From Bushey to Budleigh: The life and death of painter and illustrator Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914)

I wrote the following piece in 2014, and it first appeared at, hence my thoughts about the German-born Herkomer, split between love of his native Bavaria and his adopted country of England. 

Sir Hubert von Herkomer as caricatured by FG (Franz Goedecker) in Vanity Fair, Jan. 26, 1884. He died on 31 March 1914 while staying in Budleigh.

I’ve never been to Bushey, in Hertfordshire. Unlike the peaceful coastal town of Budleigh Salterton it seems to be very much a domitory place for commuters to London, with a population some five times bigger than ours.

But in the late 19th century it was “a sleepy, picturesque place” as one of its most famous former residents recalled. “It had no water laid on, and there was no sanitation except of the most primitive kind. The drinking-water was brought to the houses in buckets, for which the old people, who carried it round, charged a halfpenny a bucket. The one and only well from which they could obtain this drinking-water was situated quite near the churchyard, a rather doubtful proximity, according to our modern ideas. There was of course the usual well attached to each house for collecting rain-water, which I remember was considerably stocked with live matter.”

Sir Hubert von Herkomer: a self-portrait from around 1880

The famous former resident was the Victorian painter Sir Hubert von Herkomer, who chose to move to Bushey with his family in 1873. The only connection between him and Budleigh Salterton is that he died here in our town, 100 years ago today. Like another famous Victorian, the author Sir Henry Rider Haggard, he came to Budleigh for its peaceful atmosphere and healthy climate. Too late. His relatively short life came to an end when he was only 65.

But what a full life!  Not just a painter but a pioneering film-maker, composer, author and enthusiast for modern technology. He sponsored an automobile race in Bavaria, the Herkmerkonkurrenz from 1905 to 1907, and experimented with new forms of stage lighting.  A prominent member of the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers, he was admired by Vincent Van Gogh, ranked with artists like Sir John  Millais and  was a friend of the art critic John Ruskin.

It was Ruskin who recommended him as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University, a post that he held from 1885 to 1894. The Herkomer Art School, which he founded in Bushey in 1883 taught students from countries as far flung as Sweden, South Africa, America, and Australia. He was honoured by King Ludwig of Bavaria and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and knighted by King Edward VII in 1907.

I enjoyed discovering the two volumes of his highly readable memoirs: you can find them online at

Portrait of Lord Tennyson. Chalk drawing 1879

In these volumes you can see portraits by Herkomer of famous people of the time such as the poet Lord Tennyson.  These commissions brought him considerable wealth.

A Spinning Party in the Bavarian Alps
Drawn facsimile on the block for the Illustrated London News 1878

You’ll also find examples of his sympathetic depiction of the sufferings of the poor,  inspired by the harsh conditions that he experienced during his own childhood.

"There stood her mother, amid the group of children, hanging over the washing tub," by Hubert von Herkomer, RA. This plate, the first in the illustrated serialisation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the Durbervilles, appeared in the 4 July 1891 issue of the London Graphic. Scanned image and text by  Philip V. Allingham. 

His illustrations of the impoverished workers of the countryside were used in the Wessex novels of Thomas Hardy, as seen above.

Herkomer reveals in his memoirs a deep affection for Britain and its artists, although he notes with disapproval “how deep-seated are the puritanical tendencies of the English race.” However his passionate love of the countryside is unequivocal. Here, for example he goes into rhapsodies about the time that he spent in Somerset.                

“What a country for the artist!” he exclaims. “If ever decay and neglect enhanced nature for the  painter's art, there it is in all its artistry. The rich red soil, the undulating country, the apple-trees tumbling about in their eccentric untouched shapes (untouched by man, except to gather the fruit for cider   making), the dilapidated farmsteads; all a treasure ground for painter and   poet. In spring, the first budding of leafage, like jewels set in the deep purple  tonality given by the massing of tree branches not yet in leaf; the offset of the strong green masses of ivy growths that have taken overwhelming  possession of the stems to which they are attached, give a witchery to this corner of England unsurpassed, I should say, in any part of the world.”

 Maybe he should have settled in East Devon.

He would have made a valuable Patron of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, detesting as he did the rash of new buildings spreading across the countryside.  This is what he wrote about them: 

“The myriads of small dwellings that are springing up on every available bit of land throughout this country, built by small and large builders, by retired tradesmen, even by frugal workmen (they do exist) who have saved a little money, poison this fair England of ours like a black plague. The origin of this satanic scourge was made clear to me when a builder showed a friend of mine a new street that he had perpetrated, and exclaimed: ‘There! that is what I call a beautiful sight, all the houses alike, and all let!’”

Equal in the intensity of Herkomer’s love of the English countryside was his attachment to Bavaria, where he was born. Later in life he discovered the beauty of his native landscape, which became a source of inspiration for much of his work. His parents had emigrated to the USA in 1851 when Hubert was only three years old, settling briefly in Cleveland, Ohio, before moving to Southampton, in England.  Art studies in London followed and in 1869 he exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy.

His 1875 oil painting, ‘The Last Muster’  established his position as an artist of high distinction at the Academy.  It was painted after Herkomer had attended a service at the chapel of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, the home for veteran soldiers known as the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’.  

“The idea was to make every man tell some different story, to be told by his face, or by the selection of attitude,” Herkomer wrote. "The central figure has slumped forward, his stick slipping from his grasp. The old soldier beside him reaches for his pulse to discover that his neighbour has indeed answered the call for ‘the last muster.’"

Part of the front elevation of Lululaund, Bushey, Hertfordshire

Herkomer’s love of Bavarian art and craft was demonstrated in Lululaund, the substantial house built between 1886 and1894 in the centre of Bushey and named after his second wife who had died shortly after their marriage.  Herkomer engaged the eminent American architect H. H. Richardson for the project, and the house, described as ‘an Arts and Crafts fairlytale home’, may be considered his only European work.

The drawing-room at Lululaund 

Much of the construction of Lululaund and the detailed design, was the work of Herkomer himself. The stone was finished in his workshops, and the interiors fitted out with materials worked by his family.

For Herkomer, the question of his rights as a British subject or as a German citizen was of less relevance than his life as an artist. “What mattered to me these technicalities of nationality?” he wrote in 1910. “I am”, he explained, “a British subject wherever the British flag flies, and a German subject wherever the German colours are hoisted. My case is curious, but by no means without precedent”

But xenophobia was on the rise in the 19th century. Herkomer’s father had evidently experienced it after settling in England, where he found that there was “but little less prejudice against foreigners than in America.”

Hubert himself suffered from it during his time in Southampton. “Even I, as a boy, was under this bane of prejudice,” he recalled in his memoirs. “I well remember a horse-dealer and jobmaster - whose stables were at the end of the street - who never failed when he met me to call me such names as ‘Dutchman’, ‘Foreigner’, ‘Roman Catholic’, ‘Brigand’, ‘Vagabond’, ‘Half-caste,’ etc.”

The early 20th century saw a worsening of such prejudices.  Ironically, in view of the success of Herkomer’s ‘Last Muster’ as a work appealing to the public taste for patriotic sentiment, his star declined because of this. It’s been said that despite being a prominent member of London art societies, as well as being on familiar terms with the royal family, he was never totally accepted by the British establishment, and was ultimately a victim of the deteriorating relationship between Great Britain and Germany.

Many blame the deterioration on the influence of the press. One journalist in particular led the way in portraying Germany as a threat to Britain. As early as 1894 Alfred Harmsworth, proprietor of the Daily Mail, had commissioned author William Le Queux to write The Great War in England, which featured Germany, France and Russia combining forces to crush Britain.   "This is the book that frightened the life out of many British people, proclaiming a German threat a decade ahead of the First World War," writes historian Max Hastings.

Twelve years later, with Harmsworth’s support,  the exercise was repeated,  resulting in the publication of the best selling 'The Invasion of 1910'. The book originally appeared in serial form in the Daily Mail in 1906. Well before its appearance in the newspaper the public had been fed a diet of thrillers in the same vein.

Some, like George Tomkyns Chesney’s 'The Battle of Dorking' (1871) or H.G. Wells’ 'The War in the Air' (1907) depicted a country invaded by a well organised enemy; others, like Erskine Childers’ 'The Riddle of the Sands' (1903) portrayed evil German spies involved in sinister plans to destroy Britain.

“Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war,” wrote A.G. Gardiner, editor of The Star newspaper.

By contrast, there were many like Herkomer, who loved Britain and Germany with an equal passion or had Anglo-German families.

I can’t help thinking that their anguish, as they saw the two countries drifting towards the 1914-18 world conflict, must have almost matched that of those whose loved ones died in it.

The creator of ‘The Last Muster’ seems in any case to have had had an almost prophetic view of how the appalling Great War would develop, judging by the description in his memoirs of the Crimean campaign: “a bitter and almost useless struggle, in a climate that vied with shot and shell to decimate the ‘imperfectly organized and badly equipped’ allied armies at Alma, Inkerman, and Balaklava.”

All that remains of Lululaund    Photo credit: Bazj (2009)

Perhaps it was better that this fine artist, of whom I knew nothing before writing this piece, did not live to witness the outbreak of hostilities. Had he in fact lived until the Second World War he would have been heartbroken to see what happened to his dream house of Lululaund.  

The house, which stood on Bushey's Melbourne Road, fell into disrepair in the 1920s, was transferred to the ownership of Bushey Urban District Council and finally was demolished in 1939. It’s widely reported that anti-German feeling may have played a part in an ignorant Council’s action.  

All that survives is the Grade II* listed base of the entrance porch and a section of flanking wall, part of the entrance to the former British Legion Hall in Bushey. The Hall is being redeveloped as housing. There’s a certain irony there, I feel.

However I’m pleased to see that Bushey has been twinned with the German town of Landsberg am Lech in Bavaria, where there is a Herkomer Museum.  The Hertfordshire town now has a Herkomer Road, and Bushey Museum itself has a Herkomer Room.  It’s a volunteer-run museum, and admission is in general free. Just like Fairlynch.

A talk about Herkomer was given by Museum volunteer Hugh Lewis on 18 March 2014, serving as a prelude to a series of exhibitions during 2014-15.

About 15 years ago, the Museum acquired a 1902 photograph album belonging to Herkomer. Because of its size and condition it has not until now been put on display. As part of the Museum's commemoration of Herkomer's centenary, the album, together with enlargements of the photos, is on display in the Jubilee Room.

The album records a visit by Herkomer, his wife Margaret and their son Lawrence to Waal in Bavaria where the artist was born. The occasion was the erection of a memorial to the fallen in the 1870/71 Franco-Prussian war, which he had designed. Herkomer was welcomed as a civic celebrity, with town band, speeches, songs and bouquets. The family then went on to nearby Landsberg, where, in honour of his mother, Herkomer had built a tower which they used as a summer home. He included some watercolours of the town in his album.

The Herkomer 1902 Photo Album Exhibition ran until 29 June 2014. Then from April 26 to September 7, an exhibition in the Art Gallery was of drawings by Herkomer and students of the Herkomer Art School.  This was followed, in the Council Chamber from June 29 to January 11, 2015, by the Museum’s main Herkomer Centenary Exhibition, consisting of Herkomer paintings, memorabilia and so on.  Finally, from September 13 to January 11, 2015, the Art Gallery and the Herkomer Room together displayed items from Lululaund.

For more information about Bushey Museum click on


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