The exhibition exploring lawn tennis as a subject in art has become the most popular show ever staged at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The exhibition attracted almost 23,000 people – eclipsing previous exhibitions focusing on Constable, Turner and Rossetti. A staggering 22,981 people visited ‘Court on Canvas: Tennis in Art’, and its companion display ‘A Gem of A Game: The Roots of Lawn Tennis in the West Midlands’, which ran from 27 May to 18 September 2011 at the University of Birmingham-based gallery. A legacy film has been produced to give those who were unable to see ‘Court on Canvas’ a taste of how the exhibition looked, featuring a variety of media by some of the most famous British artists of the last 150 years. The film also features interviews with Professor Ann Sumner, Director of the Barber, and guests, (including 1969 Wimbledon Champion Ann Haydon-Jones), at a tennis party at a home on Ampton Road, Edgbaston. This was the site of the original lawn tennis experiments in 1859 by Major Harry Gem and JBA Perera. Find out more about ‘Court on Canvas’ and its legacy: www.barber.org.uk/courtoncanvas.html
A video round-up of the Barber Institute’s Court on Canvas and Gem of a Game 2011 summer exhibitions can be viewed here.
This splendid photograph of Harry Gem aged 48/9 was previously unknown until a couple of months ago. It depicts Harry as a captain in the Birmingham Rifle Volunteer Corps (Warwickshire Rifle Corps, Birmingham Division) and has emerged from the archives of the local Masonic Leigh Lodge of which Harry was a founder member in 1862 and eventually Master at the time this photograph was taken. In 1871 he was appointed the Provincial Senior Grand Warden for Warwickshire which was and remains a prestigious appointment.
In September 1859 Harry became secretary of the committee to set up the Birmingham Volunteers and enlisted as an ensign. Within a few months he was promoted first lieutenant, then captain in command of No1 Company and would reach eventually the rank of major.
Warwickshire Rifle Volunteers Belt Plate 1859.
With thanks to Major Stephen Wright who brought Harry’s photograph and Masonic background to our attention.
Robert Holland as Harry Gem left and Chris Elks as Perera right.
It was in 1859 that lawn tennis pioneer Harry Gem and his friend JBA Perera first experimented with a game recognizably the forerunner of the modern game of lawn tennis and which they called Pelota, in homage to Perera’s Spanish roots. Their experiments took place in the garden of Perera’s home in Ampton Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham. The size of their court may have been largely determined by the space available on the flat croquet lawn at the back of the house and, of course, the size of the court at the Bath Street Racquets Club where Gem was Honorary Secretary and both men were regular players. As Aidan Keane, current owner of the Ampton Road house, says: “Even the size of the modern-day tennis court is in direct correlation to the size of my garden. How mad is that?” Continue reading
An advanced copy of the Barber Institute’s book Court on Canvas has just arrived. It will be on sale when the Court on Canvas: Tennis in Art and A Gem of Game exhibitions open next Friday 27th May.
Gem's sketch of himself playing with Perera, against doctors Haynes and Tompkins, at the club they founded in Leamington.
Today, 21st May, is the anniversary of Harry’s birth in 1819. To mark the occasion there will be a re-enactment next week of Harry’s early lawn tennis experiments with his friend Perera in the grounds of the latter’s home in Ampton Road Edgbaston. This is part of the series of events associated with the Court on Canvas and Gem of Game exhibitions which open on Friday 27th May at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
Latest news in today’s Birmingham Mail (Thursday 12th May 2011): Councillor Osborn, Chairman of Birmingham’s Planning Committee has suggested that the new tennis centre at the Edgbaston Priory Club be named after Harry. We can think of no better way to celebrate Birmingham’s lawn tennis heritage and Harry’s pioneering contribution to the sport. See the Birmingham Mail’s article here.
Harry’s grave is in section P of Warstone Lane Cemetery in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter (see yellow dot). A permanent path leads towards the area and restoration work by the Friends of Key Hill and Warstone Lane Cemeteries has unearthed its continuation around the perimeter (see grey dotted line). Do walk carefully as the ground is a little unstable underfoot.
A seemingly unremarkable brown book, now over 120 years old, is in urgent need of conservation before it goes on display to the public, for the first time in its history, in May at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
Harry Gem’s Scrapbook
The Gem Scrapbook is held in the archives of the Birmingham Central Library and contains newspaper cuttings, correspondence, photographs and drawings giving an insight into the life of Major TH Gem, known to all as Harry. To lovers and historians of lawn tennis the Gem Scrapbook is the equivalent of the Holy Grail containing as it does copies of the first printed rules of the Leamington Club, the world’s first lawn tennis club set up in 1872 by Gem and Perera.