THE TENNIS PARTY by John Lavery (1885)
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.