'Two things are to him superlatively attractive - old age and poverty. With these subjects, Mr Herkomer has taken the line of truth, sincerer than that of the sentimentalist, and nobler than that of the humorist.'
Hubert von Herkomer
Hubert von Herkomer was born in Bavaria, came to England in 1857, and studied art at the RCA from 1866, under the direction of Sir Luke Fildes. Herkomer first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869, his famous The Last Muster was one of the pictures of the year in 1875, and he became successively RI (1871), ARA (1879) and RA in 1890. He was influenced in watercolour painting by the painter J. W. North, and after spending some months painting in his company, became RWS. (In 1897, he was narrowly beaten for the Presidency of the Royal Watercolour Society by E. A. Waterlow.)
Herkomer founded a school of art at Bushey, Hertfordshire, directing it personally from its foundation in 1883 through to 1904. He had very strong ideas on the proper way to teach art, using a scheme of progressive study, centred around study from life. First the students would study casts from life, then they would enter the life room, and only afterwards could they work from the antique. (This was the reverse of the system used in the Royal Academy Schools and South Kensington, where students started with the antique and ended with the life class.) The idea was that the students would develop their own character as artists, and then use the antique as examples of the ideal figure, rather than slavishly copy what they saw. The School was very successful, and students there included Lucy Kemp-Welch, who directed the School after Herkomer, George Harcourt, Amy Sawyer, Tom Mostyn, E. Borough Johnson, Alfred U. Soord, Henry Justice Ford, Roland Wheelwright, Hilda Fairbairn and C. L. Burns. The assistant master at the school was D. A. Wehrschmidt.
Herkomer's paintings show a fidelity and realism without sentimentality of any sort. There is often a grimness to his work, a harshness that seems in contrast to his own character. His figural work often tends to the muscular and sculptural, and even his ideal classical maidens are more towards the Amazon than anything softer. To some extent this was picked up by some of his pupils, for example the heroic figures of Soord.
As well as painting, Herkomer also did enamelling, directed theatre productions and created backdrops for them, and engaged in many other artistic endeavours. Of his theatre, Herkomer wrote in 1889:
‘My theatre is not connected with my art school, but is attached to my own house. The art students assist me, and act for me, and it is certainly for their good, as well as for my pleasure, that I have taken so much trouble to make all things as good as possible...
We shall devote six performances to our friends (which means six friends of each student, as well as my own friends) and three charity performances [per year]. We must give many performances, as we can only seat 120 people comfortably. But then all of these have a good view. In my scenes I wish only to make the effects as true to nature as I possibly can; and only artistic natures and lovers of Nature who have looked enough at Nature to remember her effects, can be my judges.'
In Bushey, which is close to Watford, west of London, there is a small museum with a single room devoted to Herkomer. There is one oil painting by him - an unexciting local landscape. Rather more interesting are sketches by Herkomer and a few of his pupils, and photographs and knick-knackery regarding his efforts at film and drama. There are remnants of furniture designed by Herkomer for his gothic mansion in Bushey, Lululaund, named after his second wife, who died saving a small child from being run over by a carriage. As well, there is a copy of the portrait sculpture of Herkomer by E. Onslow Ford RA (1897).
The original bust of Herkomer is in the National Portrait Gallery, where may also be seen a couple of excellent portraits by him. The Last Muster is in the Lady Lever Gallery.
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