From March 16 through July 7, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present The Art of Golf, an exhibition devoted to the artistic representation of the sport that will showcase The Golfers, a renowned 1847 painting by Scottish painter Charles Lees. Installed in the Museum’s British period rooms, this exhibition will demonstrate the fascinating interrelationship of art and sport in Victorian Britain. The presentation will coincide with the centennial of the U.S. Open Championship, which will be hosted in June at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, PA.
A pupil of Sir Henry Raeburn, Edinburgh’s finest portrait painter of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Lees painted The Golfers to record a memorable match played at St. Andrews in Scotland. The work is widely considered to be his masterpiece and the greatest painting devoted to this subject. Upon completion, Lees’s seven-foot-wide canvas was engraved and copies of the print sold briskly in Edinburgh, attesting to the wide popularity of the sport and the celebrity of its key figures.
Lent by the National Galleries of Scotland, this remarkable painting focuses on a critical moment of play at St. Andrews. Four principal players stand at the heart of the action, surrounded by more than fifty spectators, each of whom is an identifiable nineteenth-century golfer, enthusiast, or authority on the sport. Charming anecdotal figures such as the “ginger beer girl” standing near the right edge of the scene and the fashionable group conversing on the left reflect Lees’s skillful use of small details to convey nuances of character and behavior. They further suggest the public engagement and spectacle associated with such sporting matches.
Lees made a number of meticulous studies for this painting—several of which are included in the exhibition—and invited some of the principal figures depicted in it to model for him. A carbon print by Scottish photographers Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill helped the artist capture the poses of the key players. Also on view in the exhibition are portraits, oil sketches, an historic feather golf ball jacketed in bull’s hide, a silver trophy, antique Scottish clubs of ram’s horn, leather, and wood, and colorful attire that authentically recalls Victorian life on the famed Old Course at St. Andrews.
Among other highlights is Lees’s portrait of Allan Robertson clad in a red coat, dating to about 1844. Robertson was considered one of the first professional golfers and an expert maker of feathery balls, including the one on view in the exhibition. An imposing portrait of Tom Morris, Sr., by Sir George Reid is also on display. Morris rose from the streets of St. Andrews to become Robertson’s apprentice as a feathery ball maker and, after becoming his partner, the two were known as “The Invincibles” of the sport. Morris is also credited with having designed the first and eighteenth holes on the Old Course.
The Old Course itself evolved over several centuries and is depicted in the exhibition from nineteenth- and twentieth-century perspectives. In a 1929 scene, fashionable young women carrying clubs and wearing attractive bobs and hats embark on a grand day out. Like a modern promotional poster, it carries the words “St Andrews Welcomes You,” reflecting the town’s emergence as a favored destination for golf enthusiasts the world over.
“This exhibition opens a vista onto a very particular kind of painting, one that celebrates the skill, passion, and achievement that are the hallmarks of this great game. It also brings to Philadelphia the most important golf painting in the world,” said Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. ”We are delighted to be able to present this exhibition when the attention of the world will be focused on the U.S. Open, played on the occasion of its 100th anniversary on one of this country’s finest golf courses.”
The Art of Golf is supported by NBC Sports, PNC Bank, SAP, Michael Murr, Edward D. Slevin, Ernest L. Ransome III, Mr. and Mrs. Michael P. Tallent, and other generous individuals. The exhibition is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, in collaboration with the National Galleries of Scotland. A larger presentation of the exhibition was shown at the High Museum of Art and traveled to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida.