Henry Gordon Alken

(1810 - 1892)

Born at Ipswich, Suffolk in 1810, Samuel Aiken was the son of Henry Thomas Aiken and his wife Maria or Marianée Gordon (1786-1841). He studied under his father and worked in Ipswich, but the family returned to London where he worked as an artist and specialized in painting animals; he executed many of the horses depicted in George Sala's 60 foot long panorama of the funeral procession of the Duke of Wellington in 1852. Samuel Henry Aiken was living in Shadwell in 1881; he died in the Poplar workhouse in 1894 (1892? differing dates by sources).

Claims mention for works which reflect little credit upon him as a man or an artist. He possessed a certain talent, but he employed it to execute pictures in imitation of his father's, and which were passed off as Henry Aiken's: these were often sufficiently well done to impose not only on private individuals and publishers but on art dealers.

His imitations were done in pencil, water-colour and oil, and were signed -- "Henry Aiken," and in some cases "H. A."

Henry Gordon Alken, so far as can be ascertained, made no attempt to establish a name for himself. Up to the last years of a long life, when his sight began to fail him and he worked with the aid of a magnifying glass, he continued painting pictures which were sold as his father's. Many of them are clever, but careful comparison with genuine works betrays their inferiority; they lace the delicacy of the father's touch, and fall short of Henry Alken's work from artistic point of view. That the son should thus have succeeded in trading upon the name for many years after Henry Alken's death is of itself a tribute to the popularity and industry of the father.

These reprehensible practices could not have been remunerative, for Henry Gordon Alken was in needy circumstances for many years before his death, being indebted to friends for support. He was in receipt of parochial relief when he died in London at the age of 82 in the year 1892.

Coming down to much more recent times, we are given very full accounts of the sporting artists whose pictures are known to us all for the most part, by the reproductions of their works to be seen in so many print-sellers' windows. Of these artists. Henry Alken -- the painter of the well-known "Night Riders of Nacton" -- is certainly the most familiar. Probably, however, few people know anything particular concerning his career or the history of his family, which is one not devoid of interest, for the best known of English sporting painters was in reality of Danish origin, the name of his ancestors having originally been Seffrien. The cause of the assumption of the name of Alken (a little village in North Jutland) was the participation of the family in some political disturbances during the reign of Christian VII. Emigrating to England about the year 1772, the Alkens at first settled in Suffolk, but afterwards betook themselves to the Metropolis, where they lived in Francis Street, Tottenham Court Road.

Sir Walter Gilbey gives an exhaustive account of the three Alkens. The chapter, indeed, which deals with the Alkens, is one of great and absorbing interest to all fond of sporting pictures, for undoubtedly, in painting hunting and racing scenes, Henry Alken has never been excelled, his work still commanding a popularity accorded to no other sporting artist. One of the best, if not the very best of his productions, is 'The Chase and the Road,' an excellent print of which adorns the pages of Animal Painters.

Animal Painters by Sir Walter Gilbey, Bart.; Reviewed by Ralph Nevill; The Connoisseur; An Illustrated Magazine for Collectors; Vol. XII - May - August 1905; div

Then there were family troubles, particularly with the eldest boy, Henry Gordon, born in 1810, who behaved very badly towards his father. There is a passage in the Dictionary of National Biography which has given rise, I fear, to much misunderstanding. It runs as follows: "The fertility of Alken's pencil was amazing; but the idea of it might be fictitiously enhanced if the fact were not borne in mind that he left two or three sons" one of whom was named "Henry", all artists, and all sporting artists, who have been incessantly painting, lithographing, aquatinting, and etching for the sporting publishers and for private patrons of the turf... Usually the differences between 'The Alken' and the other Alkens are easy to recognise; careful buyers rarely attribute any good part of his output to "them or of theirs to him." The uncle Samuel Alken {c. 1750-c. 1825), who probably gave lessons to his nephew, turned out a great many hunting pictures, but in a heavier style, and his work as an engraver in aquatint has merit. It includes topographical illustrations, and it interpreted the art of other men, as in the beautiful print after Francis Wheatley, R.A., "The Duke of Newcastle's Return from Shooting," where Sam Alken and Bartolozzi collaborate with very attractive results.

Recently Messrs. Vicars, in Bond Street, had a set of drawings signed by Sam Alken junior, based on Henry Alken's manner, but attaining no more than a sort of family likeness; and as for Henry Alken's boys, George, Seffrien, and Henry Gordon, only the last-named had talent enough to harm his father as a copyist. Seffrien died at the age of fifty-four, in 1873; and George, in 1862, his fiftieth year, was found in the Thames at Woolwich drowned. Henry Gordon not only painted in his father's manner; either he signed his father's name or he used the initials H. A.

The late Sir Walter Gilbey wrote frankly on this matter: "Henry Gordon Alken, so far as can be ascertained, made no attempt to establish a name for himself. Up to the last years of a long life, when his sight began to fail him and he worked with the aid of a magnifying glass, he continued painting pictures which he sold as his father's. Many of them are clever, but careful comparison with genuine works betrays their inferiority; they lack the delicacy. These remarks are taken by the Dictionary National Biography, from Notes and Queries, August 24th, 1867; Samuel Alken seems to have been a brother of Henry's father.

It is usually forgotten, when imitations and forgeries are poured into the picture markets, that the decisive test of authenticity is colour, as no two persons ever see the same colour, and as a consequence an artist's colour is really inimitable. If we study Henry Alken's colour we shall not be deceived by Henry Gordon's.

British Sporting Artists from Barlow to Herring; Baily's Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, 1898‎

View painter's art: Henry Gordon Alken, (1810-1892)

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