Leander Club has had three locations since its foundation, the first at Lambeth before moving in 1860 to Putney and finally to its current location at Henley. As noted by Richard Burnell and Harold Rickett in A Short History of Leander Club it is difficult to be precise on the date of the foundation of Leander and “in all probability there never was a conscious inaugural act”. However, it has generally been agreed that the club had its beginnings in 1818. At that time it was usual for a number of gentleman amateurs to engage professional watermen to supply them with boats and instruction in rowing and sculling. These groups of gentlemen would typically come to be known by the name of the boat which they used, such as “the gentlemen of the Shark or Pearl cutter”. Boat building had taken place at Lambeth since the reign of Charles II and Searle & Sons was one of the most prestigious firms and had been appointed “Boat Builders to Her Majesty”. It was at Searle and other boat yards where ‘clubs’ such as The Arrow, The Star and The Funny were based - (“Funny” was then the name of a light sculling boat). Contemporary accounts report of a “six-oar cutter” with the name Leander which was kept at Searle’s Boat House. An 1831 print (a copy of which is on display in the Leander clubhouse) shows the Subscription Room on the balcony where Leander’s Clubroom was based. In 1878 the publication Old and New London described Searle’s boathouse as a place as “familiar to the boating men of Oxford in the last generation as The Ship at Mortlake or The Star and Garter at Putney are now”. Searle’s boat-yard was originally just upstream of Westminster Bridge and then moved to a site higher up the river close to Lambeth Bridge.
Leander Club’s coat of arms includes ‘a star’ and ‘an arrow’ and it is suggested by Neil Wigglesworth in his 1992 book The Social History of English Rowing that some of the members of the Star and Arrow clubs rowed in the boat called Leander and “over time gradually coalesced into a club of that name”. The name Leander probably comes from the song “Hero and Leander” from the 1774 opera The Watermen and which was popular with and sung by the river boatmen at that time. In 1860 Leander moved to Putney and at first erected a tent for housing their boats and in 1866 built a more formal boathouse. In 1897 Leander bought the land at Henley and started work on building the clubhouse that exists today.
Leander soon became renowned for its rowing prowess and in 1837 Lord Esher – the Master of the Rolls – described Leander in an after dinner speech as “a London club, consisting of men who had never been at the university, were recognised in England, and perhaps everywhere in the world, as the finest rowers who had up to that time been seen.”
The painting by Richard Pembery is one of five known examples by the artist of Searle’s Boathouse at Lambeth, all are very similar there being some minor detail differences in the boats on the river.
Leander Club owns an oil on canvas (30 x 57 cm) version of the picture which was painted in 1851 and purchased by Leander in 1997 from Sir Norman Rowse - a President of The Royal College of Surgeons and Professor of Surgery at St Thomas’s Hospital. The painting hangs in the first floor Members Room in the Henley clubhouse. A note on the reverse describes the painting as being of Searle’s Stangate Ferry Boathouse. It states that this is the lower of the two boathouses at Lambeth at which boats were built and stored and at which a number of the Livery Companies’ Barges, including the Lord Mayor’s State Barge were moored or stored. The note continues “we believe that the Leander boat or boats were kept here and ferried to the upper boathouse, with its subscription room, from which the Members would embark”.
Another similar unsigned picture titled Searle’s Boathouse, Lambeth painted in 1851, oil on board (51.5 x 26 cm) was sold at auction at Bonham’s in Oxford in 2007. The auction catalogue states that it “bears an extremely strong resemblance to another signed by R Pembery, which is on display at Leander”.
Lambeth Archives has an oil on canvas (30 x 57 cm) painted in 1853, which is described as “a view east showing the boat builders’ yards and barges lining the Thames foreshore near Stangate, Lambeth. Searle’s boatyard on the left was probably the most notable in Lambeth at the time”. The background is the same as the other Pembery pictures, but in this one there is only a single sculler out on the river. The painting was acquired by Lambeth Archives in 1963 from P Sabin (possibly a kinsman of the well-regarded London art gallery dealers - Frank T Sabin).
The painting illustrated is an oil on canvas (61 x 106 cm) and was recently purchased by the author of this article. A plate on the frame states that the picture was: painted by R Pembery in 1885 from an original sketch taken by him near Westminster Bridge, Lambeth in 1851 now St Thomas’s Hospital.
The Museum of London has an oil on canvas (61 x 106 cm) painted in 1890 and is described as Searle’s Boat Building Yard, Lambeth, from the river. Inscribed in ink on the back of the canvas: this sketch was taken in 1851 by R Pembery /and painted by R Pembery in 1890 /now St Thomas’s Hospital. The painting was lent to the London Museum (the predecessor of the Museum of London) in 1917 by Theodore Lumley, and afterwards purchased by the Museum from his executors in 1923. Searle’s Yard is shown in the middle distance centre, with two ceremonial barges in dock; other wharves are shown on the right; Westminster Bridge, with the clock tower (colloquially known as ‘Big Ben’), and St Paul’s Cathedral beyond appears on the left; and two barges, one of them bearing the City arms, and several other craft, are seen on the river. In the foreground centre right there is an amusing detail – the artist is seen sketching the scene in a small rowing boat with R. Pembery painted on a name board on the boat’s transom.
Richard John Pembery was born in Westminster in 1820 and his father was an ornamental painter at Searle’s boat yard. A Pembery family tree describes Richard as a “painter, sign writer, gilder and heraldic painter”. Paintings by Pembery are held in collections around the world including in Australia, Germany, Italy and the USA and are of marine, sporting, landscape and topographical subjects.
Leander is able to claim unequivocally that it is the world’s premier rowing club and Pembery’s paintings of the Searle’s Boat House illustrate where the club originally came into being. During the period 1818 to 1860 when Leander was based at Lambeth, the club was described as the undisputed “cock of the London water”, “The Brilliants” and referred to as “the invincible Leander”.
Nigel à Brassard rowed for Cheltenham College and King’s College London. He is an Investment Banker who worked for Samuel Montagu and Kleinwort Benson in London, Sydney and New York. He has written and contributed to many books and articles on a variety of subjects including polo, cricket, rugby, real tennis and stické tennis. He now spends much time on the riverbank watching his sons row for their school.