The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Lehmann RC

Lehmann, Rudolf ChambersEdit

“Rudy” (Spy), January 17, 1895Edit

He got his second name through his mother, the daughter of Robert Chambers, eight-and-thirty years ago; and as both his father and his mother knew Dickens, George Eliot, Browning, and a host of other such famous writers, it is natural that he should himself be an author. But he is more. From school he went to Cambridge; and having been athletically inclined since he first ran laps round the nursery table, he became First Boat Captain of First Trinity. Having just missed his “Blue,” he left Cambridge and was presently converted into an excellent coach; than whom none is better known on the towpath to this day. He has coached half-a-dozen ‘Varsity Eights, being in as much request with Oxford as with Cambridge, and always ready to do his best for either. He was last year Captain of Leander; he is Secretary of the Amateur Rowing Association; and he is only less well-known at Henley than he is at Bourne End, where he has built for himself and his friends a comfortable house, which he calls Fieldhead. He has also won trophies with his legs, with his wrists, and with his fists. At an athletic meeting of the Middlesex Yeomanry he won the hundred yards, the quarter-mile, the hurdles, and the cricket ball throw right off; he has gained a prize for regimental swordsmanship; and he was middle and heavy weight boxing champion at Cambridge. He also owns and edits The Granta, wherewith he has succeeded in showing that a University paper may be made to pay; and besides all these athletic attainments he is a good shot who has taught much in his “Conversational Hints to Young Shooters.” Half-a-dozen years back he was asked to join the staff of Punch, and did so; in spite of which he is a merry fellow who can really write funny stuff in the way of bright parody and clever burlesque.

He is an all-round sportsman whose house is full of prizes, trophies, medals, presents, and mementoes: in all of which he takes a proper pride. Politically, he is a wicked, ambitious Liberal, who once dared to stand for Cambridge University when he might have been returned for East Hull; but this may be only another sign of the keen sense of humour that is in him. He is a Justice of the Peace for Bucks; a wholesome, sound, fellow whom everyone likes; and an excellent host, who is always ready to help a friend.

He loves dogs.

Rudolf Chambers Lehmann (1856-1929) fared worse at Henley than any other rower of Vanity Fair who competed there: he finished last in every heat he entered, from the 1877 Visitors’ to the 1888 Wyfolds. Yet it is not for this record that he is best remembered in rowing, but as coach and author. From 1891 to 1903 he focused on Oxford and Cambridge, generally as a finishing coach for one or the other but in 1892 for both. He also coached at various times Leander, Harvard, Trinity College Dublin, and the Berlin Rowing Club. “It was characteristic of him that he gave his valued services to two countries, three universities, and several colleges besides his own; he was not only a fine coach but a great oarsman, and his high ideals in both respects has had lasting influence on the standard and spirit of international, as well as intercollegiate, rowing.”[1] As an author, Lehmann became the “Poet Laureate of rowing”[2] with verse and reminiscences that appeared most often in Granta and Punch. His prose included Rowing (1897, for the Isthmian Library) and The Complete Oarsman (1908).

Outside of rowing, Lehmann kept to the broad trajectory outlined in Vanity Fair’s 1895 biography. He came into Parliament with the Liberals from 1906 to 1910 as a member for the Harborough Division of Leicestershire. During the war he volunteered in various ways on the home front and his health ebbed. The balance of his professional energy went to literary and local political affairs around Bourne End, where he died in 1929 of pneumonia, age 73. “‘Rudie’ Lehmann was a man of many talents, many interests in life, and, above all, very many friends,” wrote The Times. “As humorist, journalist, oarsman and rowing coach, man of letters, barrister, and politician, he was continually adding to their number, and all of them, especially those whom he first knew and helped in their early manhood, will look back with affectionate gratitude to his ever-ready sympathy and kindly encouragement.”[3] To son John, writing of his own boyhood at Bourne End, the sweep oars stacked in the Fieldhead boathouse, where Lehmann had hosted the light and dark Blues, “called out of a legendary past for me my father’s rowing fame and a picture far more human and vital than the ‘Spy’ cartoon that hung in the bedroom corridor, of a man supple, athletic, radiant in the confidence of his strength and the love that all who knew him bore towards him.”[4]

The Perfect OarEdit

By R.C. Lehmann:

Once on a dim and dream-like shore
Half seen, half recollected,
I thought I met a human oar
Ideally perfected.

To me at least he seemed a man
Like any of our neighbours,
Formed on the self-same sort of plan
For high aquatic labours.
His simple raiment took my eyes:
No fancy duds he sported,
He had his rather lengthy thighs
Exiguously “shorted.”

A scarf about his neck he threw;
A zephyr hid his torso;
He looked as much a man as you --
Perhaps a trifle more so.
And yet I fancy you’ll agree,
When his description’s ended,
No merely mortal thing could be
So faultlessly commended.

I noted down with eager hand
The points that mark his glory;
So grant me your attention, and
I’ll set them out before ye.

His hands are ever light to catch;
Their swiftness is astounding:
No billiard ball could pass or match
The pace of their rebounding.

Then, joyfully released and gay,
And graceful as Apollo’s,
With what a fine columnar sway
His balanced body follows!

He keeps his sturdy legs applied
Just where he has been taught to,
And always moves his happy slide
Precisely as he ought to.

He owns a wealth of symmetry
Which nothing can diminish,
And strong men shout for joy to see
His wonder working finish.

He never rows his stroke in dabs --
A fatal form of sinning --
And never either catches crabs
Or misses the beginning.

Against his ship the storm winds blow,
And every lipper frets her:
He hears the cox cry, “Let her go!”
And swings and drives and lets her.

Besides, he has about his knees,
His feet, his wrists, his shoulders,
Some points which make him work with ease
And fascinate beholders.

He is, in short, impeccable,
And -- this perhaps is oddest
In one who rows and looks so well --
He is supremely modest.

He always keeps his language cool,
Nor stimulates its vigour
In face of some restrictive rule
Of dietary rigour.

And when the other men annoy
With trivial reproaches,
He is the Captain’s constant joy,
The comfort of his coaches.

When grumblers call the rowing vile,
Or growl about the weather,
Our Phoenix smiles a cheerful smile
And keeps his crew together.

No “hump” is his -- when everything
Looks black his zeal grows stronger,
And makes his temper, like his swing,
Proportionately longer.

One aim is his through weeks of stress: --
By each stroke rowed to aid work.
No facile sugared prettiness
Impairs his swirling blade-work.

And, oh, it makes the pulses go
A thousand to the minute
To see the man sit down and row
A ding-dong race and win it!

Such was, and is, the perfect oar,
A sort of river Prince, Sirs;
I never met the man before,
And never saw him since, Sirs.

Yet still, I think, he moves his blade,
As grand in style, or grander,
As Captain of some Happy-Shade
Elysian Leander.^


  1. ^ The Times, Jan. 23, 1929, p. 18b.
  2. ^ T. Cook, The Sunlit Hours, p. 156.
  3. ^ The Times, Jan. 23, 1929, p. 18b.
  4. ^ J. Lehmann, Whispering Gallery, p. 27.
  5. ^ R.C. Lehmann, The Complete Oarsman, pp. 94-96.