From The Vaults

04 February 2023
'A Football Match, Scotland v England'

A Football Match, Scotland v England by Robert Highton, 2022

(After a painting by W. H. Overend and L. P. Smythe, 1889)

To coincide with this year's Calcutta Cup clash, a new painting has been unveiled at the World Rugby Museum. Commissioned by Oliver Donovan and painted by Robert Highton, the artwork recreates a famous lost painting from the 1880s.

A Football Match, Scotland v England depicts a rugby match played in Edinburgh in 1886. The original painting was a collaboration between two artists, William Heysham Overend (1851-1898) and Lionel Percy Smythe (1839-1918). Overend was a maritime painter, draughtsman and illustrator. He produced images for the Illustrated London News and he exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy. Smythe was a painter of landscapes, genre and maritime scenes, who was born in England but later settled in France.

the match

The match depicted was held at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh, on 13th March 1886. The game took place in windy conditions, on a field hardened by frost - it had already been postponed from the week before, when a layer of snow had made it impossible to play. John Blair Brown captained Scotland and Edward Temple Gurdon captained England. The two players handling the ball bear a resemblance to the Gurdon brothers, England's famous forwards, who made their final appearance for the national team in this game.

Whilst the painting shows England players on the attack, halted by the Scottish defence, the match was characterised by quite the opposite: frequent attacks from the Scottish backs were met by strong English defence. The result was a scoreless draw - Scotland had a try disallowed but did force England to touch down twice in defence. 12,000 spectators came to watch and mounted police were used to control the crowd for the first time at a Scotland game - they can be seen in the background of the painting. We do not know who commissioned the original painting and why they chose to record this particular match, but the subject matter certainly afforded action and movement to interest the maritime painter as well as scenery that would have appealed to a landscape artist, with views of Edinburgh in the distance.

We asked Oliver why he decided to commission a copy of the painting:

'I always thought it was a wonderful painting. Being an ex-player and now a collector of antique rugby art, I was interested in purchasing a lithograph of the original - but it became apparent that even these were non-existent. I learnt that the original had been lost in the late-nineteenth century and it was last seen in a public exhibition in Paris.'

Overend and Smythe's painting was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, where it caused quite a stir. Newspapers widely reported the impact the painting had on Parisian viewers:

One of the most popular of the English pictures at the Paris Exhibition is the representation of a Rugby football match by Messrs Overend and Smythe, lent by the Fine Art Society. The Parisians, it is said, stand in front of it awestruck. They shrug their shoulders, and discuss the raison d'être of the game in the most excited fashion, and go away with their opinion of the queerness and madness of the British seven times stronger than before. - Nottingham Evening Post, 30th May 1889

Its appearance at the exhibition appears to have captured the imagination of the Parisian public. It is possible that the image made a new audience aware of the game, stimulating interest in the sport during its formative years in France. Although rugby had been played in the country as early as 1862, these early matches were often organised by and for English expats - it was not until the 1880s and 1890s that Parisian college students began to set up their own rugby clubs. Despite the painting's popularity at the Paris Exhibition, there is no record of its sale and now its whereabouts are unknown.

Oliver was struck by the role the image could have played in popularising rugby in France:

'It has inspired so many to take up the sport - in the UK, France and the rest of the world. It's one of the most well-known rugby paintings ever created. I believed it was important to commission a copy, to bring it back to life again, so not only I but all the rugby fans who visit the World Rugby Museum can see it and learn its history.'

He wanted the copy to be as similar to the original as possible and set about finding a suitable artist:

'It was essential that the artist had experience of sports scenes and was able to replicate the exact style of an artist like William Overend. I came across one of the leading UK sports artists, Robert Highton, who not only matched those criteria but, by coincidence, had been studying Overend's painting style for another project of his.'