All in the name of the game

'Sporting paintings are often something in disguise.' Iain Gale on the Tate Gallery's British Sporting Art exhibition

Lady Mary Churchill looks a game girl. Perched side-saddle on her grey mare, she gazes benignly on the object of her morning's work - a dead hare. It might baffle us today that an apparently sane and attractive young woman should commission an artist to paint her portrait alongside a recently killed small furry animal, but John Wootton's fine equestrian portrait neatly defines the essence of the Tate's current display of British Sporting Art: a testimony to a now almost vanished way of life which once involved an entire rural population - male and female, rich and poor.

It was not Lady Mary's intention to be portrayed as a bloodthirsty Amazon. But by being portrayed "in the chase", she was defining her status in society. For, like all of the works hung with it here, Wootton's painting cannot simply be called a "sporting painting". Indeed, it might be argued that there is no such thing as "sporting art". The avowed intention of these works might be to record a particular race or hunt meet, but whatever was in the mind of the master of the Carrow Abbey Hunt when in 1780 he commissioned Philip Reinagle to paint himself and five fellow members relaxing with their hounds, you can be sure it had nothing to do with "great sporting moments". Rather, Reinagle was charged with portraying the men who, in 1780, owned, rode and ruled the land around Carrow Abbey. For all its informality, this is essentially a court portrait, its throne a dining table, its orb and sceptre the musket and whip.

Sporting paintings are often something in disguise. Tilleman's Foxhunting in Wooded Country is really an excuse to paint unfashionable landscape, Stubbs's Mares and Foals an equine "sacra conversazione". The quintessential "sporting painting", though, is a portrait of a landowner who professes to both understand and control his land.

In spite of such hidden agendas, however, one of the lessons of this exhibition is that "sport" was never solely the preserve of the aristocracy - but of all country dwellers. Certainly the men who career across the ditch in Alken's The Belvoir Hunt Jumping In and Out of a Lane are farmers and landowners, but what of the peasants of George Morland's Rabbiting - a village family waiting with their terrier at the edge of a warren on common land, to legitimately claim their quarry.

Similarly, James Pollard's painting of Fly Fishing on the River Lee is a paean to Izaak Walton's "calm, quiet, innocent recreation". The rich might have their venison, partridge and salmon (the unspeakable not always pursuing the inedible), but the right to hunt - be it only for rabbit, pigeon or trout - was inalienable to every countryman (ask any 18th-century reader of Tom Paine). Certainly these paintings reinforce the late 20th- century prejudice that "field sports" are the preserve of the lite - for what villager in his right mind would spend any little money he had on a painting depicting him killing a rabbit? Ironically, in creating these enduring icons to status, the patrons of sporting art were destroying their own way of life.

This exhibition is a requiem for the most English of art forms. Landscape and portraiture may survive, their true purposes sufficiently obscure. But sporting art, even without a dead hare, is just too blatant for an avowedly classless society. And precious few talented artists are today prepared to take on the mantle of Stubbs and Wootton.

n At the Tate, London, to 2 July. See listings below for details

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'