'A Game of Bowls' by John Singer Sargent, Ightham Mote 1889

Sargent's 'A Game of Bowls' painting shows 6 figures on the north lawn, with the house to the left.

The atmosphere of Ightham Mote has captured many people's attention over the years, and even today visitors say how ‘homely’ it is, and how they feel they could live here. A Game of Bowls is an oil painting of Ightham Mote, painted from sketches made by John Singer Sargent when he stayed at here in 1889.

John Singer Sargent obviously had the same 'special' feeling about Ightham Mote, and the friends he had made whilst staying here. Having been invited to stay by ‘Queen’ Palmer to paint the portrait of her eldest daughter Elsie, another guest wrote about Sargent:

" ... he sketched us as we all stooped in various attitudes, and afterwards he worked the result into one of his best pictures."
- Mrs J. Comyns Carr (Alice Strettell), Reminiscences

Measuring 229.2 cm x  142.9cm (c.56 inches x c.90 inches), Sargent clearly intended the painting to be exhibited. In 1890, it duly appeared at the avant-garde New Gallery, run by Joe Comyns Carr. Whilst Mrs J. Comyns Carr (costume designer Alice Strettell) thought the picture was one of his best, it was greeted like many of his opictures at the time, as 'eccentric'.

Close up of a section of the painting showing the house and the cottages behind with an orange glow

With twilight setting in, you can see the subtleties of light as the colours on the buildings take on an orange glow. The painting is informal with John Singer Sargent expressing himself and his enjoyment of the place. Inspired by the moment, he took a ‘snapshot’ of time, much like we take photographs today. Whilst he earned his living from formal portraits, he loved expressing himself through painting informal landscape scenes.

Close up of the painting featuring the 6 characters standing on the lawn

A Game of Bowls is a one-off; an experiment between classic English landscape and the impressionistic style of his friend Claude Monet. He’s created a sense of mystery about the characters. Without the title, we wouldn’t know what they were doing, allowing our imaginations to take over. Much like Ightham Mote today, John Singer Sargent has created a stage, for us to fill in the blanks and add stories of our own.