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Bonhams to Sell Old Master Painting by Lucas Gassel that Shows Importance of Tennis
Players in 1530 picture have style resembling Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- Estimated to sell for £70,000 to £100,000, this oil painting by Lucas Gassel shows the grounds of a Renaissance palace with episodes from the story of David and Bathsheba, an extensive landscape with mountains and a harbour beyond. On a tennis court in the foreground, two players are using what appear to be very modern style tennis strokes.

The present work is one of a group of paintings that originated in Flanders in the years between 1530 and 1560, three of which are attributed to Lucas Gassel (Helmont c.1500-c.1570). The location of eleven of the pictures is known and there are several more which are only known by hearsay. Four of the series are in public collections. There is one at the MCC, Lords, London, and one in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

By the 16th century tennis had become one of the most popular of all games in the royal courts. The court shown here is similar in construction to those at Falkland, Bruges and Richmond, but these pictures are of tremendous interest to Real Tennis players because they show details of 16th century courts that would otherwise be unknown. The picture shows a cord suspended across the court but no net, as well as a paved floor. This corresponds with the description of the game given by the humanist scholar, Luis Vives, in his Latin exercise entitled Leges Ludi (The Rules of the Game) in 1539. There are galleries cut out of the side wall which provide accommodation for spectators. Viewers are also seen sitting in the court by the net, a custom which still survives in the early form of tennis played in Tuscany. Above the galleries is a broad band painted on the wall. It has been suggested that this is the dead-ball line which became the bandeau of the Real Tennis court.

This composition shows a singles game and the rather flamboyant strokes depicted are not necessarily thought to be what would be expected in modern Real Tennis, but it is possible that the rules by which the game was played in these pictures are not quite those by which the game is played today. Interestingly in an article for the Sunday Times on the 29 August, 1976, the paper's tennis correspondent, John Ballantine, made an observation on the two figures in the Lord's version, which correspond closely to the players in the present painting: 'Figure A [on the left] is preparing a forehand almost identical with renowned modern and revolutionary "loop" of the Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg and he has his eye impeccably fixed on the ball in sound textbook style. Figure B [on the right] has followed through on a top spinback handdrive just like Ilie Nastase, although the twirl of the legs is more à la Suzanne Lenglen.' The stooping figure on the left side of the court, who appears to be holding a square flat object, is thought likely to be the marker marking a chase.

During the 15th century, antique writers, such as Galen, inspired humanist scholars to advocate the revival of ballgames for exercising the body, resulting in the building of purpose-built tennis halls by the illustrious Sforza, Medici, Gonzaga, Este and Montefeltro dynasties in Italy, which emulated the descriptions of villas in classical antiquity. It cannot be established whether this group of paintings is the first to depict a tennis court, since it has been suggested that Donatello may have depicted one in the background of a bronze relief of the Miracle of the Repentant Son on the San Antonio Altar in Padua's Basilica del Santo. Nevertheless, this series would still appear to be the earliest known depiction of a game of tennis in play.

Caroline Oliphant of Bonhams comments, “Tennis is such an enduringly popular sport it’s remarkable to see such a wonderful early depiction of the game.”

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