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Navratilova & Allaster Visit Court On Canvas

Two very special guests visited a very special art exhibition during the AEGON Classic in Birmingham.

Published June 21, 2011 12:00

Navratilova & Allaster Visit Court On Canvas
Martina Navratilova

BIRMINGHAM, England - The first exhibition to explore lawn tennis as a subject in art is being held at Birmingham's Barber Institute of Fine Arts this summer, and two very special guests paid it a visit during the AEGON Classic.

Court On Canvas: Tennis in Art opened at the University of Birmingham-based gallery on May 27, 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 now 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 was instrumental in setting up the first clubs, in Edgbaston and Leamington Spa in the 1860s and '70s. The popularity of the game grew, spreading 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 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 were popular.

Court On Canvas features 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. Loans come from major collections such as Aberdeen Art Gallery, Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow, the National Portrait Gallery and Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a second exhibition, A Gem of a Game: The Roots of Lawn Tennis in the West Midlands, which will explore the early history of lawn tennis and its local connections. It will feature artefacts such as early tennis racquets 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 Wimbledon and lives in Edgbaston.

Court On Canvas is curated by Ann Sumner, who 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, as well as a study day.

WTA legend Martina Navratilova and WTA Chairman & CEO Stacey Allaster visited the exhibit during the AEGON Classic. "I was delighted to show Martina around the two exhibitions. As a keen tennis fan, it was an enormous thrill to meet her personally. She showed a great interest in the exhibitions and particularly admired the works in Court On Canvas and the photos by society photographer Dorothy Wilding of Californian Helen Jacobs. Martina has a real interest in art and it was great to see her with the Maud Watson flower basket which she won in 1989 and 1991 as a result of her wins at the AEGON Classic."

For more on the exhibit, visit http://www.barber.org.uk/courtoncanvas.html.

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