A trip through sporting history

Sports have impacted both the fine and utilitarian arts, shaping the way we present ourselves, the way we dress and the very way we move. This selection of objects from our collections explores the way in which sports have encouraged and inspired beauty in the arts and in our lives.

Athlete, Italin marble, Roman, 2nd century AD

Ancient athlete, Petworth 

This marble sculpture is a Roman copy after a bronze original attributed to Polykleitos. The athlete is shown raising his right hand and holding a flask – or aryballos – from which he pours oil into his other hand. During training and competition, Greek athletes were typically naked and they applied oil to their bodies before exercise. Whether they did this to limber their muscles, to protect their skin from the sun, or simply to produce an aesthetically pleasing glistening body is not known for sure.

Ballet shoes worn on stage by Ellen Terry

Ballet shoes, Smallhythe Place 

‘Queen of Theatre’ Ellen Terry is thought to have worn these satin ballet shoes to play the role of Titania in 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream'. For Terry, the rigour of dance was integral to the craft of acting, and in 1913 she published a book on the influential Ballets Russes.

Marble sculpture, Petworth

British Pugilist, Petworth 

The identity of this muscular figure is unknown, although it may be Tom Cribb (1781 - 1848), a Champion bare-knuckles boxer. During the early 19th century, bare-knuckle boxing was a national obsession, viewed by political and cultural leaders as a rallying symbol for egalitarianism and patriotism. But Rossi’s sculpture is not simply a portrait of a pugnacious prize fighter. Sculpted from a single piece of marble, this figure is steeped in the aesthetic ideals of antiquity. Thus the Latin inscription at the sculpture's base: 'Athleta Britannicus’ (British Athlete).

Rex Whistler, 'Ave Silvae Dornii', Oil on panel, Dorneywood

Croquet lawn, Dorneywood 

Croquet – that most genteel of games, played here by a refined, Edwardian couple – is shown as part of an allegorical panel by Rex Whistler. He painted it for Sir Courtauld-Thomson to separate the front door and the hall of his house at Dorneywood, Buckinghamshire. Although the garden pictured in the larger panel is imagined, the walled croquet lawn shown here is real and still in use – notably by John Prescott in 2006.

Croquet dress with separate bodice and skirt, 1863 - 1865

Croquet outfit, Killerton  

The glass buttons on this three-piece silk taffeta dress are engraved with croquet mallets, hoops and balls. The croquet craze took fashionable circles in England by storm in the 1860s. Because it did not require a drastic reform of female dress, the game signaled a major shift in women’s involvement in competitive sport. That said, given the full train of this particular dress, a device known as a ‘skirt lifter’ would have been needed to prevent it from dragging on the lawn.

E.C. Hardman, The Diver, Photograph, 1929

Diving, The Hardman's House 

Edward Chambré Hardman’s striking photograph shows Margaret Mills, his future wife, poised to dive off a rock. It was published during the 1920s, when the representation of women in sport rose dramatically. The low angle emphasises the height of the impending jump and her sculptural form. Many of Hardman’s photos are on display at The Hardmans’ House, Merseyside.

Julius Charles Drewe by Charles Martin Hardie

Fishing, Castle Drogo 

Millionaire entrepreneur Julius Drewe loved fishing and the castle he built contains many relics relating to his beloved sport. In many ways this portrait is an Edwardian archetype: a self-made English gentleman, immaculately dressed for an exclusive sport, with his finest trophy - a 39 lb salmon at his feet. Sir Edwin Lutyens, however, architect of Castle Drogo, was less than impressed, remarking of the artist, ‘At least he could paint boots’.

Henry Spencer Lucy by Giuseppe da Pozzo

Grouse shooting, Charlecote 

Shooting was Henry Lucy's favourite sport, and he is depicted here on the garden terrace at Charlecote in his hunting tweeds, his gun and dog at his side. Such was his admiration for the sport that when the agricultural depression of the 1870s affected the Charlecote estate, he chose to retain his grouse moors rather than the pictures in the house. Ultimately, he died of pneumonia, which he caught after shooting in the rain.

Spring 2019 magazine composite covers image

Our members' magazine 

This is an extract from the Summer 2016 issue of the National Trust Magazine.