THE TEN­NIS PARTY by John Lav­ery (1885)

The Herald - Arts - - Arts -

The swish of well-laun­dered cot­ton un­der­gar­ments, the zing of felted ball against tightly-strung rac­quet – the mid­dle class at play in sunny Cath­cart. This scene is far re­moved from the peas­ant idyll on which the Glas­gow Boys’ rep­u­ta­tion was founded. Lav­ery re­alised that charm­ing though peas­ants may be, they don’t buy paint­ings. Wealthy ac­quain­tances do. Can the ex­cite­ment of a well-tem­pered ten­nis match com­pare with the thrill of an ex­tremely tal­ented Glas­gow Boy on the make?

Lav­ery was not just skilled in the ways of com­mer­cial suc­cess. In the fore­ground, grass is dap­pled by coloured shad­ows more familiar to the Seine than the Cart – he gen­tly in­tro­duces Im­pres­sion­ist tech­niques to his au­di­ence. Hazy sun­light fil­ters through leafy branches, soft­en­ing hard edges and con­vey­ing the lan­gour that Os­car Wilde brought to his plays; come­dies of man­ners in which life im­i­tated art.

Sketches ex­ist that demon­strate the artist strug­gling with the spa­tial com­plex­i­ties in­volved. It takes a lot of prepa­ra­tion to pro­duce spon­tane­ity like this. Lav­ery es­chews the tra­di­tional bird’s eye approach to come in on the di­ag­o­nal, a tech­nique favoured by pho­tog­ra­phers, which, as a for­mer pho­tog­ra­pher’s as­sis­tant, he knew well. By em­ploy­ing a low view­point he not only showed the whole court but al­lowed the spec­ta­tor to catch some­thing of the fast move­ment and quick foot­work of the game.

A mixed dou­bles is in progress. Ten­sion in the air. A fe­male con­tender, rac­quet raised, arm ex­tended, leans for­ward, poised like a hunter to pounce on her male ad­ver­sary’s re­turn. What a pose he has given her – sus­pended an­i­ma­tion. Per­haps he knew that it would be repli­cated by thou­sands who for the past hun­dred years have leant for­ward to peer into this star­tling and in­vig­o­rat­ing com­po­si­tion.

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