Alken, Henry Thomas (Senior)
'A Prize Fight' from the National Sports of Great Britain, 1823
About the Artist
Of Danish ancestry, Henry Alken senior (also known as Ben Tally Ho and Old Henry) was the most important of the Alkens. The son of Samuel senior, and brother of George, Samuel junior and Sefferien John, he had five children of whom two were artists, Samuel Henry (known as Henry Alken junior) and Sefferien junior.
He was born on October 12th 1785 in Soho, the third son of seven children and was baptised on November 6th at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly. Four years after his birth, the family moved to 2 Francis Street East, Bedford Square.
His early art training came from his father, but an early age he went to study under John Thomas Barber Beaumont (1774–1841), more commonly known as J. T. Barber, who was a miniaturist, and whose influence can be seen in his handling of figures. Alken exhibited only two pictures at the Royal Academy, both miniatures.
The details of the next few years of his life are not known, but presumably he went to live in the Ipswich area as it was here he married Maria Gordon on October 14th 1809 at St. Clement’s Parish Church. It was here also that a year later on August 22nd their first son was baptised. When the Alkens moved back to London, it would appear that they loved over the shop of one of Henry Alken’s publishers Thos. McLean, at 26 Haymarket; they later moved to Kentish Town and then to Highgate.
Soon after Henry Alken’s marriage, he began to make a success as a graphic journalist under the pseudonym of Ben Tally Ho. He worked under this name until about 1816, although on occasion during this period he also used his own name. In 1816 he wrote and published The Beauties and Defects in the figure of a Horse, and in 1821 illustrated The National Sports of Great Britain. Between 1820 and 1831, he produced a number of sketch books and text books on drawing. He was also a competent engraver and produced a book called A treatise on etching.
Until the 1830s, Henry Alken senior was very active in producing humorous scenes, many of which were published by Thos. McLean, S & J Fuller, R. Ackermann and Arthur and George Fores. Towards the end of the 1830s, his work began to decline and by 1839 it is known that he sent work to publishers on ‘spec’. He became somewhat of a recluse, associating only with dealers and publishers, mainly Arthur and George Fores, and his major patron whom he liked, Mr. Hollingsworth Magniac (master of the Oakley 1841-47). It was for him that he painted the set of eight paintings of the ‘Grand Leicestershire Steeplechase’, March 12th 1829, and one of his finest works in oils, ‘The Oakley Hunt’. Henry senior developed an encephaloid tumour in 1850 and died on April 7th 1851 after suffering much pain, at his home, Ivy Cottage, Highgate Rise, having moved from Kentish Town in 1841, when his wife died. When he died penniless, his funeral was paid for by his son-in-law Christian Zeitter, a painter and engraver who had married his daughter Ann, and who was very fond of the old man.
Henry senior worked in both oil and watercolour and etched much of his own work. His best work was from about 1810 to 1820, but he continued successfully until the late 1830s when his work really declined into its worst period, the most difficult to detect from lesser members of his family. He painted hunting, racing and coaching scenes as well as a variety of other sports. In his coaching pictures he was particularly fond of snow scenes; he also liked to show horses galloping at a ‘swishing pace’ and frequently depicted falls and accidents in the hunting field. Many of his pictures were produced in pairs or sets.
Source: The Dictionary of British Equestrian Artists by Sally Mitchell (1985), published by the Antique Collectors’ Club.