Tag Archives: Royal Academy

Hubert von Herkomer and Vincent van Gogh

30 Mar

A final post about Herkomer, prompted by advanced publicity relating to the exhibition on van Gogh that is to be held in Tate Britain next year.

Herkomer’s ‘Social Realism’ pictures, reproduced in The Graphic, a magazine edited by William Luston Thomas, had a lasting influence on van Gogh who wrote to his brother Theo, that ‘the highest and noblest expressions of art were that of the English’. Van Gogh mentioned Herkomer in his letters to Theo regularly between 1881(when he was twenty-eight) and 1885.

I hoped that this influence would be mentioned in the Tate exhibition and was pleased to hear from the Curator of the van Gogh exhibition, Dr. Carol Jacobi, that she has a long-standing interest in Herkomer and that his importance to van Gogh will be a component of the show and the catalogue.

Herkomer, a few years older than van Gogh, was already an established artist at the time van Gogh wrote to Theo. The Last Muster (which received spontaneous applause when it was shown to the Hanging Committee of the Royal Academy), was internationally admired and had won the Medal of Honour in the Paris International Festival of 1878. Van Gogh also admired Herkomer’s painting of Bavarian peasant life (reproduced in L’Art which he would have seen) as well as paintings illustrating the deprivation and loneliness of old women in the workhouses of London.

Although van Gogh was in London for a few years in the 1870s he did not meet Herkomer, but he regularly went to look at new illustrations posted in the windows of the Graphic and Illustrated London News offices. Later (when in the Hague), he collected a complete series of twenty – one volumes of the Graphic running from 1870 to 1880.

He not only admired Herkomer’s work, which he considered showed both ‘soul’ and a sympathy for his fellow man, but he also admired the man himself . Herkomer’s accounts of the grinding poverty he and his parents endured when, in search of a better life, they emigrated from Germany to America and then to England, and his determination in overcoming these difficulties at the beginning of his career sounded a responsive cord in van Gogh, himself beset with so many career and personal frustrations.

Herkomer, in contrast to van Gogh, was to become a hugely wealthy man, mainly because of his portrait painting (which he defended as ‘Contemporary History’), but he remained a source of admiration to van Gogh, who as late as 1888 was still creating images that reflected the Graphic series – his admiration for the Herkomer’s expressionist ‘soul’ can be said to have remained with him throughout his life.

I am sure this Tate Britain exhibition will be a great success.

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.

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