Gallery captures glory of sports Exhibition: A corner of the National Portrait Gallery, a museum that extols "the Most Eminent Persons in British History" is given over to the country's star athletes.

Sun Journal

November 01, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- There is a place where athletes remain forever young, where greatness is captured in the glimmer of an eye or the bulge of a muscle, and where Britain still rules the sporting world.

Come to Britain's National Portrait Gallery and take a walk through an exhibition devoted to this country's sporting heroes.

It doesn't matter if you don't know the names of these stars, or the sports they played. The race for fame and excellence is a universal pursuit, the foreign fields, racetracks and boxing rings merely backdrops to glory.

There is the old cricketer W. G. Grace, a British version of Babe Ruth, all girth and swagger, yet with the beard of a prophet. Nearby is his cricket bat, as ungainly as the lumber that Ruth once swung in American baseball stadiums.

There is Roger Bannister, exhausted yet smiling, flanked by the two men who helped him break the century's great track-and-field barrier -- the 4-minute mile. On one cold day at Oxford in 1954, history and sportsmanship ran side by side.

And there, at the entry, a great crowd of men stand to watch a soccer game at Norwich in 1939. By modern standards, the working-class men are elegantly dressed, with flat caps and overcoats, cigarettes dangling from some mouths, smiles pressed on nearly all the rest. And the eyes. They're looking forward.

"We invented a lot of these sports. And then, we gave them away," said James Huntington-Whiteley, curator of the British Sporting Heroes exhibition that will run until Jan. 24.

The British may no longer be a sporting power. But sports continue to show a side of this nation -- combative and unconquered, yet bearing a soft spot for those who try mightily and lose gloriously. The 200-odd photos and portraits on display fit beautifully in a museum established in 1856 to gather the portraits "of the most Eminent Persons in British History."

The National Portrait Gallery houses more than 8,000 portraits and more than 500,000 photographs. It celebrates the faces of Britain, a place to see and study the great personalities and leaders of a nation, the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, Disraeli and Churchill.

Now the sports stars have their little corner. And the history of men and women at play spills out, from the early sportsmen who performed under the patronage of aristocracy, to the modern millionaires who ply their skills over global television.

Britain still sees itself as a cradle of modern sports. Cricket, soccer and rugby are quintessentially British games, now shared with the world. Tennis became a bedrock sport at the country's grass-court cathedral, Wimbledon. And Britain's privileged amateurs sought to abide by rules of fair play and sportsmanship.

"Britain was not only 'the first industrial nation,' she was the first sporting nation," writes sports historian Richard Holt in the exhibition catalog.

He adds that the "British played games to prepare for economic and imperial expansion. Competitiveness was a cardinal virtue. It was never unrestrained, anarchic individualism. Team games promoted collective struggle and useful cooperation."

The games could be tough, brutal even, but individual heroes emerged from the fire of these competitions.

"Sport defined much of what the British admired about themselves and what others admired about them, before the world media began the process of narrowing national differences," Holt writes.

The exhibition is proudly British, filled with rarities. There are bare-knuckle brawlers Jack Broughton and George Stevenson, guts heaving, fists flying, in a 1741 painting.

From the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews in Scotland comes the portrait of Tom Morris Sr., the man who symbolized 19th-century golf, with his stern gaze, gray beard and wooden-shafted club held like a hammer.

And there is Lord Byron's boxing screen, an intricate jigsaw of portraits and published tales of 19th-century pugilistic heroes. The poet and satirist liked a good fight.

"Byron was passionately keen on boxing," Huntingdon-Whiteley said. "It was a real craze in Regency London. Anyone who was among the smart set would follow boxing. There were masses of money involved in it."

But the true British heroes, at least from Victorian times through the interwar years of the 20th century, were the amateurs. In black-and-white still photos, a whole age comes alive.

Remember the movie "Chariots of Fire," the tale of British Olympians Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams? They're here. Liddell, the racer who wouldn't compete on the Sabbath, is carried by a crowd through Edinburgh in 1924. And Abrahams, the outsider who dared hire a professional coach, is pictured alone, arms behind his back, a race number tacked to his white shirt.

Women began to make an impact on British sports in this period, in tennis and even shooting. But it wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that women's sports began to receive more attention.

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