Sir Hubert von Herkomer

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Sir Hubert von Herkomer

German Social Realist painter, printmaker, engraver, etcher, playwright, enamellist, actor, composer and film director

Born 1849 - Died 1914

  • Artworks
  • Biography
  • Relationships
  • Letters
  • Images of the Artist


Hubert Herkomer was born in Bavaria. His father, a wood-carver emigrated to Southampton when Hubert was a child. He attended the South Kensington Schools from 1866, and studied under Luke Fildes [1843-1927]. Herkomer produced engravings for the Graphic magazine, early in his career. He worked in a variety of areas, particularly social realism, including the famous paintings On Strike [1891], and Hard Times [1885], illustrating the inhumanity shown towards employees by both farmers and industrial employers at that time.

Herkomer was a very successful, and versatile individual. He produced many portraits, some of them of male sitters being a little short of inspiration and flair. In truth this was less his fault than the requirements of the sitters to look sombre, serious, and dignified. He became ARA in 1879, and a full Academician in 1890. In 1899 Herkomer was en-nobled by Kaiser Wilhelm 11 (1859-1941), becoming a ‘von,’ which he always added to his name thereafter. He was knighted in 1908. He built a grandiose Victorian house in Bushey, Hertfordshire, named ‘Lululand,’ after his second wife who was killed rescuing a child from a road accident. At Lululand, Herkomer had his own theatre, where he produced plays, and his own operas.

He founded an art school, where his most famous pupil was Lucy Kemp-Welsh [1869-1958]. She has left behind a vivid record of his sarcasm, and severity, but also his unstinting praise of what he saw to be good work.

Herkomer died in 1914. I have not been able to establish if this was connected with the outbreak of the First World War, which must have been a total disaster for the Anglo-German artist. Herkomer’s social realism paintings still have the capacity to generate anger from viewers at the exploitation found acceptable in late 19th century England.

A great life from humble beginnings.

Obituary of Hubert von Herkomer, The Times, Wednesday 1st April 1914.

Versatility in Art
Hubert von Herkomer, whose death is announced on another page, was one of four Royal Academicians of foreign birth who made a considerable name for themselves as painters during the later years of Queen Victoria's reign, the others being Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema [1836-1912], Mr Sargent [1856-1925] and the late Mr Abbey [1852-1911]. A fifth was the sculptor, Sir Edgar Boehm [1834-1890], who belonged to a somewhat older generation; and there is a sixth, Mr J.J. Shannon [1862-1923] of more recent election. The six offer a remarkable proof of the way in which we alone among the nations of the world offer our highest positions in art to men not born or bred among us.

Early Vicissitudes
Herkomer was born in 1849 at Waal, near Langdebourg am Lech, in Bavaria, and was the son of Lorens Herkomer, master-joiner, and his wife born Josephine Niggi. The mother had a marked gift for music, which was inherited by her painter-son and more than shared by her nieces, the well-known Marie and Mathilde Wurm: and when it came to a question of career for him the mother's wish was for music, though the father decided that he should be a 'free painter.' When the boy was two years old his parents, feeling the hard times which followed the troubles of '48 emigrated to America: but the move there was not successful, and after six years they returned, not to Germany, but Southampton. Here the father worked at his trade, suffering many privations, but occasionally receiving a good commission; and at 15 or 16 we find the boy settled in lodgings in the Wandsworth-road, attending the South Kensington classes with much older fellow students as Luke Fildes and Henry Woods [1846-1921], who were one day to be his colleagues in the Academy. Of ordinary education he had received little, but his great natural cleverness made up for all deficiencies. About 1867 he came under the influence of Fredrick Walker [1840-1875]; and although it was no case of definite teaching, Walker's style and method had for many years the strongest effect on Herkomer's art. At 19 he was earning a bare living by his drawings for the illustrated papers and by stencilling work at South Kensington. A few years later he made a mark by a drawing at the Dudley Gallery, the first study which afterwards developed into the 'Chelsea Pensioners'; and this was bought for £40 by Mr Strahan, the publisher. Soon the young man was able to visit the Bavarian Highlands, taking his parents with him; and henceforth Bavarian landscapes and scenes of peasant life were among his most frequent subjects. His first Royal Academy picture was called After the Toil of the Day, was hung on the line in 1873. It had much success; Mr Mansell Lewis bought it for £500; and the young artist was henceforth regarded as a made man. Working with great rapidity, he was able the very next year to exhibit his great picture of The Last Muster: Chelsea Pensioners in Church - the picture which we saw sold in 1909 for over £3000 in the Quilter sale. Herkomer himself has said that he was disappointed with the picture and its composition, but the Academicians and the public were enthusiastic, and when The Last Muster went in 1878 to the Paris Exhibition the painter received, with Millais [1829-1896] alone of English painters the coveted Medaille d'Honneur. He was under 30 years of age; but he had reached the height of his achievement and of his celebrity.

Portraits and Landscapes.
From this time forward Herkomer's career was one of uniform success. He turned to portrait painting; in watercolour he produced the life-size half-lengths of Wagner [1813-1883], Tennyson [1809-1892], and Ruskin [1819-1900], and in oils that of Archibald Forbes [1838-1900] and the celebrated White Lady (Miss Grant) and its pendant The Black Lady, engraved under the title Entranced. These were the most famous among a list which must have exceeded a hundred, many of them pictures of very eminent men and women, at first in England and afterwards in Germany and America. This brought wealth, so that Herkomer was able to amuse himself by painting landscapes and subjects for his own pleasure, to build at Bushey the elaborate quasi-medieval castle called Lululaund, and to fill it with art work done by his own hand or those of his pupils, and to give a happy old age to the parents to whom he was so devoted. When his mother died he built a tower in her memory at the old Bavarian home. He also painted and showed at the Royal Academy a vast picture of the town council of Landaberg, following this up a few years later with the well-remembered Council of the Royal Academy. Faulty these may have been, but life-size groups as animated and full of character and movement have scarcely been produced since the time of Frans Hals [1580-1666]. Herkomer's versatility was remarkable. He could paint, etch, engrave, work in metal, enamel (this he particularly enjoyed), play the zither and the piano, compose music, write plays and act them. He founded, as everybody knows, a school of art in Bushey, which flourished for many years; many of his pupils have become known, especially as engravers. At Bushey, too, he had lately devoted himself to bringing a new art or rather a new invention - the cinematograph - under the jurisdiction of the highest taste. He lent his gardens for the production of a number of 'scenarios' on the film, and not a few excellent stories were adapted, dramatized, and photographed under his supervision: and one or two of these he supplied with accompanying music of his own composition. It was an elaborate experiment, to which on artistic and public grounds, he attached much importance. A few years ago he wrote a book, entitled My school and my Gospel, containing a full account of the Bushey experiment. He talked well on many subjects. He was for many years Slade Professor at Oxford; and some of the pictures which will best preserve his fame are the rapid and vigorous portraits of leading Oxford men. Such as Dean Liddell, which he painted in an hour in the presence of his class. He wrote too, with ease; and, slight as had been his literary education, his two or three volumes have had considerable success. He was elected ARA in 1879 and RA in 1890. He was knighted in 1907; and some time earlier the German Emperor authorized him to use the prefix von. He was three times married. Lady Herkomer survives him, and he leaves a family.

  • Victorian Art in Britain.
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    • Royal Academy of Art from 1879

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    • Royal Academy of Art from 1890

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    Image courtesy of Don Kurtz

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    August 19, 1898

    My dear Sir & friend,
    I feel it almost a shame that I trouble you with details that the smallest study would avoid, but your reasons are so clear to me. And I have felt them myself - but could not rectify. I quite feel what you say is right & I will fear no trtouble to get the details right under your direction, as you say there is music & poetry in them. Certainly without that all the deailts the world would not make them good.

    That is ever so much better I felt someting was wrong in the time, as it seems to alter at the part: (........) but to the 3/4 time it all seems to work in.
    I fear I cannot copy it unless your return the song as I have only the ones you have of both.
    The English translation will be quite free & must suit the music - so please think only of the German words.
    I found it difficult to keep the exact accent of the words - for Rickert himself so frequently alters the rhythms in his poems.
    I am quite prepared to give them all care & not hurry the publication,. I am truly grateful to you for your help. I feel decidely flattered with your good opinion of them. I have written an English one & nearly finished another of Rickert's. With these I will trouble you later on if you will allow me. I shall get the music engraved on the copperplate before the etchings of mine are attempted on the same plates. I do this for safety's sake as the musical engraver may spoil my work. It gives me so much pleasure & relief to work at music this way, but you will think it lazy of me when I confess I haven't patience to learn the fundamental principles - I work entirely from instinct, pure instinct. I think if I had you to teach me, I should gladly take the pains for I see how clearly you can explain matters - what few other can do.
    On the other page I enclose exact cooy of German words.

    regards sincerely yours

    Hubert Herkomer

    Image courtesy of Don Kurtz