Art and sport rarely mix. Few painters have ventured into the world of Rugby to depict the triumphs and tragedies of the football field.

The most famous Rugby painting belongs to the late 19th century: William Barnes Wollen’s The Roses Match – the painting that, it is said, was altered to expunge from existence amateur Rugby players who had turned to professional rugby league in 1895.

William Wollen (1857-1936) came into prominence in the late 1890s and early 1900s as a highly regarded artist who specialised in depicting military scenes and battles, particularly from the Napoleonic Wars.

Wollen also had a strong interest in Rugby, and it is claimed that as early as 1879, the then 22 year old had a painting on the sport exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts.

“The Roses Match” (1893) – William Barnes Wollen
“The Roses Match” (1893) – William Barnes Wollen

His later and more famed Rugby painting, The Roses Match, portrays action from the Yorkshire (white jerseys) against Lancashire (red and white hooped jersey) played at Park Avenue in Bradford in November 1893.

This was the most revered Rugby contest in England at the time, with Yorkshire and Lancashire the veritable ‘hot bed’ of the game, possessing its strongest teams, most well-known players, and trend-setting tactics. The bulk of the men chosen for England teams of the early 1890s came from these two counties.

Wollen completed the painting in 1895, and its first appearance in public was at the Royal Academy the following year. It was then displayed in various locations in Yorkshire and Lancashire.

It is thought that the painting was then sold by Wollen to a private collector, and it was not seen again in public until it was spotted in a second hand store in Newcastle in 1957. The painting now hangs on the wall of the Presidents Suite in the West Stand of Twickenham Stadium.

Upon closely looking at the painting, the faint impression of a footballer can be seen in the top left corner. It appears that the player was removed from the scene.

The RFU’s “World Rugby Museum” explains:

“But the real debate stems from the existence of a ‘ghost’ player that was originally included, and then painted out. The player only came to light when the RFU undertook conservation work to have the painting cleaned, firstly upon receipt in the late 1960s, and for a second time in 1991. The obvious question, and the subject of all the conjecture, is why the Yorkshireman was ‘painted out’ of the picture?”

The story quickly took root that the ‘ghost player’ had crossed to “Northern Union” when rugby league was founded in August 1895, and that his image was removed as a punishment, to obliterate him from all existence.

The finger of blame was pointed at Rowland Hill, RFU Secretary – as detailed here by the “World Rugby Museum”:

“Throughout the 1890s the RFU fought a rearguard battle against professionalisation in the sport. Sir George Rowland Hill was one of the amateur games staunchest defenders, and stated that he would rather split the sport than introduce player payment.”

“It therefore takes only a small leap of the imagination to picture an incandescent Sir George stomping about HQ demanding that Wollen paint the offending player out of history, for having committed the heinous crime of defection to the Northern Union.”

For such a scenario to be true though, the RFU must have possessed some control of Wollen, and the artist would have had to remove all but two players from the game – as the rest were all equally as guilty, having taken up rugby league. Dr Tony Collins (Director of the International Centre for Sports History & Culture at De Montfort University in Leicester) observing:

“The split [of the Rugby codes] literally decimated the ranks of northern rugby union. Five years before the schism there were about 240 rugby union clubs in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Five years after, there were about 22. Indeed by 1904, the Northern Union probably had more adult clubs affiliated to it than the RFU.”

The reason behind the existence of the ‘ghost player’ is far less exciting than the myth.

As has been the case with many paintings when they are subjected to professional restoration work, earlier images that were painted over by the artist are sometimes encountered and revealed. The removed footballer was probably nothing more than Wollen constructing and re-constructing the scene of the match, and moving the player to elsewhere on the field.

The myths stemming from The Roses Match though afforded a means to nurture established prejudices between the codes – as Dr Tony Collins writes:

“For rugby union, the myth symbolises their self-confidence and institutional power over the league game. For league, the myth is believed because it fits with the pattern of discrimination by union against rugby league.”

Wollen’s painting deserves to be remembered for far more than the myths.

The contest The Roses Match depicts turned out to be the last great Rugby match of the undivided Rugby code.

You cannot but look at that painting and not lament what might have been.

© Sean Fagan