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Books: Hubert von Herkomer as an egotist with a warm heart

Admired by Van Gogh and an enormously successful artist in his lifetime, Herkomer was a polymath and man of action

Herkomer is one of those artists who is remembered for a handful of paintings—“The last muster: Sunday in the Royal Hospital, Chelsea” (1875), “Hard times” (1885) and “On strike” (1891). The first of these was, in fact, such a phenomenal success on an international basis that it ensured the artist’s reputation. So, too, with Herkomer’s portraiture (about 170 examples in all), which became his principal source of income and in which he portrayed the luminaries of the late Victorian world, thereby indirectly reserving his own place in posterity. Taking his work as a whole, it is true to say that Herkomer succeeded in his aim of providing future generations with a record of his own age.

Yet, that is by no means the entire story, for the artist was a larger-than-life figure. The diversity of his interests, the course of his personal life, and the illusions of artistic grandeur make Herkomer a fascinating case study.

Born in 1849 in Bavaria, the family emigrated to America, but then shortly afterwards returned to Europe and settled in England. Problems of national identity haunted Herkomer for most of his life and his dislike of America was only assuaged by the visits he made in 1882-83 and 1885-86 when he had established his reputation. His omnipresent father, Lorenz, was a builder and woodcarver and his mother, Josephine, was musical. Herkomer himself married three times and led a life touched by tragedy. He returned frequently to Germany where he maintained a summer residence, but in 1873 he settled in Bushey (Hertfordshire) where he built a large house called Lululaund, designed by the American architect, H.H. Richardson. This was to be the headquarters for his multifarious activities, including the Herkomer Art School (1883-1904), which Sir William Nicholson attended and loathed; the Herkomer Theatre, which was based on Wagnerian principles and was influential for Edward Gordon Craig; and the Herkomer Film Company, which developed out of his interest in photography. All of these activities benefited from Herkomer’s skill as a self-promoter, but his success as an artist also led to an illustrious circle of friends and acquaintances that included Thomas Hardy, Edmund Gosse, Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt.

Herkomer was a man of immense energy. In addition to his painting, he composed and performed on musical instruments, he wrote, directed and acted in plays and films. As well as writing numerous books and articles, he frequently gave lectures on artistic and social issues. He was appointed Slade Professor at Oxford University in 1885 in succession to John Ruskin and held the post until 1894. Towards the end of his life he became fascinated by speed, not only owning a Daimler, but also sponsoring an automobile race, the Herkomerkonkurrenz (1905-07), which was a precursor of modern Grand Prix racing. One of his more bizarre designs was for a menu showing a fast moving car on the front of which is a female nude adorned with a sash inscribed, “The future”. In comparison, such paintings as “Hard times” seem in the distant past. Herkomer died in 1914 (March). Not surprisingly, he was somewhat exhausted by life.

The importance of the present well researched and admirably written monograph is that it presents the artist in the round. Herkomer’s early illustration for The Graphic Magazine done alongside Frank Holl and Sir Luke Fildes, whose careers ran parallel to his, are discussed and listed in an appendix, and the debt to the Idyllic School, particularly Frederick Walker, George Pinwell and J.W. North, is stressed in connection with his rustic scenes. The author is at pains, correctly, to emphasise Herkomer’s links with German artists, such as Adolph von Menzel and Wilhelm Leibl, as regards the more realist treatment of subject matter and it is indeed the artist’s watercolours of Bavarian scenes that will not be so well known. The extent to which Herkomer was an international artist can also be all to easily overlooked. He exhibited in Berlin and Munich, as well as America, but in general his work pertains to international art movements such as Realism, Symbolism and Futurism. In fact, what gives his paintings and watercolours added interest now is the degree to which they are open to interpretation. This applies not just to paintings (for example, “The Guards’ cheer”, 1898; “A zither evening with my students in my studio”, 1901 and “Our village”, 1889), but also to portraits, including “Miss Katherine Grant (the girl in white)” of 1885 and “The lady in black” of 1887, which is actually subtitled “Entranced in some divine mood of self-oblivious solitude”.

Herkomer was a compelling and vivid painter of narrative scenes and of portraits that deserve closer analysis. Ironically, his name has been kept before the public in recent years in part because of Vincent van Gogh’s interest in those illustrations by Herkomer that were published in The Graphic, including the prints made after the major paintings, “The last muster” and “Old age: a study in the Westminster Union” (1878). As Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo (November 1882), “An artist needn’t be a clergyman or a churchwarden, but he must certainly have a warm heart for his fellow men”. Egotistical though Herkomer might have been, he undeniably had a warm heart.

Lee MacCormick Edwards, Herkomer: a Victorian artist (Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot, 1999), 159 pp, 144 b/w ills, 24 col. ills, £35 (hb) ISBN 1840146869

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Egotist with a warm heart'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 98 December 1999