The Art of Golf

The Art Mu­seum of Phil­adelphia opens an ex­hib­it called The Art of Golf, which will run through Ju­ly 7th of this year. In ad­di­tion to fam­ous paint­ings of golfers, there are dis­plays of tra­di­tion­al coats golfers used to wear in Scot­land and Eng­land. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

When the best golfers in the world gath­er in Ar­d­more next month for the 113th U.S. Open, the play­ers, in­ter­na­tion­al me­dia and sun-kissed (or rain-drenched) gal­ler­ies will be­latedly com­mem­or­ate the centen­ni­al of a ven­ue steeped in the sport’s il­lus­tri­ous his­tory.

Opened in 1912, the East Course at Merion Golf Club has hos­ted the Open four times pre­vi­ously, as well as a half-dozen U.S. Am­a­teur events, with le­gends Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino all among the site’s past cham­pi­ons.

But golf is a lot older than ven­er­able Merion.

For an even deep­er per­spect­ive on the cen­tur­ies-old pas­time, Open pat­rons need only ven­ture a few miles off the course to the Phil­adelphia Mu­seum of Art, where an on­go­ing ex­hib­i­tion ex­plores the game’s Scot­tish roots. The Art of Golf fea­tures about two dozen 19th cen­tury paint­ings, prints and ar­ti­facts, all with ties to the world-renowned “home of golf,” the Roy­al and An­cient Golf Club of St. An­drews, Scot­land.

The center­piece of the dis­play is an 1847 oil on can­vas by Charles Lees that cur­at­or Jen­nifer Thompson de­scribes as the defin­it­ive golf paint­ing. At sev­en feet wide and more than four feet high, The Golfers: A Grand Match Played over the Links of St. An­drews of­fers a pan­or­ama of how the game ap­peared al­most 170 years ago.

“Lees has giv­en you the whole pan­or­ama of the town it­self and the great links land spread around it,” Thompson said dur­ing a pre­view tour of the ex­hib­i­tion.

The term “links” is used to de­scribe a course laid over coastal lands marked by un­du­lat­ing, sandy ter­rain. The paint­ing de­picts an ac­tu­al four-per­son match that oc­curred on the Old Course at St. An­drews three years earli­er in­volving many of the lead­ing golfers of the time. In ad­di­tion to the play­ers and their cad­dies, about 50 spec­tat­ors ap­pear in the frame, many sport­ing bright red leis­ure coats, bow ties, top hats and oth­er early Vic­tori­an at­tire.

“[The scene] is thought to have oc­curred on the fourth hole, which was also known as the Ginger Beer Hole, where you could take a re­fresh­ment,” Thompson said. “And one of the de­tails I find par­tic­u­larly charm­ing in the paint­ing is this young girl who is ac­tu­ally of­fer­ing re­fresh­ments, prob­ably ginger beer, to the vari­ous spec­tat­ors.”

His­tor­ic­ally, there’s a lot go­ing on in the im­age. Among the com­pet­it­ors is Sir Dav­id Baird, a Brit­ish bar­on­et and army cap­tain, who is partnered with Sir Ral­ph An­struth­er. One of their op­pon­ents is Sir Hugh Play­fair, who would serve as prov­ost of the Uni­versity of St. An­drews for sev­er­al dec­ades and “was vi­tal to the de­vel­op­ment of the mod­ern town of St. An­drews,” said Thompson, who at­ten­ded the uni­versity and vis­ited the Old Course many times. Play­fair’s part­ner is John Camp­bell, one of the elite play­ers of the time.

“I was al­ways amused by this pic­ture be­cause there’s not a hair out of place. It looks like a very calm day,” Thompson said. “And if you’ve been to St. An­drews, you know the wind comes roar­ing off the North Sea and it is in fact one of the charms of the course, that it’s very chal­len­ging. Some­times, in heavy winds, it’s down­right in­hos­pit­able to play golf there.”

Al­though serving as a cad­die in the paint­ing, Al­lan Robertson emerged as per­haps the most not­able golf­ing fig­ure de­pic­ted. He be­came a lead­ing equip­ment man­u­fac­turer and was said to have been un­beaten as a play­er. To­geth­er with his ap­pren­tice, Tom Mor­ris, they were known as “the in­vin­cibles,” Thompson said.

Mor­ris even­tu­ally split with Robertson, left St. An­drews and de­signed the fam­ous Prestwick course in the west of Scot­land, where the Brit­ish Open — known of­fi­cially as The Open Cham­pi­on­ship — was first con­tested in 1860. “Old” Tom Mor­ris, as he had be­come known, won the Open four times and even­tu­ally re­turned to St. An­drews as ground­s­keep­er and club pro­fes­sion­al from 1864 to 1903.

Sir George Re­id’s 1903 oil paint­ing of Mor­ris hangs prom­in­ently in the on­go­ing ex­hib­i­tion, while some of Robertson’s equip­ment is also on dis­play, in­clud­ing a vin­tage ball made of hardened feath­ers and a leath­er cov­er.

The shi­ni­est ob­ject in the col­lec­tion is a sil­ver club used by the Roy­al and An­cient Club as a trophy from 1818 un­til 1930. It was presen­ted an­nu­ally to the St. An­drews mem­ber cham­pi­on, who would have to com­mis­sion a new sil­ver golf ball and at­tach it to the trophy’s shaft.

Sadly, the ar­ti­fact provides no in­sight as to the win­ner of the highly touted match de­pic­ted in The Golfers paint­ing. The out­come re­mains a mys­tery. Writ­ten his­tory of the match in the form of bet­ting slips or oth­er club re­cords also seems to be miss­ing.

“There is no ball from the 1840s that relates to our paint­ing,” Thompson said. “So it’s a cir­cum­stance where we’re sort of foiled in know­ing who won that par­tic­u­lar match.”

The Art of Golf ex­hib­i­tion will con­tin­ue through Ju­ly 7 at the Phil­adelphia Mu­seum of Art and is in­cluded in the reg­u­lar mu­seum ad­mis­sion price. ••  

On the Web:

To view a video tour of ‘The Art of Golf,’ vis­it the North­east Times’ You­Tube page at­­east­Times.

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or

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