27 May – 18 September 2011
The first exhibition to explore lawn tennis as a subject in art is to be held at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts this summer.
Court on Canvas: Tennis in Art opens at the University of Birmingham-based gallery on 27 May, less than half a mile from the birthplace of the modern game – the garden of a villa in suburban Edgbaston, where the sport was first played.
What we today know as tennis was developed in the late 1850s. Pioneers of the early game, Major Harry Gem and his friend, Jean Batista Augurio Perera, first experimented on the lawns of the latter’s house at 8 Ampton Road, Edgbaston, in 1859. The pair were instrumental in setting up the first tennis clubs, in Edgbaston and Leamington Spa in the 1860s and ‘70s. The popularity of the game burgeoned, spreading quickly throughout Britain and across Europe. Tennis clubs sprung up as the game spread, followed by tournaments – Wimbledon held its first championship in 1877 – and, by the 1880s, the sport was established as far afield as Florida.
Artists were inspired by tennis from the outset, with the first paintings featuring the game dating from the 1870s. Painters such as John Lavery were fascinated by the scope the subject provided for depicting movement, and, particularly, women moving – tennis is credited as being the one of the first sports in which women were able to participate freely. Tennis matches occur as interesting elements in summer landscapes or are glimpsed through the windows or doors of interiors. The game’s social aspect also appealed to artists, while, as a sport where young ladies were able to mix with young gentlemen, it provided scope for romantic scenes, and figure groups of courtside courting couples – often with a chaperone on hand – were popular too.
Court on Canvas will feature a wide variety of delightful paintings, drawings, prints and mixed-media works dating from the 1870s through to the 21st century, by artists as diverse as Lavery, Spencer Gore, LS Lowry, Stanley Spencer, Eric Ravilious, Winnie the Pooh illustrator EH Shepard, David Hockney and Tom Phillips. It will even feature the iconic 1970s Athena Tennis Girl poster, itself photographed on a tennis court at the University of Birmingham. It features loans from major collections such as Aberdeen Art Gallery, Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow, the National Portrait Gallery and Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, as well as from many private collections.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a second exhibition, A Gem of a Game, which will explore the early history of lawn tennis and its local connections. It will feature artefacts such as early tennis rackets and equipment, women’s tennis outfits through the ages, the original copy of the rules, as written down by Major Gem, and other fascinating memorabilia. There will also be photographs documenting tennis, including portraits of British tennis stars such as Dorothy Round, Bunny Austin, Fred Perry and Ann Jones, who won the Wimbledon Ladies’ Championships in 1969 and lives in Edgbaston.
Court on Canvas is curated by the Barber’s Director, Professor Ann Sumner – herself a keen tennis player – whose recent research projects have included the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Brett and British and French 19th-century art. It will be accompanied by a book exploring the subject, with contributions by Kenneth McConkey, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Northumbria University, renowned Lavery expert and a major authority on British, French and Irish art of the turn-of the 20th century, as well as by tennis historians Robert Holland and Chris and Sue Elks.
Professor Sumner said: ‘’It is most appropriate that tennis as a subject in art should be explored and exhibited at the Barber – Edgbaston being, after all, the cradle of tennis as well as being associated with cricket. This exhibition has been a highly unusual, as well as hugely enjoyable, project, and we hope it will bring a whole new audience to the Barber Institute, as well as providing something novel for our regular visitors.’
The exhibition will be accompanied by a variety of interesting associated events for all ages, including lectures, gallery talks and tours, a study day and drama performances.
Page updated 21st September 2015