The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Introduction
Introduction by Wiki Author Wat Bradford
The serene profile of William Dudley-Ward caught my eye in the fall of 1986. His Vanity Fair print was posted in a bookstore window near Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had been C.U.B.C. President in 1900. Finding the £40 asking price a bit steep for a student budget, I shrugged and walked on, later to reconsider and start sliding down the collector’s slippery slope. At first content with only a few, I soon bought more prints, then will power gave way and finding the rest became an obsession, and then it occurred to me that obtaining the full official list might not complete the collection.
The problem lay in the cataloguing. Over 2300 prints were published in Vanity Fair in its lifetime (1868 - 1914), roughly one a week. The editors never published a comprehensive list but did from time to time offer select groups for sale, such as this one August 5, 1908, the date rower R.B. Etherington-Smith appeared:
HAVE ALREADY APPEARED IN "VANITY FAIR."
|Ampthill, Lord||Fletcher, W.A.||Nickalls, Guy|
|Bowen, Sir C.S.||Fogg-Elliott, C.T.||Pitman, C.M.|
|Chapman, W.H.||Gold, H.G.||Rowe, G.D.|
|Chitty, J.W.||Grenfell, W.H.||Smith, A.L.|
|Cotton, H.B.||Jordan, G.||Stuart, Douglas|
|Crossley, Sir S.||Lehmann, R.C.||Ward, Dudley|
|Crum, W.||McLean, D.H.|
|De Havilland, R.S.||Muttlebury, S.D.|
The price of the above set of twenty-two Pictures is 15s.; or, well framed, from 1s. 9d. each extra. They will be sent, carriage paid, to any address (on receipt of remittance) by the Publisher, 33, Strand, London, W.C.
Unfortunately, the list is incomplete as it omits men such as J.J. Hornby, the Provost of Eton, who rowed for Oxford in 1849. It also omits accomplished oarsmen who happened not to row at “University,” i.e., Oxford or Cambridge. H.E. Searle, “Professional Champion Sculler of the World” in 1889, and B.J. Angle, who won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley in 1878 with Thames R.C., come to mind. Moreover, the list stretches by including three men – Crossley, Bowen, and Jordan -- who may have rowed for their college but not their university.
Somewhat better are the lists later compiled by various dealers and collectors that classify the prints based on the appearance of the subject in Vanity Fair and the accompanying biographical notes. One of the more definitive lists, from Clive A. Burden, Inc., comprises sixty-eight categories. “Sports -- Rowing” lists twenty-two entries, consisting mainly of Oxford and Cambridge rowers and coaches from 1889 to 1912, plus Mr. Searle, the lone professional. But the Clive Burden list, and others like it, omits several men whose connection to rowing was at least as significant as those listed, but who were catalogued differently because they appeared in Vanity Fair for other reasons. J.W. Chitty, for instance, rowed for Oxford in three Boat Races and umpired the event from 1857-71 and 1873-80, but appeared in Vanity Fair as a chancery judge and thus is catalogued among the 200 or so “Legals.”
So who are the rowers of Vanity Fair? If one finds Vanity Fair’s list of “University Oarsmen” and the somewhat different Clive Burden list too limiting, the question becomes subjective. One might opt for every man who ever rowed at school, university, or in a club. That would inflate the headcount, due largely to the number of old Etonians who appeared in Vanity Fair at some point in their lives. Or one might raise the bar to admit only those who were genuinely successful on the river. That would cut back the number and improve average quality, but would still be subjective and would knock out one from Clive Burden, Rev. E.J.H. Smith of Pembroke College, Cambridge (Vanity Fair, January 28, 1888), whose greatest aquatic accomplishment was as a coach “animating the toils of the fifth boat.” I have taken a middle path, not without faults but at least clear and manageable: anyone who appeared in the magazine mainly in connection with rowing (Rev. Smith makes the cut) or who rowed at Henley or for Oxford or Cambridge Universities (the lesser Etonians do not). The result by my reckoning is fifty-eight. Other Wiki authors may of course choose more expansive criteria and add more here accordingly; on such basis Thomas Brock appears, a sculptor and member of the Kensingon Rowing Club.
To be sure, the focus on rowing, and this particular way of focusing on rowing, makes for a strange history. We have great Boat Race and Henley rowers of the era, but not all of the best or only the best. We have most of the “Spy” prints of rowers, but not all as F.I. Pitman, E.G. Williams, and D. Mackinnon appeared in Vanity Fair rather than in The World in the early 1900s. Of the fifty-three, only three managed not to attend Eton, Oxford, or Cambridge, so the selection hardly represents a random sampling of British society. But “men are often known, remembered and immortalized -- especially abroad -- by some idiosyncrasy selected by the capriciousness of time,” observed Leslie Ward in 1915, recalling his long career as “Spy,” Vanity Fair's most prolific artist. “Looking back to-day it is strange to read in light of great events these miniature biographies of politicians now forgotten, of others who left their party to go over, of statesmen, of judges who sat on important cases and are now only remembered in connection with a trivial poisoner, an impostor in a claim, of careers then unproved but now shining clearly in the light of fame, and of others whose light is extinguished -- all within so short a lapse of time.”
This book presents the rowers in sequence of their rowing careers, from the last days of King William IV through the reign of Queen Victoria to the cusp of the 1914-18 war. As a nod to brevity only the individual portraits are reprinted, though six of the rowers appeared in Vanity Fair semiannual group “doubles”: “” by Théobald Chartran , July 5, 1881 (S.H. Northcote); “The Gladstone Cabinet” also by Chartran, November 27, 1883 (C.W. Dilke); “Tattersall’s, Newmarket” by Liberio Prosperi, December 6, 1887 (E. Boscawen); “In Vanity Fair,” an unsigned composite (November 29, 1890) (A.L. Smith); “Bench and Bar” by “Stuff,” December 5, 1891 (W.B. Brett and A.L. Smith); and “Cycling in Hyde Park” by Hal Hurst, June 11, 1896 (W.H. Grenfell). The chronology bears no relationship to the order in which their prints appeared in Vanity Fair, and thus makes it harder to see the evolution of the graphic and editorial styles, but does cluster contemporaries and facilitates the rowing story. As for the story, Vanity Fair and the rowers themselves tell nearly all of it. Starting with S.H. Northcote and ending with “Cygnet” Swann, the reader will find for each entry the signature lithograph or two from Vanity Fair, the biographical note that accompanied it (set off in italics), a supplemental biography to round out his story, and an excerpt from Vanity Fair or another source, either about the rower in question or a complimentary theme. The sequence is punctuated by the occasional chapter introduction to summarise rowing-related developments for the period mentioned. Photographs, illustrations, and other images out of copyright are sprinkled in.
Throughout all this, my own limited commentary as “an amiable and sympathetic foreigner” aims to “attain the impersonal perspective proper to the true historian,” as T.A. Cook put it. There are three reasons for this approach. First, the magazine was blessed to have Walter Bradford Woodgate provide the rowing coverage in most of the years there was any to speak of. Second, Woodgate, the other Vanity Fair authors, and the rowers themselves provide an authentic period voice, limiting early twenty-first century nostalgia, or anti-nostalgia, from creeping into the mix. Finally, the original sources let one keep one’s head down, a good idea given how prickly rowers can be about their sport. As G.C. Bourne, father of the penultimate Vanity Fair rower R.C. Bourne, observed over sixty years ago during the religious debate over rowing styles: “There is good reason for this wariness, for the rowing fraternity is a close corporation, jealous of its reputation and inclined to be hypersensitive and hypercritical to a degree which would astonish those who do not belong to it.”
Lastly, I would single out for thanks Tom Weil, one of the world's leading historians of rowing and collector of rowing memorabilia, for his encouragement and support, and would commend to anyone interested in rowing history beyond this slice from Vanity Fair the external links below through which, among other avenues, Tom has shared his knowledge and love for the sport; Paul Mainds, Michael Rowe, and their colleagues at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames, for their curatorship and promotion of rowing history, including a 2006 exhibition of the rowers of Vanity Fair; Chris Dodd, rowing historian extraordinaire, who in his capacity as editor of Rowing & Regatta, the magazine of the Amateur Rowing Association, brought the exhibition to the attention of a broader public; and John Bateman of Auriol Kensington R.C., a fellow compulsive, who politely pointed out six Vanity Fair rowers who had managed to slip through the initial net.