Artwork Description / Detail
The Roses Match, 1893
Rugby has become a national phenomenon. It has set the stage for many international battles and has enthralled countless generations of sportsmen and members of the public alike. The sport, although a phenomenon within our modern society, has not been readily depicted within the field of art. The few examples that do however exist are well known and well loved within the international art world. Perhaps the most famous example of the genre of rugby depicted in art is William Barnes Wollen’s The Roses Match, 1893.
This renowned work depicts the action from the Yorkshire team (white jerseys) against Lancashire team (red and white jersey) played at Park Avenue in Bradford in November 1893. The Roses Match 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’. Yorkshire outflanked and outpaced the Lancashire team and in the end scored one try and two goals against Lancashire’s one try.
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. The work then disappeared from public sight as it passed into the hands of 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.
The Ghost amongst the Roses
William Barnes Wollen’s work entitled The Roses Match, 1893 is not only a fine example of the game of rugby depicted in fine art, but it is also an artwork that carries a legacy of mystery with it. The work, which currently hangs on the wall of the President Suite in the West Stand of Twickenham Stadium, has been admired for the elegantly portrayed figures and the attention to detail the artist invested within this work. The work has also risen to prominence in recent years when a mysterious, previously unseen figure was discovered in the top left corner of the painting.
Upon closer inspection of the painting a faint figure is visible, it appears the figure was painted out of the work and in doing so removed from the fateful ‘Roses Match’. The World Rugby Museum stated about the work that;
‘the real debate (about the painting) 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 reason why and the circumstances surrounding the mysterious figures removal from the Woollen’s overall composition has sparked furious debate in the rugby world. Some critics such as the World Rugby Museum claim that the footballer was painted out due to a dispute between the footballer and the ‘Northern Union’. According to 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 Woollen paint the offending player out of history, for having committed the heinous crime of defection to the Northern Union’.
While this scenario is plausible it is not conclusive. The single football player removed from the composition would not have been the only footballer to offend the ‘North Union’, because of his choice to take up rugby league.
A more plausible explanation for the appearance of the ghost player has recently come to light. As with all works of art earlier images are often uncovered or revealed when the work is cleaned or restored. The ghost player might be nothing more than a symbol of Wollen’s working process whereby he repainted certain parts of the composition to create a more pleasing overall appearance. Although this explanation might not be as thought provoking as a rivalry between players and unions it does showcase how works of art are used to foster and depict ideals from the age it was created in. According to Dr Tony Collin myths stemming from The Roses Match afforded the rugby union a means to nurture established prejudices. For the rugby union the myth symbolised 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.
William Barnes Wollen therefore created a work that has been provoking debate and created leagues of admirers, for not only the skill of the artists to capture the movement and drama of the game, but also in the artist ability to create an image that stood for both the ideals of the rugby union and the grievances of the rugby league.