Oil on thick mahogany panel, with old handwritten labels on the reverse: Henry Alken (1785-1851), “Billy the celebrated rat-killing dog, performing his wonderful feat of killing 100 rats in 5½ minutes, April 13th. 1823”
Signed lower left H Alken, in the darkest area of the pit on the panelling.
A large and wonderful evocation of the Westminster Pit in the early 19th century. A good draftsman, the painter captures brilliantly the animated atmosphere of the pit, the cross section of society from which the ‘punters’ were drawn and the panic of the rats!
Thinly painted in the main, the dark ground shines through in places, catching the candle light from above. Was this the painting from which the engravings we see were taken?
Period gilt frame, minor losses with historic repairs.
Sight: 16" x 21"" (40cm x 53cm)
Frame: 26” x 31 " ( 66cm x 79cm)
This painting is thought to be a copy of the famous print by
Henry Thomas Alken (12 October 1785 – 7 April 1851), who was an English painter and engraver chiefly known as a caricaturist and illustrator of sporting subjects and coaching scenes.
His most prolific period of painting and drawing occurred between 1816 and 1831. He was also a member of an acclaimed family of seven sporting artists, all of whom have similar Christian names – very confusing!
It is believed that their name was formerly Seffrien, and that their ancestors were attached in some way to the Court at Copenhagen; but that having become involved in the political disturbances during Christian VII's reign, they were forced, in or about the year 1772, to leave the country. They changed their name to "Alken," and arrived in England.
Henry Thomas Alken was an avid sportsman and is best remembered for his hunting prints, many of which he engraved himself until the late 1830s. He created prints for the leading sporting print sellers such as S. and J. Fuller, Thomas McLean, and Rudolph Ackermann, and often collaborated with his friend the sporting journalist Charles James Apperley (1779–1843), also known as Nimrod. Nimrod's Life of a Sportsman, with 32 etchings by Alken, was published by Ackermann in 1842.
In many of his etchings, Alken explored the comic side of riding and satirized the foibles of aristocrats, much in the tradition of other early 19th century caricaturists such as Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray.
He is also known to have created engravings of bull baiting, prize fighters and other, what we would now consider dubious – at the very least, sporting pursuits.
Images very similar in detail to this painting can be found easily on the internet, and prints/engravings of this subject continue to sell for good sums.