Thursday, 4 July 2013

Anyone for Tennis?

Predictably, it’s that time of year again when we in this fine nation have to become obsessed with our chances of winning Wimbledon.  Even for people like me who aren’t even that bothered by tennis (I never looked that good in white), the chance that one of our own could be the best at something is rather inspirational.  I think tennis has an added element of old school romance about it too which is totally out of place in the high-tech world it now inhabits.  However, in order to inspire Mr Murray to win, I would like to bring out a few Victorian images of tennis…

A Game of Tennis Francis Sidney Muschamp
I think what surprised me the most about the images I found when searching for Victorian tennis paintings was the overwhelmingly female aspect to them.  You would think very few men actually played until Fred Perry picked up a racket.  Certainly there are men around in these images but I suspect they are there for a chance glimpse at a bit of ankle, as above.  Red tights too, the saucy minx.  Actually she is in my favourite athletic pose, what I call the ‘I’ll sit this one out’ position, yet still holding a piece of equipment to make it look like she’ll spring into action at any moment.  Fat chance.

The Artist’s Sister (1882) Arthur Hacker
I imagine Miss Hacker is wearing her tennis dress, complete with tennis bustle and athletic corset.  At least with a bustle you have somewhere to keep your spare balls.

Brass Buckle (1895)
Particularly lovely is this belt buckle from the end of the Victorian period.  Our sports kits at school was never this lovely.  Had I been allowed to wear this or a bustle I might have wanted to do more.  Navy blue gym knickers inspire no-one.  Well, no-one wearing them anyway.  Moving on.

Tennis Horace Henry Cauty
Also, I think wearing some sort of tight skirt would have given me a good excuse as to why I was so rubbish.  How on earth is she meant to run for the ball when she appears to have been gift-wrapped.  I’m slightly worried by the man behind her who appears to be admiring her bustle.  I love the fact that they seem to have brought a couple of crates of balls, how long do they intend to keep playing?

The Rally John Lavery
Possibly the king of tennis painting is John Lavery who manages to capture the dynamic movement of the players’ swing.  The lady above is a swirl of movement with her racket and arm being mirrored in the swish of her skirts.  I completely believe that she will beat the pants off the slightly nervous gentleman opposite her.

The Tennis Match John Lavery
Mind you, what tennis seems to be used for in paintings is a metaphor, or an excuse, for love.  Maybe because the game contains ‘love’ as one of its terms, a great number of the images are romantic scenes, like the above.  What lady isn’t impressed by a fine mustache and a stripy blazer?  The dog thinks you can do better, love.

The Tennis Party Charles Gere
I won’t go on about how much I love the tempera revival, but Gere’s Tennis Party is a cracking example of why I get all excited by it.  It’s all courtly romance and knightly honour, yet the figures are modern.  The canvas seems so flat with only the merest hint of shadow, but the brightness of the colours strike your eyes in such a way to bring elements forward.  The touches of red bounce across the canvas much like a tennis ball, taking you one way (his jacket, the wine, the folded parasol on the far right), then the other (some flowers at the back, the parasols at the back, the red dress and blush pink window blinds) until you are following colours round the canvas.  Exquisite.

The Rivals: Tea Before Tennis Maude Goodman

Another aspect of the ‘sportsman romance’ is the rather medieval notion that whoever wins the match gets the girl.  Here is a lovely young lady having rather tense tea with two gentlemen who obviously fancy her.  I’ve never considered that you should choose your husband on his hand/eye co-ordination.  Mind you, I’ve known people marry on flimsier pretexts.

An Interested Audience Charles Grierson
Of course, even if there are no men around, getting the girls together is a splendid opportunity to have a good gossip.  The lady in purple has obviously arrived with something other than sport on her mind and is relating some scandal to her interested audience.  I wondered if the girl in the chair, who seems a little removed, is more interested than the others. Do you think that she was involved with the gentleman they are discussing?  I’ve always thought purple to be a rather dangerous colour for some reason and so I think the gossip is doing untold damage to the little group.  There are some discarded gloves (think of The Awakening Conscience) and only one racket…

Memories Fernand Khnoppf
Possibly the strangest tennis picture is Khnoppf’s Memories, with it’s random, racket-holding women, hanging around in a field.  What are they remembering?  Why is the woman in white not holding a racket?  Is she remembering a lost lover?  Do the rackets represent men and she has none?  Does her white dress symbolise her virginity?  So many questions.  I do like a bit of Khnoppf.

A Summer Shower (1883) Edith Hayllar
The Lawn Tennis Season (1881) Mary Hayllar
From the multi-talented Hayllar family come these beauties.  Edith showed a rather more common English tennis scene, with rain and excuse for a bit of flirtation round the corner.  Mary’s window scene is just gorgeous, I especially love the parasol.    It’s in Southampton Art Gallery, home to the Burne-Jones room, and I always love seeing it when I visit as it is a tiny little gem of a picture.

After a Game of Tennis (1923) Fairlie Harmar
Slightly later than my usual fare, but this last picture is so delightful I couldn’t resist.  I get exhausted just watching the tennis, let alone playing, and so the lady’s state of collapse seems entirely appropriate.  Mind you, she could just be sprawled out on a daybed watching Wimbledon.  That’s the position I usually take when it comes to athletic pursuits.

By the way, if Andy Murray wins Wimbledon, I am entirely taking credit.  He must have seen my post....


  1. I was disappointed (knowing of your interest in Wilfrid Scawen Blunt) that you hadn't turned up a picture of tennis at Crabbet. Now THAT would have been worth blogging about. Were they still playing in the nude in the 1890s when Oscar Wilde joined the Club? Why was no-one on hand with a camera or sketch pad? Had they no inkling of what posterity was really going to be interested in?

  2. Nude tennis? Nude Blunt tennis?! I need to sit down for a while...

  3. "For Cust was as self-indulgent in his emotions as he was over drink or women. The last, in particular, dissipated his energies and blighted his career with scandal. He could never resist trying to seduce them and they frequently succumbed. ‘He was the Rupert Brooke of our day’, wrote Lady Horner. ‘Gold-haired, wellborn, a poet. Irresistible’. Unusually, for a professional womaniser, he was well-liked by men; a member of the sternly masculine Crabbet Club and a participant in the celebrated nude tennis match in which he and Curzon beat George Wyndham and Scawen Blunt. His charm did not always work, however. Among his juniors in particular there was sometimes a feeling that he was a tiresome poseur; ‘an old bore’, Julian Grenfell described him trenchantly, ‘with vulgar hair and disgusting habits’."

  4. Oh, come on, you can't just surprise me with a naked Harry Cust! I will be no good to anyone for the rest of the day now.

    Thank you Simon, you know how to put a smile on a girl's face...

  5. Could you tell me where you found the image of the tennis-themed belt buckle?

    Thank you.

  6. The wonders of Pinterest gave me that gem. It seems to have been on an auction site. Gorgeous, isn't it?


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx