DID A PAINTING KICK-OFF FRENCH RUGBY?

Did a painting that depicted the 1886 Rugby meeting between Scotland and England kick-start interest in the game in France?…

Messrs Overend and Smythe (below), i.e. England v Scotland played in Edinburgh in 1886.
Messrs Overend and Smythe painting of England v Scotland played in Edinburgh in 1886.

Our story begins in 1889 in Paris at the Exposition universelle internationale – or in modern terms, a World’s Fair.

“Its central attraction was the Eiffel Tower, a 300-meter high marvel of iron by Gustave Eiffel. Over eighty other structures on the Champ de Mars housed exhibits, including the impressive 1,452 foot long Galerie des Machines by Ferdinand Dutert. The fair attracted exhibits from Europe, South America, the United States, and the French colonies, yet in the final analysis it was a celebration of French achievements on the centennial of the French Revolution.” [link]

The most popular exhibits were the fine arts and new technologies. A correspondent to a New Zealand newspaper (the Otago Witness, 1 August 1889) provided an interesting account of the impact a painting of a Rugby match was having:

“One of the most popular of the English pictures at the Paris Exhibition is the representation of a Rugby football match by Messrs Overend and Smythe. It is lent by the Fine Art Society.

“The Parisians stand in front of it awe-struck. They shrug their shoulders, and discuss the raison d’etre of the game in the most excited fashion, and go away with their opinion of the queerness and madness of the Britisher seven times stronger than before.”

The Scotland v England match recorded in the painting was played at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh on 13 March 1886.

The game was a fierce struggle played out on a field hardened by severe frosts, compounded by a snow storm on the morning of the contest. In fact the game had originally been scheduled for the week before, but owing to extent of snow covering the oval it was impossible to play.

Both England and Scotland had a try disallowed and by the end of the game the score was still at nil-all. While that result meant no side could claim victory, it was noted that Scotland won four “minor points” as England grounded the ball in their own in-goal area four times.

Of the artists “Messrs Overend and Smythe” a wander around the internet shows that WH Overend was a painter and illustrator who appeared to specialise in depicting famous military men, battle scenes and war ships.  Lionel Percy Smythe, today at least, is far better known, highly-regarded as a master of painting rural landscapes.

The notion to combine the two artists, with each bringing their individual strengths, to capture the action of a rugby match and the wider scene around it, suggests more than a little planning went into the project. Who commissioned the work, if anyone, is unknown.

However, many reproductions of the painting were made (in full colour and in photogravure as well as line drawing forms) across Britain and North America. Other later Rugby and American football paintings and drawings also show a strong influence from the 1886 depiction by Overend and Smythe.

Smythe and his wife moved to France in 1879, eventually having three children. Whether Smythe’s presence influenced the inclusion of the rugby match painting at the Paris Exhibition is unknown, but we’d like to think he and his family saw the work during its public presentation in France.

While today new frontiers to Rugby are aided by global television screening of international matches, did this 1886 painting of a Scotland-England international act in a similar way?

Parisian Frédéric Humbert from Rugby-Pioneers.com provides a local insight into the influence of the Rugby painting, as described by our correspondent from 1889 (see above):

“I’m very intrigued by the idea of French spectators in 1889 (i.e. before Rugby football “kicks off” in Paris) gathering around this painting…one could even imagine that it plays a (small) role in the process that leads our French sportsmen (Pierre de Coubertin and co…) to play Rugby for the first time a few months later in 1890.

“For me, there’s no ‘French Rugby’ before the organisation of first football games in Parisian colleges in 1890. I assume that previous initiatives – Taylor Club, Le Havre – were organized by and for English expats – even if a few local Frenchmen were amongst them.”

While the Edinburgh Academical Football Club’s website notes that “A mural reproduction of the original hangs in the Library of the Scottish Rugby Union at Murrayfield” whether the original painting is still in existence remains a mystery.

© Sean Fagan

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