Henry Thomas Alken

(12 October 1785 - 7 April 1851)

divThe family to which one of our best known as sporting artists belonged was of Danish origin. Its living representatives believe that their name was formerly Seffrien, and that their ancestors were attached in some capacity to the Court at Copenhagen; but that having become involved in the political disturbances during Christian VII.'s reign, they were compelled, in or about the year 1772, to fly the country, changing their name to that of "Alken," which is the name of a little village consisting of a few farmhouses about fifteen English miles south-west of Aarhus in North Jutland.

The refugees on their arrival in England settled in Suffolk, and at a later date the family moved to London, taking a house in Francis Street, Tottenham Court Road.

The elder Alken painted in water colours, but does not appear to have done anything that brings him within our purview; his artistic gifts were inherited by three of his four sons: -- (1) George, who was an artist of considerable ability, and (2) John Seffrien, who possessed moderate talent; these two shared a studio at 15, Southampton Row, Holborn, John Seffrien living for many years in New Road, Edware Road, and for a few years at Great Marlow. Henry (3), upon whom our chief interest centres, worked occasionally at his brothers' studio in Southampton Row. The fourth son, Martin, emigrated to America and engaged in business, ultimately becoming a mill owner in one of the Eastern States. The elder Alken, beside his four sons, had one daughter, Lydia, who was blind. She lived for many years at Childrey, near Wantage, and died in 1880 at the age of eighty-seven. Samuel Alken, who achieved considerable success as an animal painter, and whose works will hereafter receive notice, is stated to have been a brother of the immigrant Alken and to have accompanied him to England in 1772. Samuel Alken would then have been about 22 years of age.

Some confusion exists concerning the works attributable to each member of the family; seldom as between the paintings of Samuel Alken Henry, for each usually affixed his signature to his work; in Henry's case, for a time, the nom de plume "Ben Tally O" was equally distinctive. The confusion arises between the original works of Henry and the pictures turned out by his son, Henry Gordon Alken. Many errors of long standing are accepted as truth owing largely to the impositions practised by Henry Gordon Alken.


The son and pupil of Samuel Alken Sr. and became a prolific painter of sporting works, including hunting, coaching, racing and steeplechasing scenes.

He is best known today for perhaps one of the most collected series of sporting prints of all time, The Midnight Steeplechase or The First Steeplechase On Record, which was published by Ackermann.

Henry Alken worked in both oil and watercolour, and also made a living as an etcher. He wrote the book National Sports of Great Britain and his work was frequently copied by his son, Henry (Gordon).


Alken was born on 12 October 1785 in Soho London and baptised on November 6 at St James's Church, Piccadilly. He was the third son of Samuel Alken, a sporting artist. Two of his brothers were George, Samuel Jr (also an artist) and Sefferien John. In 1789, Henry's family moved to 2 Francis Street East, Bedford Square.

Young Henry first studied under his father and then with the miniature painter John Thomas Barber Beaumont (1774–1841), also known as J.T. Barber. In 1801, Alken sent a miniature portrait of Miss Gubbins to the Royal Academy Exhibition. He exhibited a second miniature at the Royal Academy before abandoning miniature painting and taking on painting and illustrating. Early in his career, he painted sporting subjects under the name of "Ben Tally-O". Alken married Maria Gordon on October 14, 1809 at St. Clement’s Parish Church in Ipswich. On August 22 a year later the couple's first son was baptised. Alken went on to father five children, two of whom were artists, Samuel Henry, also a sporting artist and known as Henry (Gordon) Alken, Junior, and Sefferien, Junior.

From about 1816 onwards Alken "produced an unending stream of paintings, drawings and engravings of every type of field and other sporting activity," and his soft-ground etchings were often colored by hand. When Alken was 26, he and his young family lived over a shop in Haymarket that belonged to print publisher Thomas McLean of the "Repository of Wit and Humour." Mclean paid Alken a daily wage of 30s, considered a good salary at the time.

Alken died in April 1851 and was buried in Highgate cemetery. Although fairly affluent for most of his career, he fell on hard times towards the end of his life and was buried at his daughter's expense. Alken worked in both oil and watercolor and was a skilled etcher. His earliest productions were published anonymously under the signature of "Ben Tallyho", but in 1816 he issued The Beauties & Defects in the Figure of the Horse comparatively delineated under his own name. From this date until about 1831, he produced many sets of etchings of sporting subjects mostly coloured and sometimes humorous in character, the principal of which were: "Humorous Specimens of Riding" 1821, "Symptoms of being amazed" 1822, "Symptoms of being amused" 1822, "Flowers from Nature" 1823, "A Touch at the Fine Arts" 1824, and "Ideas" 1830. Besides these he published a series of books: Illustrations for Landscape Scenery and Scraps from the Sketch Book of Henry Alken in 1823, New Sketch Book in 1824, Sporting Scrap Book and Shakespeare's Seven Ages in 1827, Sporting Sketches and in 1831 Illustrations to Popular Songs and Illustrations of Don Quixote, the latter engraved by John Christian Zeitter.

Alken provided the plates picturing hunting, coaching, racing and steeplechasing for The National Sports of Great Britain (London, 1821). Aiken, known as an avid sportsman,is best remembered for his hunting prints, many of which he engraved himself until the late 1830s. He created prints for the leading sporting printsellers 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. One of his best known paintings, "The Belvoir Hunt: Jumping Into And Out Of A Lane", hangs in the Tate Britain and shows one of the oldest of the great foxhound packs in Leicestershire. A collection of his illustrations can be seen in the print department of the British Museum.

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