Among the hand-coloured colour-plate books Emmanuel’s Graham Watson Collection are a number devoted to ‘sports’, by which is often meant what we would now call field sports. These were viewed as part of the illustration of ‘manners and customs’ in such books, and a light-hearted group of these, by artists such as Henry Alken, used sporting subjects as the background for books depicting comic mishaps and pratfalls.
Henry Thomas Alken (1785-1851) was the son of Samuel Alken, himself a sporting artist. Henry’s brother Samuel was also an artist, as were Henry Alken’s sons Sefferien and Samuel Henry, the latter also a sporting artist. So quite a dynasty of artists, with some potential confusions over the attribution of their work.
In his early career, as exemplified in some ten of his colour-plate books in Emmanuel’s collection, Alken produced a stream of paintings, drawings and engravings on sporting activities and field sports, sometimes publishing engravings under the pseudonym of ‘Ben Tally-Ho’. Himself a keen sportsman, many of Alken’s plates take a sardonic, mildly satirical view of what they depict, particularly the comic pitfalls of riding that lie in wait for the inexpert. The incompetence of overconfident but unskilled riders is ready material for Alken’s sense of the ridiculous. It is the human figures in Alken’s pictures that are the object of his humour, and the horses and other animals that have to deal with the consequences of human folly. Shrewd horses refuse to jump the impossible jumps proposed by their foolish riders. The title of one of Emmanuel’s Alken comic sporting books – 'Qualified Horses and Unqualified Riders' – really says it all. This leads Alken to produce several books on the comic misadventures of various ‘Cockneys’ – who seem to represent all townies and urbanites – who presume to think that they, during brief holidays in the country, can master the field sports and other ways of the countryside – with predictably disastrous results.
Like several of his comic sporting books, the narrative thread of Alken’s 'Qualified Horses and Unqualified Riders' (1815) is essentially that of an accident-strewn outing of a hunt that eventually limps home bruised and retires hurt at the end. One plate from this book (Plate 1) is entitled ‘Topping a Flight of Rails and coming into the next field (but not well)’ and shows the rider in the moment of parting company from his horse and flying forward. A later plate (Plate 2) shows the rider left hanging in a hedgerow tree and is entitled sarcastically ‘From your own timidity and mismanagement, cause the Horse to swerve and at last to Bolt through the only bad place in the Fence, leaving you behind in the elegant attitude of a Spread Eagle’.
Plate 3 depicts "How to stop your horse" for the truly incompetent rider. The sardonic text weighs up the alternatives – riding your bolting horse into the side of a carriage or at a tree or a fence (all potentially painful or uncomfortable) and advises that riding into another rider would be a softer landing, remarking on "self-preservation being a great law in Nature". In Alken’s Ideas, 'Accidental and Incidental to Hunting and Other Sports; Caught in Leicestershire' (1826) each of the plates illustrates some ironic ‘Idea’.
In Plate 4 two riders are vainly attempting to jump an impossible fence but their horses have other ideas: one of the riders is commenting ‘I have an IDEA that this Fence is either TOO HIGH or that my Horse is TOO SHORT’. In Plate 5 the riders have cleared the fence only to find themselves tumbling down an unseen chasm on the far side: the plate is captioned ‘This is just to give you an IDEA of a STEEPLE CHASE’. Another plate (Plate 6) depicts a carriage apparently pranged on a bollard: the caption records the driver remarking ruefully ‘I begin to have an IDEA that this TANDEM driving is not altogether free from danger …’
Alken’s 'Hunting, or Six Hours’ Sport, by Three Real Good Ones, from the East End, and Without Seeing a Hound' (1823) is, as the title suggests, a mock-epic about a ludicrously misadvised Cockney foray into the countryside. The first scene (Plate 7, entitled ‘Throwing Off … 9 o’clock … Not So Easy’) shows our three heroes having ominous difficulty in controlling their mounts from the start. Not a good sign that they seem to be riding over a pig … All too soon (Plate 8, ‘In Full Cry … 11 o’clock … Hard Work’) they have just ridden over not only a pig but an old woman with her basket of wares, who lies on the ground under their hooves. The ensuing plates show that the prize porker is no more and depict our ‘Real Good Ones’ paying off the old woman with a large bribe before beating a hasty retreat in a carriage back to the East End.
Another classic in similar vein is Alken’s 'A Cockney’s Shooting Season in Suffolk' (1822), where the plates illustrate a text written in what might be politely called rhyming couplets. Plate 9 (captioned ‘He flies off his charger and the birds fly away’) shows our urban hero coming adrift from his mount while vainly trying to shoot some wisely distant birds that have seemed to him to be jeering at his efforts. Things go from bad to worse when our Cockney hero later takes aim at a sparrow and hits a passing old lady instead:
‘Help! Murder!’ she roar’d. ‘I’m as dead as a herring!’
Help, neighbours, I pray ye, give me Christian burying,
And let justice take place on the rogue that has shot me’.
‘Another day’s rare sport,’ cries Sam, ‘or else rot me!’
None of these outings ends well for the human beings. Plate 10 shows a would-be huntsman having his very smelly clothes being wrung out after landing in a stinking ditch (one of the attendants is holding his nose). The fallen hero is captioned as commenting ‘My dear fellows, I should be extremely sorry to speak of any country with disrespect, but I have an IDEA that the Water hereabouts is NOT exceedingly fragrant’.
Our last two plates show our sporting heroes being stretchered off the field bloodied and bruised after their days out. One is captioned ‘Returning Home in Triumph: He disdain’d a Slothful Easy Life, so took to Hunting…’. Nor is there any need to worry on behalf of our furry and feathered friends that are in theory being hunted: Alken’s plates are so full of human foible and mayhem that no huntsmen in these comic books ever gets near to their prey.
Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)
Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)
- 1 & 2: Henry Alken, 'Qualified Horses and Unqualified Riders' (1815)
- 3, from 'Some Will, & Some Will Not, or a Lesson on Hunting' (1821)
- 4, 5 & 6: 'Ideas Accidental and Incidental' (1826)
- 7 & 8: 'Hunting, or Six Hours’ Sport' (1823)
- 9: 'A Cockney’s Shooting Season in Suffolk' (1822)
- 10 & 11: 'Ideas Accidental and Incidental'
- 12: 'Qualified Horses'