The Pick - Court on Canvas: Tennis in Art

May 26, 2011

Credit: John Lavery, A Rally, 1885, Kelvington Art Gallery and Museum

Court on Canvas: Tennis in Art

Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Tennis is about class, Englishness, fashion, discreet eroticism, carefully choreographed movement and endless summer afternoons. It can even be seen as a metaphor for life. So it is hardly surprising that it has attracted attention from both society painters and more radical artists. Yet this is claimed to be the first comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to the theme of tennis in art.

It is taking place at the Barber Institute ( May to 18 September), just half a mile from the suburban garden in Edgbaston, where, in 1859, Thomas Harry Gem and Jean Batista Augurio Perera took advantage of the invention of the mechanical lawnmower and vulcanised rubber to embark on the experiments that led to today's tennis.

This history is explored in a smaller accompanying exhibition - A Gem of a Game: The Roots of Lawn Tennis in the West Midlands ( May to 29 August) - which brings together Major Gem's original rule book, early rackets and equipment, and women's outfits marking the journey from whalebone corsets to Lycra.

Tennis parties were once a common feature of social life everywhere from Trent Park in North London to Florida and the French Riviera, and John Lavery (1856-1941) was there to record them all with slightly cloying charm. The game's centrality to Victorian life is nicely caught in Albert Goodwin's painting of a discarded rug, boater and tennis racket on the lawn of Charles Darwin's residence, Down House (1880). Although the great man himself did not play, his sons were all keen and his friend William Cecil Marshall was runner-up at the first Wimbledon final in 1877. On one occasion, we are told in the lavish catalogue, Marshall recalled Darwin looking down miserably on the court and lamenting: "This confounded Drosera (a genus of carnivorous plants) has gone all wrong this morning, upsetting my theories and spoiling a year's work."

Other paintings in the show reveal how a summer shower or the wicker chairs often placed below shady trees alongside tennis courts could provide perfect opportunities for flirtations. Both Duncan Grant and Eric Gill contributed to the improbable genre of nude tennis. But although Court on Canvas also features work by David Hockney and L.S. Lowry, perhaps the most striking images come from Paul Nash and Tom Phillips.

The former offers us a mysterious landscape, Event on the Downs (1934), with a lone tennis ball and tree stump at the top of a hill leading to cloud and white cliffs in the distance. Wittier and more ingenious is Tom Phillips' series of tennis balls in different colours, each covered with strands of his gradually greying hair, to represent The Seven Ages of Man (2010).

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