The above picture is a portrait of Beato, my late grandfather's racing pigeon which was painted by E H Windred in 1925.
I remember this portrait from when I was a small boy, when I saw it in our garden shed.
It stayed there until a few years ago, when I asked my Dad if I could have it. He said yes. By this time the frame had just about disintegrated and the canvas was not looking too good. So I straightened up the frame, tightened the canvas, cleaned it, re-varnished it, and had it re-framed. It now hangs in my living-room.
My Dad used to live in Leven Road in Poplar in the late 1920's and has often told me about life in those days. The house was directly opposite the three large gasometers that are still there today, although the long rows of terrace houses themselves are long gone. The pigeon loft was at the back of the garden, and the pigeons used to sit up on the gasometers until my grandfather, William Edwin Hewitt, would call them in, and they would swoop over the top of the house down to the loft.
Other than telling me that Beato was a champion pigeon of some sort, I didn't really have a great deal of information about it. Painted along the bottom of the portrait is the following:
Messrs Hewitt & Davis's Blue Hen "Beato" NURP25GG3058. 1st Chatteris Poplar & Bromley F.C. 381-birds & 1 (??) Western Section E.L.Fed Vel-1243-2867 birds, 1925 also 2nd Branston A.A. 3rd Fed.W.S. 1392 birds 118 miles V(??)
There is a
small hole in the canvas at the bottom left-hand corner which has
resulted in part of the text being unreadable -
the parts marked (??).
Most of this meant nothing to me, so I decided to investigate.
There is a publication for pigeon fanciers called The Racing Pigeon, so I started by contacting them. I found that they have been going for a long time, long before the 1920's. Rick Osman, the current editor invited me to their office to look through their collection of back-issues. (Click here for an interesting article about the Osman family)
He also explained what the writing meant.
NURP stands for the National Union of Racing Pigeons - 25 means the year, 1925 - and GG3058 is the birds registration number. Chatteris and Branston were starting places for pigeon races. F.C. stands for flying club, which are grouped together into federations (E.L. Fed meaning East London Federation), which in turn make up combines.
Vel stands for velocity, and is the way that the winners of the races was determined. The exact distance from the starting point to the pigeons home is calculated, and the birds all released at the same time. Each bird has a rubber ring on its leg, which is stamped by the owner using a special timing punch when it arrives home. This shows the exact time it got back home. You are then able to calculate the average velocity, in yards per minute, that the bird travelled.
Once I explained that I was making enquiries because of a painting I had, he asked who it was painted by.
I told him it was by E H Windred, and he told me he that he knew of him, and had written an article about him. Part of it is reproduced here:
From the earliest days of organised pigeon racing, special prizes have been awarded for outstanding performances and particular events. Today these are often photographs but in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century it was common for a portrait painting to be commissioned of the winning pigeon.
Demand for such trophies was at its highest in the 1920's when several artists were working in the field. Notable amongst them were E.H.Windred in London, Andrew Beer in Bristol and South Wales and J.Browne in Northumberland and Cumberland, although there were several others.
No-one knows how many paintings have been produced but their peak was in the 1920's and 1930's when several artists were working on such portraits. Probably the most prolific of these was E.H.Windred whose paintings remain one of the most commonly available. He may originally have been a miner but he came to London and lived in or near New Cross Gate railway station. He was not trained as an artist and in fact was actually a barber by trade. His lack of training resulted in an unusual technique for capturing the shape and stance of his subjects. He had a number of silhouettes of pigeons made up in cardboard or ply which he would match up to the pigeon. Once he had found the shape that fitted best he would draw around it to get the outline of the bird. To get the colours of the feathering right, Windred would keep a few feathers after the bird had been returning to its owner and use these as a guide.
Surprisingly, pigeon lofts rarely featured in the background of the portraits as E.H.Windred, like most of his contemporaries, would paint a backdrop of country scenes. Again, like most of his contemporaries, Windred included the fancier's name as well as the pigeon's name and ring number and performances on the canvas.
I have also been contacted by Roger Lucia, a grandson of E H Windred. He was able to supply me with the following information:
Although he is predominantly known for his pigeon portraits E.H. Windred also painted other subjects in oils on canvas such as copies of 'Monarch of the Glen’, sheep in a highland landscape, deer in a highland landscape and also scenes with dogs.
The data you reproduced from The Racing Pigeon source is not entirely accurate and you might therefore be interested in a little further info. He was the son of W.Windred, a builder, based in South London whose yard was in the New Cross area. W.Windred was a 'sporting gentleman' who also had some talent for painting in oils. At one stage he employed an artist on his building work who was 'down on his luck' and whose work had hung in the RA and so he thought that this gentleman might be better employed teaching his already talented son to paint. E.H.Windred did therefore have some training as an artist!
He was indeed a barber and had a shop near New Cross Gate railway station. For the pigeon portraits clients would bring the birds to his shop so that he could paint them during the one (or more) afternoons during the week when he was closed. I am not sure about whether he used the outline silhouettes mentioned in the article or not as his only surviving daughter (my aunt) who is now in her eighties does not remember it but it might have been useful at times of high output. He would however very often keep these birds for a period of time when he was painting them and because of their value would go to great lengths to ensure their security while they were with him.
E.H. Windred’s eldest son did paint but only rarely. A nephew who was a teacher and historian who lived in Wales sketched well and did very attractive small watercolours often illustrating his own books on historical subjects mostly relating to the area of South Wales where he lived.
I have since researched Windred's life and family for myself and the results of this can be found in the Biography section.