I was recently asked to do a painting of a small section of the river Cam in the University City of Cambridge. I have painted the town a few times before so I was looking forward to painting the river too.

The focus of the painting was to be rowing

Cambridge and Oxford are famous for their yearly boat race on the River Thames in London. The first inter university race was in 1829, though of course, the sport of rowing on this site would probably go back way before then. Well, this is one of the sites where Cambridge University draws their team from and where they get a bit of practice in before double maths.

My rowing experience

I have to say I know nothing what so ever about rowing. My experience goes as far as squeaky pedalos on a fetid lake when I was a child, and a farcical raft race on Southsea beach as an art student at about aged 20. I recall we made the raft so poorly that it fell apart after just a few meters of modest Solent swell. So I had much to learn. Thankfully, this job kept me firmly on land and all the better for it.

The first thing I learnt from my ever patient client was that there are a baffling number of different types of boats, and I am sure some boats are not even called ‘boats’ and I know for certain that some oars are not called ‘oars’ even though they still do the same job and, to me at least, look the same as each other.

The boat houses

The backdrop for the painting was to be the boat houses. These are owned set out in accordance of each of the Universities’ colleges. And I have to say, that if they are as competitive in their rowing as they are in the construction of their boathouses, then Cambridge should beat Oxford every time.

Each architect appears to have been given the same brief for each build.

‘OK, make it look totally different from next door… And bigger, and better, and it needs to stand out more.. Oh yes I almost forgot. We need to put some boats in it.’

The resources for rowing alone must be vast, and many of these structures are listed so they require regular maintenance, and more importantly, you don’t want to let the side down in front of the neighbours.


A drawing of the Cambridge boat houses

‘Town and Gown’ – A notable exception

There is however an exception to this aquatic opulence. Over on the far left there is a diminutive and rather squat boat house. A blue one with peeling paint, the only real gaiety picked out by the positioning of a fuchsia coloured Biffa Bin. Not so much a boat house, more akin to the flat roofed working men’s clubs I recall from the estates where I grew up.

This boat house is not a university one though, it belongs to The City of Cambridge. ‘You can see where the money is’ I mused to my client.

Of course looks are not everything, and I was pleased to learn that the City team are a serious team to take on, and often run away with cabinets full of trophies. I dug deeper into its history when I got home and also learned that it is the oldest town rowing club on the Cam and even more pleased to learn that it actually does spring from a working men’s club that used to be located on Market Hill. So its construction is still reflective of its proud past. It had to go into the final painting.

My client also informed me that on big race days it was the City club everyone went to for the best parties. Wonderful. I drew it into my composition.

Boats without ores/sculls etc

On the bank nearest to me, are canal boats strung out end to end stretching as far left and as far right as I could see. These owners too appear to make great efforts to differentiate from each other. No two are the same in either style, colour scheme or indeed what they choose to store on the roof.

As I began drawing, I got a feeling of comradery and community between them and there appears to be shared separateness, passers-by including me are not quite visible. They may describe themselves as ‘living on the Cam’ rather than ‘living in Cambridge’. This they have in common with boat people the world over.

The rowing

The client asked me to paint his partner and her four team mates making their way up the river. Here I had to be extra careful in getting the boat shape and the colours correct. Including the stripes on the oars or blades or whatever. These things are very important to those in the know. I have the same detail fetishism about war films.
Once we were both clear, I could draw and paint them in with reasonable confidence and thankfully all was approved.

Mr ASBO (anti-Social behaviour order)
Mr Asbo the swan

The swan here is the infamous Mr ASBO. He was a male swan that decided that all boats were his mortal enemy so would attack them on site. Not ideal in Cambridge as you might expect. His attacks became so bad he had to be evicted to a spot a good few miles upriver beyond boat traffic.
The latest on this is that he may have left a few eggs behind him with an old girlfriend as another young male swan has took up his dad’s old habits and is attacking rowers. He’s called ‘ASBOY’.

And finally

The finished and framed painting to the client’s workplace as it was a present for his partner. I was most happy to hear that we did a fine job between us and she was delighted with it.
I still know very little about rowing though I did appreciate the crash course in it and really enjoyed my day out in Cambridge.


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