From The Vaults

09 September 2014
The Ghost in the Painting

'The Roses Match' by William Barnes Wollen hangs on the wall of the President's Suite in the West Stand of Twickenham Stadium.

The painting depicts a late 19th century tussle between two of England's fiercest historic rivals, Lancashire and Yorkshire. The scene depicted in the painting is from the early 1890s, a time when these two counties dominated English rugby and their players the English national team.

Yorkshiremen and Lancastrians had always figured in the national team but their numbers spiked in the late 1880s as rugby football grew in popularity with working class players in urban areas across the two shires. These developments preceded the most divisive event in the history of British sport. Ostensibly the dispute was over lost earnings and demands for broken-time payments for working class players. A line in the sand was drawn with strictly amateur rugby on one side and (soon-to-be) professional rugby on the other. Out of this fracture the now distinct codes of Rugby Union and Rugby League emerged. Inevitably, it was the Yorkshire and Lancashire Unions that spearheaded the breakaway code, leading to the foundation of the Northern Union in 1895.

'The Roses Match' captures a final moment of unity before the game underwent its 'great schism'. This is what we know about 'The Roses Match.' The imposing painting concerns a game between Yorkshire, in white, and Lancashire, in red and white hoops, held at Park Avenue, Bradford on November 25, 1893.

It was painted by William Barnes Wollen R.A. (1857-1936), a portrait painter who produced a number of rugby paintings along with a large number of specially commissioned war canvases. Upon completion in 1895, the painting hung in the Royal Academy in 1896. After this, it was displayed in Leeds and Bradford. The painting then disappears off the radar, presumably into the hands of a private collector, for more than 60 years, before resurfacing in a second-hand shop in Grey Street, Newcastle in 1957. There, it was spotted by members of the Yorkshire RFU and purchased for £25.

Following the purchase, it hung for several years on the wall of the clubhouse in Otley. In the late 1960s the Yorkshire club transferred the painting to the Rugby Football Union where it underwent emergency conservation work. It was as a result of the conservation work that the ghost and several other mysteries appeared in the detail of the painting. However, even here, there is more upon which to agree than to disagree.

Wollen clearly employed artistic licence in his composition. At least one of the featured players, T.H. Dobson, is known not to have participated in the match. Also it seems that the referee, linesman, and spectators were given the faces of RFU officials, such as Secretary George Rowland Hill and President William Cail. But the real debate stems from the existence of the 'ghost' player who was originally included but then painted out.

The obvious question and the subject of most conjecture is: why was the Yorkshireman painted out of the picture? Throughout the 1890s, the RFU fought a rearguard battle against professionalism. Sir George Rowland Hill was the amateur game's staunchest defender, and stated that he would 'rather break the whole edifice of rugby union than give in to professionalism'. It therefore takes only a small leap of the imagination to picture an incandescent Sir George stomping about HQ demanding that Wollen paint the offending player out of history, for having committed the heinous crime of 'defection' to the professional ranks.

While this is a slightly amusing and somewhat compelling scenario, it is unfortunately perhaps the least likely explanation for the ghostly exclusion. History records that almost all of the players featured in the painting defected to the Northern Union, and if a similar punishment had been meted out to each, we would be left with perhaps one or two players running around an otherwise empty field.

Another common suggestion is based around the assumption that the players themselves commissioned the painting and that the phantom player was deliberately painted out for failing to pay his subs for the privilege of inclusion. Since the missing player is a Yorkshireman, this theory is particularly popular amongst Lancastrians. However, that, too, is unlikely. Had all those included in the painting held a financial stake in its production, we would be far less likely to have an unaccountable 60-year gap in our knowledge of the painting's whereabouts.

A third recurring theory is connected to the positioning of the ghost player. Overlapping his position on the field is the match referee, who has been identified as Rowland Hill himself. Might the painting's commissioner have sought to please the RFU secretary by positioning Hill as the great arbiter of the sport and ordered a late alteration, of which the apparition is the unfortunate victim?

Other theories suggest that the composition of the painting is a statement in itself. The nicest of these derives meaning from the inclusion of high-profile rugby officials amongst the spectators, while the players dominate the foreground. Could the message be that events on the field are all that truly matter? The Royal Academy records show that the painting was sold after it was displayed in 1896, which suggests that Wollen retained creative control of the work. However, this type of message has not been a feature of any of Wollen's other work. The events of 1895 would have a lasting impact on both rugby codes and inevitably, the tremors of the schism are reflected in the painting.

But the best thing about this and other historical mysteries, is that we simply don't know, meaning that none, any and possibly all of the above may be true.