The grounds of a Renaissance palace with episodes from the story of David and Bathsheba, an extensive landscape with mountains and a harbour beyond oil on panel 51 x 68cm (20 1/16 x 26 3/4in).
PROVENANCE: Robert A.D. Fleming J.E. Hope of Edinburgh Sale, Christie's, London, 20 December 1929, lot 41 where bought by Leggatt for Jervis Wegg, godfather of John Rickards, to whom he bequeathed it and thence by descent to the present owner
LITERATURE: W. Meyers, The Illustrated London News, 31 May, 1930, illustrated in colour (as The Master of Brunswick) Frank R. Davis, 'Sixteenth Century Painters and Real Tennis, The Illustrated London News, 29 July, 1950 A. de Luze, A History of the Royal Game of Tennis (Kineton, 1979) ill. p. 216 R. Morgan, Tudor Tennis a Miscellany (Oxford, 2001), pp. 105-115, ill. p. 54
The present work is one of a group of paintings that originated in Flanders in the years between 1530 and 1560, three others of which are attributed to Lucas Gassel. The appearance 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. As well as the present painting, the series comprises: Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford (oil on panel, 45 x 69 cm., attributed to Lucas Gassel); Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts (oil on panel, 45 x 69 cm., attributed to Herri Met de Bles); Marylebone Cricket Club, Lord's, London (oil on panel, 52 x 73.6 cm., attributed to Jan van Amstel); formerly the Duque de Palmella (oil on panel, 34.3 x 45.7 cm., attributed to Lucas Gassel); Lord Aberdare (signed and dated 'A.R. 1559', oil on panel, 50.7 x 66 cm., attributed to Andreas Ruhl); Dr. Restrelli (signed and dated 'LG 1540', oil on panel, 90 x 115 cm., by Lucas Gassel); formerly Weerth Collection (oil on panel, 71 x 90 cm.); Private Collection, Chicago; Louvre Museum, Paris (bistre drawing, 23.7 x 35 cm., attributed to Lucas van Leyden); Kende Gallery, New York, sold 1951; Sale, Christie's London, 8 July 2005, lot 19 (dated '1538', oil on panel, 64.7 x 91.3 cm., by Lucas Gassel).
All the pictures have the same basic layout, but each differs in its details. The Gardner and the present paintings are close copies of eachother, but show slight differences in the backgrounds. In the right foreground is King David's palace, and from the upper window he observes Bathsheba bathing in a pool to the far left of the composition. He is also shown standing on the steps of his palace handing Uriah the letter that will lead to his destruction. In the middle of the foreground is a Real Tennis court and to the left of this is a rectangular enclosure for the game of Boule à l'Anneau, in which a ball is propelled through a vertical ring by means of wooden clubs (rather like Pall Mall, the precursor of the modern croquet). This game was common in the Low Countries during the 15th and 16th centuries. Behind the tennis court is a pleasure garden with archers competing, on the left of which is an ornamental fountain. Beyond the garden is a maze. The other features in the distance show much wider variation, some pictures showing mountains and others estuaries and sea coasts with a variety of buildings in different positions.
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. This and all the pictures, except one, show a cord suspended across the court but no net. This and seven of the other pictures show the floor to be paved. This corresponds with the description of the game given by the humanist scholar, Luis Vives, in 1539 in his Latin exercise entitled Leges Ludi (The Rules of the Game). It also ties in with the appearance of the floor of the 16th century court at Tübingen, and with Garsault's description of a French court in 1769 being paved with squares of Caen stone, each one foot square. All the pictures with one exception show galleries cut out of the side wall which provide accommodation for spectators. Spectators 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.
The present composition corresponds with four others which show a singles game (rather than the doubles game shown in three others). 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. He and his contemporaries would no doubt have been aware of such a structure from Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote about a space for the game of tennis (giuocare alla palla) near the portico of the palace or villa in Book V of his De re aedificatoria. Nevertheless, this series would still appear to be the earliest known depiction of a game of tennis in play.
The hedge garden in the centre of the composition represents what has been termed the 'Labyrinth of Love', which is a precursor of the type of hedge maze that became popular during the Elizabethan period, when the hedges were taller so that you could not see over them. They were popular with courting couples who could wander within them. It is thus most likely symbolic of courtly love and intrigue. The tree in the centre of the maze (and of the composition itself) is a lime or linden tree, which in Germanic and Celtic mythology represented the cosmic axis and survives in popular culture today in the form of the maypole.