Who's for tennis? Court on canvas

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The first exhibition to explore lawn tennis as a subject in art opens at Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Art tomorrow.

The exhibition opens at a space less than half a mile from Edgbaston, the suburban birthplace of the modern sport.

Pioneers of the early game, Major Harry Gem and his friend, Jean Batista Augurio Perera, first experimented on the lawns of the latter’s house at 8 Ampton Road, Edgbaston, in 1859.

The popularity of the game burgeoned after the duo helped establish tennis clubs in Edgbaston and Lemington Spa in the 1860s. By 1977 the first Wimbledon championship was held and just a decade later tennis was well established across the pond in America.

The first paintings featuring tennis date from the 1870s. Painters such as John Lavery were fascinated by the scope the subject provided for depicting movement, and, particularly, women moving – tennis was one of the first sports in which women participated freely.

Court on Canvas features a wide variety of paintings, drawings, prints and mixedmedia works dating from the 1870s through to the 21st century, by artists including Lavery, Spencer Gore, LS Lowry, Stanley Spencer, Eric Ravilious, Winnie the Pooh illustrator EH Shepard, David Hockney and Tom Phillips.

It will even feature the iconic 1970s Athena Tennis Girl poster, pictured above with Fiona Walker more recently, which was photographed on a tennis court at the University of Birmingham where the Barber Institute is based.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a second exhibition, A Gem of a Game, which will explore the early history of lawn tennis and its local connections. It will feature artefacts such as early tennis rackets and equipment, women’s tennis outfits through the ages, the original copy of the rules, as written down by Major Gem.

Court on Canvas: Tennis in Art is at the Barber institute of Fine Arts from 27 May until 18 September 2011, www.barber.org.uk