Victorian sport in seven pictures

Arguably the Victorians invented modern sport, or at least codified it. Inevitably that enthusiasm was reflected in their art. Fishing, hunting, racing and shooting even had their own schools of painters.

Going North, King’s Cross Station (1893) by George Earl (English artist, lived 1824–1908). National Railway Museum. This painting shows King’s Cross Station (think Harry Potter) and the train from London to Scotland. Part of the season and sporting calendar of many well-to-do people. Note the multiple hunting dogs and the luggage that includes fishing tackle, golf clubs, guns and other sporting equipment. Both this painting and it’s sister, Coming South: Perth Station, are to be found at the superb National Railway Museum in York, UK.

Morning in the Highlands: the royal family ascending Lochnagar (1853) by Carl Haag (Bavarian-English artist, lived 1820-1915). 77.0 x 133.6 cm. The royal family seem to have always enjoyed their sports – and employed artists to record it all. Here depicted is an expedition up Lochnagar, a mountain near Balmoral, with Prince Albert, Princess Alice, Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria, and others. Royal Collection.

Croquet Scene (1866) by Winslow Homer (American artist, lived, 1836–1910). 40.3 × 66.2 cm. It is a breezy summer afternoon and the woman in red is about to croquet another ball, probably belonging to the woman in the left foreground. Is there a more quintessentially Victorian sport than croquet?

‘The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo: she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough, under her arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, it would twist itself round and look up in her face, with such a puzzled expression that she could not help bursting out laughing .. ‘

– From the Croquet scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Football or The Football Game (1839) by Thomas Webster (English artist, lived 1800–1886). National Football Gallery. Webster was a popular Victorian painter of rural scenes. In this picture a rabble of youths bear down on a nervous goalkeeper. It shows off the vitality of the sport and, at the same time, hints at some of the concerns that the authorities had about the sport.

A Country Cricket Match (1878) by John Robertson Reid (Scottish artist, lived 1851-1926). Whilst football seems to have been feared (and there are few football paintings from the period), cricket not so – and cricket art abounds. This is a sport where a Duke can be bowled out by a coal miner. Believe it or not, there is a match taking place somewhere in this picture.

The Tennis Party (1885) by Sir John Lavery (Irish artist, lived 1856–1941). Aberdeen Art Gallery. 76.2 x 183 cm. A new sport at the time – lawn tennis developed in the 1870s, appearing at Wimbledon’s ‘Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’ in 1877. Emphasised in this painting is the social side of tennis – with, perhaps, romantic pairings. I have a print of this hanging in my home.

Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-race Day (c. 1862) by Walter Greaves (English artist, lived 1846–1930). Tate Britain. 91.4 x W 139.7 cm. The annual race between the boat clubs of Cambridge University and Oxford University. In 1870 around 12,000 people gathered at the old bridge and there and there were fears it was not strong enough. The artist claims to have painted this aged 16 (others are sceptical).


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