No Victorian home was complete without a work by coach painter turned popular genre artist John Frederick Herring Snr, as Janet Menzies explains
As popular today as in the mid-19th century, John Frederick Herring Snr began painting pub signs and coaches and became a popular genre artist, says Janet Menzies.
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JOHN FREDERICK HERRING SNR
Is all art meant to be good for you? Or is some art more like television, just for relaxation and enjoyment? The Victorians, without the benefit of television, had no more guilt heading off to visit the latest exhibition of genre paintings than we do today settling down in front of a box set of Peaky Blinders. But in the 21st century there’s a feeling that fine art should somehow be more ‘improving’ and so the gap is widening between what we want to look at and what we feel we should look at.
Today’s attitudes to the work of John Frederick Herring Snr typify the paradox. His oil, The Frugal Meal, captures horses eating from a manger while a pigeon pecks alongside them, and was one of the most popular paintings of the mid-19th century. The piece was in the collection of Robert Vernon in 1847, which went on to contribute to the basis of what is now the Tate Gallery. The Tate’s official label for Herring Snr’s painting explains: “These later works, such as The Frugal Meal, are amongst his most original and sensitive pictures. Herring adopted the format of closely grouped horses’ heads for several compositions in the 1840s. The horses were often shown drinking or eating at a manger, accompanied by birds or other small creatures.” The Tate’s database then goes on to record that the painting is currently ‘not on display’.
Yet works by Herring Snr are every bit as popular today as they were when he was painting – regularly reaching in excess of £200,000 at auction. So just how guilty should we feel about walking quickly past images like “the artist’s dishwasher” in order to gaze at Herring Snr’s Shoeing Imaum? Cataloguing that work for sale in 2009, Sotheby’s comments: “This magnificent composition represents Herring’s finest work from the period when he moved to Meopham Park near Tonbridge, and devoted his energies to genre subjects. The beautiful central horse is Imaum, the famous white Arab, the first of four horses given to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by the Imaum of Muscat. The Queen, in turn, gave him to the Clerk of the Royal Stables who sold him through Tattersall’s where Herring was the successful bidder. He was clearly an impressive animal; on one occasion Herring was reputedly approached by a gentleman in Piccadilly who offered him 200 guineas for the horse; an offer that was refused despite the potential profit. Imaum was a great favourite of the artist who appears in several of his most prominent paintings.”
The ‘Imaum’ group of paintings date from when Herring Snr was at the peak of his success, and nowadays can reach between £500,000 and £1m at auction.
A RISING ARTIST
That Herring could refuse 200gns for his horse was a mark of how far he had risen. Originally from London, by the age of 18 he found himself in Doncaster, one of the great centres of horseracing. He began his career painting pub signs and also coats-of-arms and monograms on the coaches of the well-to-do – he would also be employed driving these same coaches in the evenings, leading to his nickname, the ‘artist coachman’. Surrounded by racing and racehorses, it was inevitable that the owners of the coaches he drove had racehorses and, very soon, Herring became known for his paintings of winning horses, including ‘Margrave’ with James Robinson up and Lord George Bentinck’s ‘Crucifix’, John Day up.
Herring next moved to Newmarket and then back to London, but his work was still somewhat functional and in the early 1840s commissions from Copeland to paint designs for Copeland Spode bone china were important to keep him afloat financially. The turning point for Herring came in 1845 when Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent and Strathearn, appointed him as official animal painter, and Queen Victoria began to commission him from then onwards. In 1848, Pharoah’s Chariot Horses, probably the first of his paintings to feature Imaum, became one of Herring’s most successful works. Charles Wentworth Wass produced a massively popular engraving which was a must-have decoration for middle-class Victorian homes.
Now Herring was in a position to move out of London to Meopham Park, near Tonbridge in Kent, and enjoy the life of a country gentleman. His son was also a successful sporting artist by now, prompting Herring to adopt the suffix ‘Snr’. One of his first works following the move was The Watering Place, painted with an almost impressionistic freedom. Living on his 30-acre estate, among walled gardens, orchards, cow byres and a farmyard, Herring was surrounded by his family, including his youngest daughter, Jennie, who features in some of the paintings. Herring’s work from this point became much broader in subject matter and softer in approach. His farmyard scenes show all his technical skill but with an extra quality that it’s tempting to describe as contentment.
See the full catalogue of John Frederick Herring Snr at: www.john-frederick-herring.org