The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Lawes CB

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Lawes, Charles Bennett[edit | edit source]

“Athlete and Sculptor” (Verheyden), May 12, 1883[edit | edit source]

The heir to a good old name, to an honourable new baronetcy, and to a very large fortune, Mr. Lawes was early moved by the ambition, not at all to enjoy the gifts of fortune, but to become and to deserve something in his own proper person. At Eton and at Cambridge he distinguished himself by winning, in athletic contests, every prize that could be won as an oarsman and as a pedestrian; but on leaving the University he became smitten with a love of art, and especially of the art of sculpture, to which he has since devoted himself with the thoroughness and tenacity which characterise all his undertakings. Looking neither to the right nor to the left, and foregoing not only all society, but all other things that might interfere with what he regards as his mission, he passes the whole of his days in his studio; and, if natural predilection and earnest application count for anything, should someday produce some fine work. That in sculpture as in athletics he will one day achieve fame he is persuaded; and meanwhile he holds the sculptor’s art to be one which none but those with a mission should essay, and which it is his privilege as well as his duty to protect against all assaults on the part of those who may not have such a mission.

Charles Bennett Lawes (1843-1911) did indeed collect pots for rowing and running, before taking a 3rd in the 1865 natural sciences tripos. At Eton he won the tub sculling (1858), school pulling (1859), sculling (1860), and rowed in the Eight three years (1860-62), each time beating Westminster, and on the track won the 100 yards, hurdles, quarter-mile, and mile, as well as the steeplechase. On leaving school, he gave a Challenge Cup for the mile race, stipulating that anyone who won it and the other four, as he had done, could keep it. When one E. Lee did so in 1891, Lawes donated a second cup under the same conditions, but added that the sculling, pulling, and tub sculling must also be won, as he had done, to retire the cup. No one has claimed it yet.[1]

For Third Trinity, Cambridge, Lawes won the Colquhoun Sculls in 1862 and went Head of the River in 1863 and 1865, and at Henley he rowed in the Grand, Ladies’, and Diamonds, winning the Diamonds in 1863 and the Ladies’ in 1865. In 1865 he won the Wingfield Sculls and stroked the losing Boat Race crew. He won the half-mile, the mile (1864), and the two miles (1865) at the university sports; the mile (1864 and 1865) at the inter-university athletics, and the one mile amateur championship at the Amateur Athletic Club in 1865. In 1898, at age fifty-five, he took up speed cycling and the next year gained the amateur record for twenty-five miles, covering it in 51:15.8.

After Cambridge, Lawes devoted himself to sculpting. He studied in London under J.H. Foley, R.A. and in 1869 under Professor Hagen in Berlin. From 1872 to 1908 he exhibited twelve works at the Royal Academy. “His figures and portraits showed real ability, though his success was not quite equal to his ambition.”[2] In 1900, Lawes succeeded to the baronetcy, came into the family fortune, and inherited the Rothamsted Experimental Station that his father, a famous horticulturist, had established. Lawes took the additional surname “Wittwronge” in 1902 after an eighteenth century kinsman from whom the family had derived the Rothamsted estate, and died in 1911 after an operation for appendicitis.

Belt v. Lawes[edit | edit source]

Why did Vanity Fair feature Lawes in 1883, an ex-athlete with modest artistic success? Because he had lost a major libel case, which had been brought based on statements made two years earlier in Vanity Fair concerning one Richard Claude Belt. Bowles himself laid the groundwork for Belt v. Lawes with the following carefully-hedged broadside August 20, 1881:

Statue of Lord Byron (1880), Hyde Park Corner, London

Mr. Belt is undoubtedly the fashionable sculptor of the day. Private busts, public monuments, and indeed all the pick of the work of sculpture, have lately been entrusted to him. He is in favour at Court, he is known in the gilded saloons -- in short, he is the sculptor of renown. And to judge of his talents by the works that bear his name, his reputation is well deserved. Those works have met in these columns the praise we hold to be their due. The bust of the late Mr. Eliot Yorke is admirably good, that of Lord Beaconsfield is excellent, so are the busts of Charles Kingsley and of Canon Conway, and though the Byron Statue is far from being equal to these, there can be no doubt of the general excellence of the work that bears Mr. Belt’s name, or of the claim of its author to a very considerable reputation.

But is Mr. Belt really the author of the works that bear his name?

Three weeks ago we drew attention to the fact that two of these works -- the busts, namely, of Baron Lionel de Rothschild and of the Prince Imperial -- claimed by Mr. Belt as his, and attributed to him in the catalogues of the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery, had been alleged in a paragraph in the Morning Post to be the work not of Mr. Belt, but of a Mr. Verhyden. Thereupon our contemporary Truth published a statement that in fact all the productions ascribed to Mr. Belt were in fact the work of a Mr. Vanhyden, and ought to be ascribed to him.

The matter is one of no small importance not merely for Mr. Belt, but also for the world at large. If Mr. Belt has really designed and executed the works that pass under his name, a cruel wrong has been done him. If, on the contrary, not he but some other person or persons did indeed design and execute them, then Mr. Belt is the wearer of borrowed plumes which he ought not to be allowed to retain.

Feeling that this was a matter of much public interest, we caused inquiries of an extensive and detailed character to be made in the quarters where information was most likely to be obtained; and we now lay the result of those inquiries before our readers.

Belt signature on the Byron statue

First, then, we find that among artists -- by which we mean especially but not exclusively sculptors -- there is an agreement of opinion, very openly and very plainly expressed, that Mr. Belt has not any claim to be considered as a sculptor, and that he is, in fact, only an ingenious and successful sculpture-broker, who presents to the public, as his own, work that has invariably been designed and executed by other hands than his. This opinion appeared to warrant further investigation which, being pursued resulted in the following being communicated to us as Mr. Belt’s history in the arts.

Mr. Belt, in 1870, when about the age of nineteen, obtained employment in the studio of Mr. Foley, the sculptor. Here he remained, as a monumental mason, for ten months, when Mr. Foley intimated to him that he had no further need of his services. Mr. Belt accordingly left Mr. Foley with whom this was his only connection.

In the spring of 1871 however he applied to Mr. Lawes (a former pupil of Mr. Foley’s) for a situation in his studio. This he obtained, and he remained with Mr. Lawes in the capacity of general attendant for four years. Mr. Lawes states that during that period Mr. Belt neither executed, nor was able to execute, any artistic work whatever.

After leaving Mr. Lawes’s studio in 1875, Mr. Belt began to do business on his own account. He published as his own work a statuette of Dean Stanley, of which a good deal has been lately heard. This statuette however was worked up for him by Mr. Brock, as Mr. Brock himself declares. In like manner, the memorial busts of Charles Kingsley and of Canon Conway which also pass as the work of Mr. Belt, were in fact invested by Mr. Brock -- as Mr. Brock himself declares -- with whatever artistic merit they possess. Mr. Brock, equally with Mr. Lawes, declared that Mr. Belt was himself incapable of doing anything in the shape of artistic work.

In 1876 Mr. Belt took into partnership Mr. Verhyden. Mr. Verhyden states that the drawings which procured for Mr. Belt the Conway monument (the bust of which was, as already stated, worked up by Mr. Brock) were his, and not Mr. Belt’s at all. Mr. Verhyden further declared that he (Mr. Verhyden) and not Mr. Belt entirely modelled the sketch which enabled Mr. Belt to gain the victory over all the artists of the day in the Byron competition; and that he (Mr. Verhyden) also entirely modelled the Byron statue itself.

In short, we are assured that all Mr. Belt’s works from the year 1876, when he began business on his own account, up to the year 1881, were executed by Mr. Brock and Mr. Verhyden.

Mr. Verhyden states, equally with Mr. Lawes and Mr. Brock, that Mr. Belt was quite incapable of doing any artistic work whatever.

The names we have cited are those of only some among a number of men of the highest position in the artistic world, among whom our inquiries have been made. And we feel bound to say that in the face of the detailed statements made to us, the bare outlines of which we have here set down, we find it difficult to believe that Mr. Belt has any good claim to the authorship of the works given to the public as his, or to any other title than that of a purveyor of other men’s work, an editor of other men’s designs, a broker of other men’s sculpture. If he declared himself to be this there would be no harm in it. But the point is that, if our information is correct, he has systematically and falsely claimed to be the author of the works for which he was only the broker, that he presents himself as a sculptor and an artist when in reality he is but a statue-jobber and a tradesman.

If, then, the statements made to us are true -- and we frankly avow that at present we fully believe them to be perfectly true -- Mr. Belt has been guilty of a very scandalous imposture, and those who have admired and patronised him as a heaven-born genius are the victims of a monstrous deception.

Why this deception -- if it be one -- should have been allowed so long to exist is a matter which does not concern us -- though we must say that it does very greatly concern those artists and others who were aware of it. But we, having got hint of it, and having upon this hint made very full investigation, should not be doing our duty were we to withhold from the public the result of that investigation. Accordingly, we have set down the information we have obtained, and with it the conviction which that information has produced upon us, that Mr. Belt is not the author of the works that have made him to be believed to be a sculptor of genius. Every paper in London announced on Thursday morning the fact that Mr. Belt had received from the Queen a commission to execute another statue of Lord Beaconsfield. We shall be glad to know that Her Majesty’s choice of an artist is really warranted.

Over the next month, these allegations in Vanity Fair of professional incompetence and palming-off spiralled, as Belt kept quiet. Lawes weighed in September 24:

Sir, -- I am sure that I am expressing the feeling of the whole profession of sculptors when I say that we are extremely obliged to you for finding out and publishing the true history of Mr. Belt’s career. We have always known him to be nothing but an “artistic” impostor, and, by giving us an opportunity of expressing ourselves publicly on the matter, we have been enabled, I think, to remove the imputation of “professional jealousy” upon which he so successfully traded.

There is one thing more that we should like to do, and that is to meet Mr. Belt and his “influential friends” in a court of justice, and satisfy the latter of the truth of the assertions we have lately made in your paper.

We are very sorry to see people in the highest social position pledged to a discreditable affair of this sort; but the reasons that have led them into their position are briefly these --

Firstly. That anybody can do a bad bust.

Secondly. That they have seen Mr. Belt at work.

Thirdly. That they have never been introduced to a “ghost” -- that is to say, a person employed by incompetent artists secretly to do up their work and make it artistic.

These “ghosts” are naturally rarely seen and difficult to catch, but, once in a court of law, it is wonderful what funny stories could be got out of them.

This is not the first attempt that has been made to bring Mr. Belt’s doings into the light of day; for at the time that he signed the drawings for the “Conway Monument,” and passed them off as his own, an attempt was made to do what we are doing now; but it was “bungled,” I believe; the “ghost” was scared and got away, and the affair had to be dropped.

In conclusion I must say that the way in which the work turned out by Belt, Verheyden, and Co. has been extolled in the newspaper is most ridiculous and contemptible, were it not injurious; and Mr. Verheyden himself would, I am sure, be the first to laugh at it; for he is, I believe, a genuine artist, though not a professed sculptor.

Now that the partnership is dissolved, there is, I hear, a great falling off in the quality of work (and it has been described to me as “wretched stuff” by people that understand it). Either Mr. Belt’s present “ghost” is a bad “ghost,” or -- who knows? -- he might be doing the work himself, for, as I said before, “anybody can do a bad bust,” as the quantities exhibited every year bear ample testimony. Finally, if the representatives of newspapers, instead of taking up and puffing the first artist they come across, were to make it their duty to visit the studios of the various sculptors, both high and humble, and make themselves acquainted with the position and workings of the profession, “Belts” would no longer be possible, and statues like the Byron would cease to be produced. --

Yours truly, CHARLES LAWES.

Three weeks later, Belt sued both Lawes and Vanity Fair, but proceeded only against Lawes due perhaps to his deeper pockets and more aggressive, less legally-artful accusations. The case went to trial in mid-June 1882 and immediately became a society and media event (although Vanity Fair remained understandably silent). For one, the judge and key lawyers all appeared in Vanity Fair either before or as a result of the case: Baron J.W. Huddleston (Feb. 28, 1874), the judge; Sir Hardinge Giffard (June 28, 1878) and Montagu Williams (Nov. 1, 1879) (both for Belt); and Charles Russell (May 5, 1883, Mar. 29, 1890, and Dec. 5, 1891) and Richard Webster (May 26, 1883, Nov. 25, 1897, and Jan. 15, 1913) (for Lawes). For another, Belt’s witnesses necessarily included an array of society figures who had sat for Belt or seen him working, while Lawes’ witnesses came largely from the sculptoral elite of the Royal Academy. Belt v. Lawes thus pit the art establishment against some of its society patrons. The trial ran forty-three sittings in the old Westminster law courts.

Just after Christmas 1882, the jury found for Belt and awarded him an unprecedented £5000. Bowles promptly spent a page and a half in Vanity Fair reprinting other papers’ criticisms of Baron Huddleston’s handling of the case. From the Spectator: “[The] charge can be compared only to another and much shorter one, which is said to have been delivered in these words, ‘Gentlemen of the jury, the prisoner at the bar stole the boots. You will find a verdict in accordance with your opinion of the evidence.’” To such remarks Bowles added his own voice, starting with the judge’s favoritism towards Belt’s society witnesses (Vanity Fair, January 6, 1883):

In the first place, he ordered a considerable number of witnesses for the Plaintiff to be examined -- not in the customary manner in the witness-box -- but from seats on the Bench beside himself; and, what was a still greater error, allowed many of these witnesses -- including Mr. Alex Yorke (the principal witness for the Plaintiff) and others of the Plaintiff’s warmest and most undisguised partisans -- to remain seated on the bench day after day subsequent to their having given their evidence, while his own wife, Lady Diana Huddleston, was seated by his and by their side, and engaged with them in conversation and in the exchange of papers. This was an error very apt to lead the jury to form an erroneous estimate of the value of their evidence of these witnesses as compared with those on the other side.

Five months later, in May 1883, Vanity Fair featured Lawes and his lawyers Russell and Webster, offering them praise and encouragement as they moved for a new trial and began to appeal. (Verheyden did all three portraits, the Napoleonic rendering of Lawes imbuing him with a calm but righteous firmness.) Eventually, under prodding from the appellate court that included two Cambridge Blues (Denman and Brett), Belt agreed to a reduction in damages to £500, but Lawes chose to go for broke. Unfortunately for him, that’s exactly what he was forced to do, for in March 1884 the court affirmed the original award (which had by then swelled to £10,000 in damages and costs) and to stave off the ignominy of having to pay Belt anything, Lawes promptly filed for bankruptcy. The fact that one of Belt's leading witnesses, a certain Mr. Schotz, came forward in January 1885 and confessed his testimony was perjured, did not alter the situation.[3] Lawes spent the next sixteen years poor, before inheriting from his father.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. ^ A. Littleton, A. Page, & E. Noel, eds., Fifty Years of Sport: Eton, Harrow and Winchester, p. 99.
  2. ^ Dictionary of National Biography.
  3. ^ New York Times, Jan. 16, 1885, p. 2.