So where is the true birthplace of lawn tennis – Royal Leamington Spa or Edgbaston in Birmingham? Those with a view on the matter could bat that debate about all day, and it’s something that’s looked at in a wonderful exhibition at the Barber Institute in Birmingham.
It seems that Thomas Gem and his friend Jean Batista Augurio Perera played on Perrera’s lawn in Edgbaston in 1859 – but both moved to Leamington in 1872 where they formed Leamington Lawn Tennis Club with two local doctors.
Gem himself drew a sketch of their first match as a foursome, at the Manor House Hotel, at the first club in the world formed specifically for playing lawn tennis. The exhibition features a photograph of the sketch which was presented to the Manor House in 1957 and sadly subsequently ‘lost’.
As the original club is no longer going, the Edgbaston Archery & Lawn Tennis Society is now the oldest surviving lawn tennis club in the world – but on the strength of this exhibition and accompanying catalogue I can forgive Birmingham its boasting.
The Barber is actually showing two associated exhibitions – A Gem of a Game: The roots of lawn tennis in the West Midlands, which finishes on August 29, and Court on Canvas: Tennis in Art, which continues until September 18.
Despite the pun, the history exhibition is worth seeing and features the Manor Hotel photo, and lots more tennis equipment, photographs and memorabilia, including photographs of the stars and an analysis of changes in technology and fashion.
But the real gem is Court on Canvas, which features works by a huge variety of artists, all depicting tennis in some way.
For local interest, there’s Charles March Gere’s The Tennis Party of 1900, a long oil work painted from an interestingly low perspective in his garden in Willes Terrace in Leamington, and featuring Edith Gere, later a renowned nature artist, and her future husband Harry Payne.
Other works feature artists you would not associate with tennis. LS Lowry’s The Tennis Player shows a girl from behind, thick, long hair in a plait, racket poised. Percy Shakespeare’s 1930 portrait of the same name shows a young woman sat in a chair looking anxious, her short skirt riding up showing that the objectification of female players is nothing new. Predictably, Eric Gill’s The Tennis Player wood engraving from 1923 is a naked woman, leg thrown out behind her as she leaps for a shot.
Stanley Spencer’s View from the Tennis Court of 1938 shows the empty, sad court with his usual wondrous English countryside behind. John Lavery is heavily featured in the exhibition as he painted lots of idyllic summer tennis scenes, but Winter in Florida of 1926 is stunning because of its colours, showing a mauve court and multicoloured sky.
Paul Nash’s Event on the Downs 1934 simply shows a tennis ball out of size against a tree and his usual muted colour landscape and has been explained as either representing happy times there, or having a deeper symbolism.
The Barber has again excelled itself with a well-put together thematic exhibition which brings together lots of works by varied artists and places them well in the story of the game.