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Transcript of 'The Last Muster' podcast

Good afternoon everybody, I'm Julian Treuherz, Keeper of Art Galleries here at NML, and this is positively my last public appearance as Keeper as I'm about to retire in ten days time. So this is the last of many talks that I will have given.

I'm going to talk about the painting by Herkomer 'The Last Muster'.

First of all I just want everybody to look at it. One way of looking is to describe in words what we're seeing. It's quite a large painting, a very large painting. Rather sombre. Not a lot of bright colour. In the centre there's a band of heads. They're all old men. They are in fact old soldiers in the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London; in the chapel there.

Chelsea Hospital gave a home to war veterans, many of whom were injured, invalided, wounded, homeless. After they had given service to their country they were given a pension and lodgings in the Royal Hospital. The interior of the chapel dates from the 17th century - the buildings were designed by Christopher Wren. The interior is dominated by these tall windows, right at the top. Then these flags and the red uniforms with their gold buttons and black collars. A very distinctive uniform. If you go to Chelsea today you'll see the veterans wandering around still dressed like that.

Herkomer wrote about this picture - 'the idea was to make every man tell some different story to be told by his type of face and expression or by some selection of attitude'. So our eyes wander around looking at the different characters, the different people. They're all aged, some of them are concentrating on the service. Others you think their minds might be wandering.

The main story of this picture which gives it its title is in the centre - the central figure - he's just to the right of the centre - he's the man with the stick. Although it's a very quiet event, he has died. His head has dropped, his stick has slid forward, his grasp has loosened and the only figure with a directed gaze as opposed to one that's just contemplating, gazing into the distance, worshipping or whatever, is his neighbour who has suddenly noticed that his friend has died. Everybody else is lost in thought but this man's gaze is focussed on his friend.

The title 'The Last Muster' is a military term. A muster is an assembly of soldiers called for inspection or a roll call. Herkomer chose the title 'The Last Muster' implying that here we have God who has summoned this soldier to his last roll call. The last summons to assemble.

So it's a picture about death. That in itself is quite unusual in this period. It was painted in 1875. If you think about Victorian art, this was Victoria's heyday 1875, if you look around you it's generally art of escapism. Art of luxury. Beautiful landscapes, beautiful people full of colour and detail and usually happiness. Dark aspects of society are quite rare in Victorian art.

There are hints of death in some Victorian pictures but it's very rarely depicted as a corpse. This is what you're looking at really isn't it, it's a dead person. Some of you who have been to some of my other talks might remember. For instance, 'Bubbles' over there. 'Bubbles' is actually a picture about death because the bubble is a traditional symbol of the evanescence of human life. It has a very short life, the boy blows it and it bursts and it often was used in the 17th century this same subject of a boy blowing bubbles with a skull. A more obvious reminder of what that subject means.

There's also another picture by Millais over there 'Spring' or 'Apple Blossom' in which all is beauty and youth. Except there is a hint of death on the right-hand side there is a scythe and what Millais is saying here is that even people who are young and beautiful we all die. But here we've got something which is much more explicitly about death.

Herkomer is a most interesting artist and not well-known and indeed although he was very famous in his day, no longer terribly highly thought of. He was called Hubert von Herkomer. That gives a clue as to his background. He was born in Bavaria. His family were woodcarvers. His father was a woodcarver. They made furniture. They emigrated as children when Herkomer was quite young, to the USA, but they didn't like it there and came to Britain and Herkomer as a child went to school in Southampton. Showed a talent for art and went to art school there. Eventually in his late teens he went to the art school in South Kensington which was attached to what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum.

It has now transformed into what we call the Royal College of Art which is a postgraduate college, but at that time the South Kensington Art School was one of the big art colleges where lots of talented young art students went. When he wass there he made friends with an artist called Luke Fildes. Luke Fildes there painted a portrait of Lord Leverhulme, much later, and he also painted 'Venetians' which is one of these escapist type pictures of life in Venice, a rather unreal looking life in Venice. Very beautiful people lounging around in a beautiful way.

I show you those because both Herkomer and Fildes made their name and their living from painting portraits, which was kind of bread and butter for artists. Portraits of great men, portraits of businessmen, portraits of artists that went to hang in places like the Royal Academy. Also, the exhibitions at the Royal Academy which is where all the great artists showed their major pictures each year, in their maturity in addition to the portraits they painted this fanciful type of picture. Herkomer also did landscapes, sometimes from his native Bavaria, sometimes of Britain. Beautiful and happy looking people, children and animals and so on.

However, when they were young. When they were in their twenties, both Fildes and Herkomer made great sensation by painting subjects about poverty and social issues of the day which were not popular or saleable. If you were a Victorian art collector you wouldn't want to look at someone dying all day, hanging over your dining table or in your drawing room. Or poor, homeless people. But when they were young they had their social conscience and they were amongst the first artists ever actually to paint this type of subject.

How did that come about? In 1869 a new magazine started called 'The Graphic'. Some of you may be familiar with the 'Illustrated London News' which carried on being published until the 1960s. In the early days 'Illustrated London News' was in black and white only and it was illustrated with wood engravings of news stories. Queen Victoria's visit to this. The opening of a town hall. Gladstone making a speech. They were news magazines and they also had stories and poems, reviews of art exhibitions and theatre.

This was the 'Illustrated London News'. The illustrations in the 'Illustrated London News', and there was a cheaper one aimed at a working class audience called the 'Pictorial Times' I think, were provided not by trained artists but by hacks. People who didn't have an artistic training. They could produce a workmanlike wood engraving, but it didn't really have artistic qualities.

In 1869 a new magazine called 'The Graphic' was founded by a man called WL Thomas. It was a rival to the 'Illustrated London News'. Thomas had very new ideas on how to make his magazine attractive. Instead of employing these jobbing wood engravers to make prints of current events, he employed a group of young artists that he picked out of the art schools and amongst them were Fildes and Herkomer.

Not only that but he encouraged the artists to walk around London and to find subjects rather like a reporter, a photographic journalist, would do today. But it was before the days of photography and the technique they used, these artists, was to draw what they saw. They would make sketches and then they would draw their final version on a piece of wood about this big.

Then it was handed over to a skilled wood engraver, a skilled technician, who would cut out all the whites so that they would be recessed as it were, leaving the blacks, the lines sticking out and then these would be printed in the magazine. Later on it was possible to do that cutting operation through a sort of photographic process. They could photograph the drawing onto the wood and then cut it. At this time it was all done by hand.

I'm going to show you some examples now. I'm afraid I've only got them in books so I'll just have to wave them around just to give you an idea. You probably can't see this. These are reduced versions of four page illustrations. The originals would have been a little bit bigger than this because it's quite a big format magazine. The top one is a queue of people, it's called 'Houseless and Hungry'. This was Luke Fildes' first illustration for the first number of 'The Graphic'.

It's a queue of people, shabbily dressed, and they are waiting for admission to a night shelter for the homeless. You still have night shelters in big cities as you know. Homelessness was a huge problem in the Victorian period. Underneath is a pawn shop at Merthyr Tydfil. This time they're all holding bundles of things which they're going to pawn. This appeared in 1875 in the 'Illustrated London News' so that's a bit later.

Herkomer also found subjects similar to this. Again, it's not easy to see these but this one is called 'A Gypsy encampment at Putney Common'. Gypsies were outcasts the same as they are today. We don't want to know about gypsies. They leave litter and generally reckoned to be dirty and slovenly. The same attitude in the Victorian period.

The other one is a concert given to the poor Italians in London. Soho was the Italian quarter. Italian immigrants who had come as political refugees because of all the reunification wars. Herkomer went into their events and sketched them all watching a man singing no doubt Italian arias. He's interested in what we now call ethnic minorities. Underprivileged groups.

It was very rare for an artist ever to draw that kind of subject and even rarer for an artist to paint it at the Royal Academy. That's exactly what happened. As these artists grew older they became more ambitious. They wanted to make a name for themselves and so having started as news illustrators, a kind of early form of visual journalism, drawing these underprivileged people.

Some of these drawings, they made paintings out of them. That's what we've got here. In 1871, two years after the foundation of 'The Graphic', Herkomer came up with an illustration called 'Sunday at Chelsea Hospital'. Very, very similar to the painting that you are all looking at, but it's kind of more close-up. It's not got quite so many people. There's less space. You're nearer to it and the man that's died, he's nearer the front basically. There are some changes. He's got no stick. That idea of the stick sliding out of his hand I think is a wonderful invention to signify that the man has suddenly expired and lost his ability to hold.

This engraving appeared in 1871. Four years later, Herkomer was hard at work on a large painting, repeating the subject with some adaptations. He exhibited it at the Royal Academy and it was praised to the skies and he became instantly a famous artist. In 1878 it was sent to Paris to a big international exhibition where artists from all nations were represented and Herkomer was one of the two British artists who was awarded a gold medal for his exhibits. The other one was Millais actually.

Herkomer won the gold medal in 1878 for this painting and it made his name in Europe. I'd now like to say a little bit more about the painting itself. Herkomer went to the Royal Hospital Chelsea and sketched the chapel and it does look exactly like that today with the big windows and the flags and the half columns at the back. Presumably that's an organ loft. Is that an organ up there? Yes.

He found a couple of pensioners whom he persuaded to sit as models and they're the two people in the middle and he got them to sit again when he did his painting. He presumably also found other Chelsea Pensioners to pose for him, although he only mentions the two. However he also used a few other people as models.

The man with a white beard just sort of above my hand is a portrait of Herkomer's father, Lawrence Herkomer, the woodcarver from Bavaria. Right at the back you might find it a bit difficult to see but there's a row of very small figures at the back. I'm not sure who the first one is on this side but the second one is a portrait of Clarence Fry who was a very wealthy man. He made a fortune out of taking portrait photography in its early days and he was a patron of the arts. In fact he bought this painting when it was finished for £1200 which was a lot of money in those days.

Clearly he was a patron of Herkomer before this painting was done because he's incorporated him into his picture as a sort of tribute. Then there's a lady with a large hat, that's Anna Herkomer, the artist's wife. The next one, another lady with a hat is Mrs Fry. Most interestingly of all, the fifth figure, one, two, three, four, five. A man with his hand like that, thinking, is a self-portrait of Herkomer. Showing himself as contemplative, a man of ideas and intellect. Quite small, quite modest, right at the back.

Herkomer wrote an extensive account of painting this picture. I'm not going to bore you with the whole thing but it's quite interesting. First of all, he only made a few sketches and then he painted most of it directly onto the full-size canvas which was quite rare. This was his first major oil painting. His bid for fame. He was very inexperienced and he wrote of having a lot of difficulties with getting the feeling of space and also getting the perspective of the floor correct.

I think he succeeded well in giving that barn-like feel of this rather gaunt interior. He always said in these things he wrote it's because he didn't plan it out properly in advance and just launched straight into the canvas that it caused him such difficulty. Then there was the technique. It must be told he said that there was no oil-coloured ground on the canvas. It was a piece of unprepared linen with nothing but a coating of size. Each figure was sketched on it with zinc white mixed with paste, using watercolour lampblack and raw sienna for the outlines.

So he sketched the outlines in this thinnish black/brown. He didn't prepare the canvas. Normally an artist working on a canvas of any size and particularly this size would have put several layers of white gesso on it to create a smooth surface. He didn't. The result was, he wrote, 'it produced a dry fresco-like appearance but it was too absorbent and necessitated the use of much medium to secure the paint on the canvas because the ground drew out too much of the material in the colours.

People at that time mixed their own colours with pigment and a medium - oil for oil paint. Because he hadn't prepared the canvas, it absorbed all the oil paint leaving the pigment very dry and in danger of falling off. Indeed we never lend this picture because there is a danger - the adherence of the paint to the ground is very weak. We have had incidences of slight lifting of paint and loss of fragments of paint. So we don't lend it because of this technical fault.

There's more to say from some of his writings but I'd just like to read a few little quotations because I think it gives an insight. 'Near my London studio', he wrote in a letter to his uncle and aunt, 'is the great hospital or home for old soldiers. There are five hundred of them. The whole place is in intensely interesting, built by Charles II. It has a very large chapel and hall, both hung around with the banners which have been taken at various battles. The scene which forms the subject of my present picture is taken from this place. A mass of old men sitting in church during service. I call it 'The Last Muster'. They are sitting, some with deep feelings of veneration, others more indifferent. There are about 70 heads to be seen and all literal portraits. I've picked out the most characteristic men and then painted them carefully, keeping their individuality. It is a grand sight to see these venerable old warriors under the influence of divine service. They have been loose most of their lives and now coming near their end a certain fear comes over them and they eagerly listen to the gospel.'

Then he describes the red coats and the perspective problems. Then he says, 'there is no parson or clergyman seen (don't like them in pictures) and I've not adopted or made use of any rules that are supposed to be necessary in making a picture. I have violated all academic principles.'

I think what he means here are the general rules that people are taught. How to make composition. A hierarchy of importance. You are to draw attention to the main figures by somehow putting them in the centre. Having lines that led the eye to them. For instance, in the 'Venetians' picture, the lady with red hair in the front who is having her hair combed, she's much lighter than anybody else. She immediately draws the eye forming a natural centre to the painting. That's just one example.

Here, you have this mass of old men. This chap is nearer the eye than the main person. I think Herkomer deliberately did not draw attention to what was going on because he wanted to make it a very understated quiet event, this death that he's painting. He didn't want it to be shocking. Indeed, some people, maybe yourselves, you may not have realised for a while that that's what's actually happening. You have to live with a picture sometimes to understand it fully.

The last thing I wanted to read was this - 'I have painted the scene literally so to speak. Not forgetting the sentiment of course that I wish to impress my spectators with'. Sentiment is a funny word, we now use the word sentimental in a dismissive way, excessive emotion. Excessive sentiment. To the Victorians sentiment meant strong feeling and they believed in strong feeling and artists like Herkomer knew that you could evoke strong feelings by painting pictures of this kind of subject. Important subject. Things that really matter. Religion and life and death. A life devoted to fighting for our country. The reward of being given the pension but then a death. These are important subjects. They're not trivial like some of the pictures that we've got here that are just rather chocolate-boxy. That is a characteristic of much Victorian art.

Sentiment is really important. In fact, another saying of the artist was that 'Truth in art must be enhanced by Sentiment.'

Herkomer went on to make various other paintings of this type of subject. He painted a picture which is at Manchester Art Gallery called 'Hard Times' about which I did an exhibition and a book. That's just a detail from it, it's a picture about unemployment. A wintry landscape, very bare. Then you've got the farm worker and his wife and children who've been thrown out of work. He did another one called 'On Strike', which is self-explanatory really. It's a man standing by the door of his house looking rather unhappy with his wife with her head bowed, carrying a child. 'On Strike', they've got no money because they're on strike.

All these started their life as illustrations in this magazine. But there is no money in these type of pictures. Most of them were bought by museums so there was some money in them but the private collectors who bought a lot of Victorian paintings, as I've said, they didn't buy these pictures. One or two did for a big gallery, but they were mainly the type of collectors who eventually gave their collection, like Lord Leverhulme did to become a public collection. People at home wanted pretty pictures not depressing pictures.

Incidentally, this was bought by Lord Leverhulme much later, it was not bought straight from the artist.

Finally, I want to give you one separate subject to do with Herkomer and this picture. It concerns the artist Van Gogh. Possibly the last artist you would associate with this painting.

Van Gogh was in London intermittently between 1873 and 1876. This was exhibited in 1875. Van Gogh at this period was in his twenties. He worked for an art dealer called Goupil. He was selling paintings and prints of famous paintings. He also after that taught in schools in London and preached at non-conformist chapels because he wanted to be a minister. He's very religious.

He also visited museums and saw paintings and described them. He talked about seeing the Constables at the National Gallery for example. He visited some of the exhibitions at the Royal Academy and he visited Christies, the auctioneers, where he described various paintings in auction sales. We know all about this from his wonderful letters that he wrote to his brother Theo in Paris.

What is so interesting is that Van Gogh, although we don't know whether he saw the original at the Royal Academy, he certainly was acquainted with this picture. It was through the engravings. Van Gogh made a collection of engravings of the English artists, cut out of magazines like 'The Graphic'. 'I didn't tell you that I have almost the whole 'Graphic' complete now from the very beginning in 1870. Of course, not everything, there is too much chuff, but the best things from it. When one sees, for example, Herkomer's work arranged together instead of scattered amongst many insignificant things' - that's the nature of a magazine isn't it? It jams all sorts of things, important and non-important all together - 'it is in the first place easier and more pleasant to look at. In addition, one learns to distinguish the characteristics of the various artists and the difference between the draughtsmen.'

He also writes:

'I have another decoration for my studio. I bought very cheaply some beautiful wood engravings from The Graphic. Just what I've been wanting for years. Drawings by Herkomer, Frank Holl, Fred Walker and others. For me, the English black and white artists are to art what Dickens is to literature. They have exactly the same sentiment - noble and healthy - and one always returns to them'.

Then again, writing about these engravings:

'There are things among them that are superb. For instance 'Houseless and Homeless' by Fildes. Poor people waiting in front of a free overnight shelter. And two large Herkomers and many small ones and 'The Irish Immigrants' by Frank Holl and 'The Old Gate' by Fred Walker and 'A Girls' School' by Holl. And another large Herkomer 'Der invaliden'' - that is Dutch for 'The Invalids' and it is almost certain that that is referring to this work. So, even if he didn't know the picture he must have seen that slightly smaller wood engraving of it.

This kind of picture appealed to Van Gogh, much as it appealed to the Victorian public who wanted strong feelings, sentiment, in a painting. It must also have appealed to Lord Leverhulme who bought it to be shown here as part of the collection at the Lady Lever Art Gallery. It is the only really strong example of what we now call Victorian Social Realism, the kind of art that deals with poverty and distress and social problems.

I think it's a deliberate acquisition by Lord Leverhulme because he wanted his collection to be didactic. He wanted it to teach people, a very Victorian idea for an art collection. He wanted it to teach moral truths to the soap workers so that when we come in here, as well as enjoying beautiful landscapes, we also can see this picture of a very noble and strong message about the inevitability of death.

Thank you very much.