Richardson, the famous Bostonian American architect.

Caption:Students of Herkomer Art School started in 1883. Initially for 60 students, but soon rose to 100 students.

When I looked around the museum I was caught immediately by the numerous examples of his paintings and drawings on display. I decided I would make a presentation, which, I hoped might be of general interest

Caption: Drawn by Herkomer Woodcut printed in the Graphic Magazine 1870. Bushey Museum hertfordshire U.K.

Herkomer was an inexhaustible worker. Initially he produced many ‘Social Realism’ Illustrations. These graphically informed all Victoria’s subjects of the poverty and deprivation of the Victorian working class.



He continued with these for many years; his Diploma painting (presented to the Royal Academy when he was elected a Full Member) was ‘On Strike’, described as ‘a cry for humanity’.



He also produced numerous paintings and pictures, of scenes in England, Wales and Germany. Later in his career he concentrated on the ‘portrait market’ with great success, painting the great and the good in this country and in Germany.

Caption: watercolour painting of JOHN RUSKIN, H.Herkomer 1879. NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY LONDON, U.K.

Caption: MARRIED ANNA WEISE 1873.Her portrait by Hubert Herkomer 1876. BUSHEY MUSEUM, HERTFORDSHIRE U.K.

In 1899 he was awarded the Order of Maximilien by Prince Luitpold of Bavaria; this allowed him to add von to his name, an honour he greatly appreciated as it raised the prestige of the Herkomer family as a whole.

He visited the States twice and on one of his visits to Boston he painted 36 portraits in a few months.

Caption: Herkomer built a THEATRE,created ELABORATE MUSICAL PLAYS,and WROTE AND ORCHESTRATED THE MUSIC, as well taking an active role in the plays. The image is of Edward Gordon Craige, who was the stage designer producing amazingly a mobile full moon, fully lit, that traversed from one side of the stage to the other steadily through out the performance. He was the son of Ellen Terry.

Hubert Herkomer’s original passport to success however was ‘The Last Muster’. This was painted when he was twenty-six. It depicts Chelsea Pensioners in the chapel of the Chelsea Hospital and drew spontaneous applause from the Hanging Committee, of the Royal Academy, when it was submitted for exhibition – surely unusual. It was one of the most popular paintings in England for 40 years and won the Medal of Honour in the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878. It is said to be a memento mori and a reminder both of patriotism and poverty.


His watercolour portrait of Ruskin, described as one of the greatest portraits of the Victorian era, was painted when Ruskin was probably already suffering from a bipolar disorder. The portrait is considered outstandingly insightful; it certainly drew enthusiastic praise from Ruskin himself who nominated Herkomer for the Slade Professorship in Oxford.

Caption:Watercolour by Hubert Herkomer 1901 of Queen Victoria at Osborne House Isle of Wight.U.K.
The Royal Collection.
This image is from a copy held by Bushey Museum, Hertfordshire. U.K.

Edward VII invited him to paint Queen Victoria on her deathbed and subsequently granted him a knighthood.
But Hubert is now largely forgotten. Why? There are four main reasons. Firstly, although he was a naturalized British citizen, he was born in Bavaria and never lost his connection with Germany, visiting Bavaria regularly. Secondly, he was often perceived to be egotistical, self-praising and effusive, not traits likely to endear him to his fellow citizens and artistic rivals (Royal Academicians filed a question concerning his right to British citizenship). Thirdly, by the time he died in 1914, anti German feeling was rife.

But probably the most important reason was that by the end of World War 1 tastes in art had changed. There was no appetite for ‘vulgar, coloured photographs’. ‘Modernism’ had arrived

Although Herkomer was and is represented in galleries throughout Britain and word-wide, he sank into obscurity for some years. He has been reassessed for his significant contributions more recently.

I am making two presentations on him this year. I hope to kindle further interest in an undoubtedly brilliant artist.

von Herkomer

17 Jun

Fame IS depressingly fickle.  von Herkomer was one of the most important mambers of the artistic community in the last years of the 1800s. His painting “The Last Watch” painted when he was 26, was ‘on the line’ at the Royal Academy exhibition and attracted almost universal praise (Ruskin was not enthusiastic)! It sold for £1.200 and continued to be a favourite  painting for many years, (he made a companion picture “The Guards’ Cheer”,  survivors of the Crimean War at the time of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, standing below a statute of their young selves). He was was a Royal Academician, knighted by Edward VII and received all sorts of honours including the ‘von’ which related to his German background.

But after his death in 1914, just before the First World War, he fell from popularity and fame. It is interesting to speculate why. I think firstly it was because of his German connections; after the horrors of W.W.I a man with his obvious attachment to Germany would be be persona-non-grata. It was probably also because he relished his success a little too obviously.  Also, and more importantly, because after W.W.I artistic sensibilities were deeply transformed by the very experience of war. Post Impressionism, under the leadership of Roger Fry and Modernism became the dominant artistic currents, quite distinct from the  naturalism that he had represented.

Quite late in his career he painted “The Council of the Royal Academy”, a brave move to expose himself to the scrutiny and criticism of fellow artists, but it was well received. I understand it has never been hung in the Tate, where it now lives, it is rolled up and in poor condition. Von Herkomer would have been mortified!