Alison Absorbs The Art Of Tennis

Young American Alison Riske took time out from the AEGON Classic to visit an exhibition of art devoted to tennis.

Published June 09, 2011 12:46

Alison Absorbs The Art Of Tennis
Edith Hayllar's 'Summer Shower', 1883; Alison Riske with exhibition catalogue showing John Lavery's 'The Rally', 1885

BIRMINGHAM, England - If Wimbledon is thought of as the home of tennis then Edgbaston, the leafy suburb of Birmingham that hosts the AEGON Classic, is the cradle of the sport. And so it is appropriate that as the tournament marks its 30th anniversary, the nearby University of Birmingham's Barber Institute has mounted the first exhibition to explore lawn tennis as a subject in art.

Court on Canvas: Tennis In Art brings together paintings, drawings, sculpture and mixed-media works inspired by the game, from the 1870s through to the 21st century. Highlights include Sir John Lavery's iconic A Rally and other works by artists as diverse as LS Lowry, EH Shepard (of Winnie the Pooh fame) and the more recent David Hockney.

With her affinity for grass courts and British 'bed and breakfast' accommodation, self-confessed Anglophile Alison Riske was keen to visit the gallery to learn more about the roots of her sport.

"I'm so glad to be playing on grass again, but I'm happy to be back in England, period," said the 20-year-old American, who as a qualifier broke through to the semis at Birmingham 12 months ago, pushing Maria Sharapova to three sets. "I just love it here - I've been waiting to come back to this tournament since the moment I left last year."

All tree-lined streets and historic villas, it's easy to see the appeal of Edgbaston, where the pioneers of the early game, Major Harry Gem and Jean Batista Augurio Perera, first experimented on the lawns of Perera's house in 1859. Later, they helped establish the first tennis clubs in the area. The sport's popularity snowballed, throughout Britain and across Europe, and then to Florida. As players became more serious, tournaments sprang up; Wimbledon held its first championship in 1877. 

And, not surprisingly, the new phenomenon inspired artists. "Painters 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," notes exhibition curator Professor Anne Sumner. "The game's social aspect also appealed to artists… as a sport where young ladies were able to mix with young gentlemen, it provided scope for romantic scenes."

"I don't know how they moved in those long dresses, and yet they make it look almost regal," said Riske as she admired A Rally. "You can see the affluence, the elegance… but as far as competing like that, I can't imagine!"

Indeed, while Victorian and early 20th century works in oil predominate, Riske's attention was grabbed by the more modern graphical lines of Eric Ravilious' Preparatory Design on a Grand Theme for 'Sport', a watercolor design for the British Pavilion of the Paris International Exhibition of 1937. 

Another must-see for tennis fans is a companion exhibition, A Gem of a Game. Here, the artefacts on show range from early tennis racquets and line chalking machines to women's tennis attire and accessories through the ages - starting with a mint-condition ankle-length Victorian dress. Nearby, Art Deco clutch bags and tennis-themed jewelry made Riske think of her idol Serena Williams, who has designed her own jewelry line.

The fascinating memorabilia also includes an original copy of the rules, as written down by Major Gem; photographic portraits of British tennis stars such as 1969 Wimbledon champion Ann Jones, who lives in Edgbaston; and the cheeky 1970s Athena Tennis Girl poster, which was in fact photographed on a tennis court at the University of Birmingham.

"Tennis is so special, so unique for its history," said Riske, who has put together another great run at the AEGON Classic, and meets Daniela Hantuchova in the quarterfinals on Friday. "It's amazing to think that something like this hasn't been done before."

Featuring loans from major collections such as Aberdeen Art Gallery, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, the National Portrait Gallery in London and Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum - as well as from many private collections - the exhibition runs until September 18. Admission is free.

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