barber institute of fine arts
university of birmingham


The stunning Victorian watercolour, The Lawn Tennis Party at Marcus, by Arthur Melville, has just gone in display in the galleries in time for the start of the British tennis tournament season – and for a special free Tennis Festival held at the gallery on Saturday 9 June.

The delightful painting – and the Tennis Festival – provides a lasting legacy for last summer’s phenomenally successful exhibition, Court on Canvas: Tennis in Art. It is on display in the main galleries after undergoing thorough conservation, and has been hung alongside the fascinating 1900 oil painting The Tennis Party, by Birmingham-trained artist Charles March Gere, on loan from Cheltenham Art Gallery until August.

Timing couldn’t be better – Edgbaston is currently hosting this year’s AEGON Classic, the pre-Wimbledon ladies’ tournament at Edgbaston Priory Club, which opened on Monday 11 June.

One of the paintings featured in Court on Canvas was a stunning sketch by Arthur Melville, depicting a tennis party at Marcus in Scotland (1886), lent by a collector in the US. Following the exhibition, the finished watercolour of the sketch was offered for sale at Christie’s, London – and, thanks to support from the Friends off the Barber Institute and the Henry Barber Trust, the work was purchased for the gallery.

Melville’s fresh and vibrant watercolour shows the family home of John Robertson (a friend of the artist), at Marcus in north-east Scotland. Robertson himself sits at the tea table with the Revd John Herkless, later Principal of St Andrews University, while Mrs Robertson and Mrs Herkless play tennis gracefully in the foreground underneath an autumnal tree. Melville’s first sketch for the subject was conceived in his blurry ‘blotesque’ manner, capturing the rapid movement of the players. In this finished watercolour, painted for exhibition after a gap of three years, his style is much more precise and the details of the composition more resolved.

Highlights of the Barber’s Tennis Festival, which took place on Saturday 9 June, included:
Dr Jennifer Melville (Lead Curator of Art, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum) exploring The Lawn Tennis Party at Marcus, 1889;
Court on Canvas curator Prof Ann Sumner, discussing Charles March Gere;
Tennis historian Bob Holland, who will lead an object-handling session and will also talk about the history of tennis clubs in the West Midlands.

Those who attended the Tennis Festival – generously funded by the All England Lawn Tennis Club – were treated to a complimentary tennis party-inspired buffet lunch, and the opportunity of taking a tour bus around the city to view important sites of tennis-historical interest. These included Britain’s oldest lawn tennis club, Edgbaston Archery and Lawn Tennis Society, and ‘Fairlight’, in nearby Ampton Road, site of some of the very first experimental games of lawn tennis by owner JBA Perera and his friend Major Harry Gem in the late 1850s.

The Barber’s Head of Collections and Learning, Robert Wenley, said: ‘Having borrowed Melville’s smaller sketch of 1886 for the exhibition Court on Canvas, and being unable to trace this finished work for the show, it is a huge delight to have secured the watercolour for the Barber.

‘It is entirely appropriate that the work should find a home here in Edgbaston – the home of lawn tennis – where it also fills a significant gap in our works on paper collection.  I would like to thank the Henry Barber Trust and the Friends of the Barber Institute for their generosity in securing this painting’.