by Brooke Chilvers
In 2021, the former Friends of British Sporting Art, of which I was a member, voted to broaden its horizons by becoming the Friends of Sporting Art, thus embracing other continents and countries, other centuries and cultures.
As a result, the board (of which I am a member) is asking itself: What (exactly) is “Sporting Art”?
When the brilliant Gray’s Sporting Journal editor David Foster interviewed me for the job of sporting art columnist in the hallowed galleries of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, he told me, “Anyone can write one or six or sixteen columns for a year or two.” Then he turned to me and asked whether I thought I could write a column, six times a year, for five or 10 years. That was in 2004, and I am still here.
He also warned me that when you have a column, you begin to find your topics everywhere. They pop up or pop out or slowly emerge. They lurk; sometimes they are veiled. They can be the very first thought of the day, even before coffee. Or the one that wakes you up in the night or keeps you from sleeping. Like this one. Because, the question remains: What is Sporting Art?
It was easy for David and me to agree, standing in front of Rubens’s huge Wolf and Fox Hunt (ca. 1616), that the artist’s action-packed “hunts” were perfect for discussion in a column; and he came to agree that Jan Weenix’s Gamepiece with a Dead Heron (1695) was too, and I eventually wrote about both artists, in 2011 and 2007.
We never made it to the ancient Egyptian galleries to decide whether the engravings, frescoes, and reliefs of kings eternally spearing hippopotami, hunting lions, or fattening captured wildfowl, ibex, and oryx for slaughter for the table was sporting art.
When I submitted my column, “An Egyptian Bestiary,” in 2009, I argued that any civilization that depicted the hunting and capturing of live crocodiles for its temple deserved a place in sporting art history.
In 2015, after watching footage of ISIS destroying the preserved remains of the 7th century BC Assyrian capital of Nimrud, I paid homage to the enormous carved-in-relief alabaster slabs in museums celebrating the charioted Royal Hunts of Ashurbanipal, whose epithet read: “I killed 30 elephants with a bow… I killed 370 strong lions just by spear like birds in a cage.”
I’d gone even farther back in time, in 2005, to the earliest known hunting art: the Paleolithic parietal wall paintings in the caves of Lascaux, whose ochre aurochs and bison were painted some 19,000 years ago. (The oldest known piece of art drawn by a human hand, of six “straight” lines, was made in South Africa an estimated 73,000 years ago.)
But Editor Jim Babb thought I got a little too “anthropological” in my 2008 piece, “Dances with Eland – The Rock Art of the San-Bushman,” whose earliest examples are some 30,000 years old.
I argued back, hey, this is perhaps the purest “art inspired by hunting” – or fishing, or steeplechasing, or coaching, or whatever you want to add; bullfighting? — which is how David Foster defined “sporting art” to me, and made it my job to foster. I found the same spirit, in 2006, in the hunting pictographs on the hide canvases of the buffalo robes of the Plains Indians.
Jim was also not entirely convinced when, in 2011, I wrote about Cowboy artist Charles Marion Russell. My defense was that our readers would enjoy a piece about Russell in any case; and in his career, Charlie produced more than 50 buffalo-hunt paintings and sculptures. So no ruling out Western art.
It was an epiphany for us all that sporting art did not necessarily have to include an image of someone in the act of shooting or fishing or foxhunting. Which made me feel confident to write about the bird artists who contributed to our understanding and identification of wild birds: John James Audubon (2011), Archibald Thorburn (2013), and Louis Agassiz Fuertes (2019.)
Ditto for the animalier sculpture of Rembrandt Bugatti, whose antelopes and leopards really don’t have anything to do with sporting art. But I wrote about him anyway, in 2008, because I knew you would like it.
Still, Jim did warn me that images of fish alone is not the same as fishing. I won’t go there, but chose to write about the North Sea fishes, in Flemish still lifes and market scenes, in 2015, as well as James Prossek’s portraits of trout out of water (2013).
I am deeming African wildlife art as worthy of inclusion as “sporting art,” as it often shows game species, especially the Big Five of elephant, lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, and rhino. Although John Seerey-Lester actually paints hunting action and hunting camps (I wrote about him in 2011), I’ve also written about Wilhelm Kuhnert (2010), Carl Ackeley (2006), Cornwallis Harris (2018), and Thomas Baines (2015), although allusions to rifles in their works are rare.
If it holds that hunting art is “art inspired by hunting,” then no one should object to my 2010 column on the hunting of unicorns in the late-Gothic (1495-1505) Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters in New York, and the six slightly younger Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Musée Cluny in Paris.
Beyond the obvious subjects (including many related to dogs and horses) and obvious sporting artists (including Ogden Pleissner, George Morland, Carl Rungius, Robert Abbott, Henry Alken, Alfred Munnings, Percival Rosseau, and Richard Bishop, not to mention several dozen contemporary artists, including Chet Reneson, Eldridge Hardie, Tom Daly, C.D. Clarke, Arthur Shilstone, and Joseph Sulkowski) my job description includes extracting the pertinent “sporting art” works among the Turners, Courbets, Daumiers, Delacroixs, and Franz Marcs whose oeuvres are more concerned with acts of gods, stormy skies, or allusions to war. How gratifying it is to chance upon Thomas Eakins’s atmospheric “reed-hunting” scenes among all the textured portraits!
And so, here we are, back to the beginning. What is Sporting Art? I’ll stick to David Foster’s definition that it is art inspired by the chase in any form, and our good earth’s wild places and creatures.
Brooke Chilvers admits that this piece has failed its function as a mission statement for the birthing of the Friends of Sporting Art.