Barber Institute of Fine Art
The first exhibition to explore lawn tennis as a subject in art was held at the University of Birmingham-based Barber Institute of Fine Arts in the summer of 2011.
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.
The exhibition comprised two separate elements, ‘Court on Canvas‘ and ‘A Gem of a Game‘.
‘Court on Canvas’ featured 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 even included the iconic 1970s Athena Tennis Girl poster, itself photographed on a tennis court at the University of Birmingham. With additional 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.
‘A Gem of a Game’ was a contrasting element of the exhibition and explored the early history of lawn tennis and its local connections. Featuring 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. The exhibition also included 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. Many of the exhibition’s artefacts were housed in TESS Demountable cases. Chosen for their flexibility and sustainability, the cases can be used over and over in forthcoming exhibitions at the Barber.
This was our most successful exhibition ever at the Barber, attracting over 23,000 visitors, and the cases undoubtedly enhanced its appeal and professionalism
Deputy Director, Head of Collections and Learning