Art forms part of the core of our social history, casting light on some of the oddest practices in society. Today and tomorrow I look at paintings of a sport which, according to modern authorities, didn’t arise until around 1860, and is supposed to have been brought to Europe from India. It’s even named after the Duke of Beaufort’s Gloucestershire seat, Badminton House, although no one seems to know why. The sport of badminton is featured on one well-known painting by Auguste Renoir, from about 1887, and I’ve shown a couple of others from the same period, by Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema and Charles Edward Perugini.
Racquet sports such as tennis have long appeared in paintings. One of the oldest references to that game is Michele Desubleo’s Odysseus and Nausicaä from about 1654, which gives a full account of this story from Ovid’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in his Metamorphoses. Odysseus is shown naked, clutching the leafy branch strategically to his crotch with his left hand. His right arm is held out, apparently pleading his case to the princess, sat in her beautiful robes, and in the process of handing him an item of clothing.
Nausicaä holds in her left hand a wooden bat, following an apocryphal story that she had been playing an early form of real tennis, for which the ball is towards the lower edge of the painting.
Whenever the modern sport of badminton started, its roots are in what was known as battledore and shuttlecock, or in French jeu de volant, thought to date back to the days of the Roman Empire. A battledore is the precursor of the modern strung racquet, and the shuttlecock has been a light object to which flight feathers are attached. For centuries, children are supposed to have knocked shuttlecocks around in the air using their battledores.
Each of these paintings is a bit like the popular Spot the Ball contest, in which participants are invited to mark where they think the ball is in a still image of a game of football (soccer). Only we’re here trying to spot the shuttlecock.
The earliest painted evidence that I’ve seen of this is in this portrait of Queen Christina of Sweden, painted by an unknown artist when the queen became monarch at the age of six, in 1632. She holds her battledore in the right hand, and quite a sophisticated shuttlecock in the left. She seems to be a keen player of the game well over two centuries before the advent of badminton.
Even better attested is this portrait of a Girl with Racket and Shuttlecock painted by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin in 1737. Her racquet is strung with catgut, and the shuttlecock is in her left hand. Its construction is conventional: seven coloured feathers stuck into a cork cone. Suspended from her right elbow is a pair of scissors and a small purse.
J J Dailly’s magnificent Snuffbox with the Family of Louis XV (1761-62) is constructed from gold with painted enamel portraits on different sides. While her brother Louis, the Dauphin, flies a kite on its front, at the left end is a painting of Louise-Marie holding a battledore and shuttlecock.
Georg David Matthieu’s royal Portrait of the later Frederick Francis I, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and his sister Sophia Frederica from 1764 puts a battledore in his right hand, with the shuttlecock next to the chairleg, on the floor.
I’m a bit more doubtful as to the youth of William Williams’ Portrait of a Boy, Probably of the Crossfield Family (c 1770-75), but he too seems to want us to see his battledore and shuttlecock.
A little later, the popular printmaker Joseph Barney showed a group of five children playing what is here titled Badminton, which is a clear anachronism. They’re playing the childhood game of battledore, with no sign of any net between them.
This seems to have been quite a popular device in childhood portraits, such as that by William Beechey in this Portrait of Kenneth Dixon, Battledore Player from about 1790.
Although William Blake’s short poem The Fly, one of his Songs of Innocence and of Experience from 1794, doesn’t mention the game, the girl seen at the left is clearly playing it.
In tomorrow’s concluding article, I’ll look at how the nineteenth century transformed the childhood game of battledore.