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The Ghost in the Painting

The Roses Match

The Roses match painting

Photo: World Rugby Museum

The most famous rugby painting of them all belongs to Yorkshire RFU and hangs on the wall of the President's Suite in the West Stand of Twickenham Stadium.

The painting depicts a late 19th century tussle between two of England’s fiercest historic rivals, Lancashire and Yorkshire. At the time of the painting, these two counties dominated English rugby, and their players the English national team.

But English rugby was heading into its most divisive period. The events leading up to 1895 would shake the foundations of the sport, bringing the RFU and the union code to its knees in a dispute over lost earnings and professionalism.

Inevitably, it was the Yorkshire and Lancashire Unions that spearheaded the breakaway code, leading to the foundation of the Northern Union in 1895. In retrospect, this painting manages to capture a final moment of unity before the game descended into factional turmoil.

This is what we know about ‘The Roses Match.’ The imposing painting concerns a game between Yorkshire, in white, and Lancashire, in red and white hoops, held at Park Avenue, Bradford on November 25, 1893.

It was painted by William Barnes Wollen R.A. (1857-1936), a portrait painter who produced a number of rugby paintings along with a large number of specially commissioned war canvases. Upon completion in 1895, the painting hung in the Royal Academy in 1896. After this, it was displayed in Leeds and Bradford.

The painting then disappears off the radar, presumably into the hands of a private collector, for more than 60 years, before resurfacing in a second-hand shop in Grey Street, Newcastle in 1957.

There, it was spotted by members of the Yorkshire RFU and purchased for £25. Following the purchase, it hung for several years on the wall of the clubhouse in Otley. In the late 1960s the Yorkshire club, while retaining ownership, kindly transferred the painting to the Rugby Football Union.

It has been on display in the West Stand of Twickenham Stadium ever since.

The painting’s unsolved mysteries stem from the detail. However, even here, there is more upon which to agree than to disagree. Wollen clearly employed artistic licence in his composition. At least one of the featured players, T.H. Dobson, did not participate in the match.

The faces of the referee, linesman, and spectators have been replaced with RFU officials such as secretary George Rowland Hill and 1893 president William Cail, who would later drive through the construction of Twickenham Stadium.

But the real debate stems from the existence of a ‘ghost’ player who was originally included but then painted out. The player only came to light when the RFU undertook conservation work to have the painting cleaned, firstly upon receipt in the late 1960s and for a second time in 1991.

The obvious question and the subject of all the conjecture is: why was the Yorkshireman painted out of the picture?

Throughout the 1890s, the RFU fought a rearguard battle against professionalisation in the sport. Sir George Rowland Hill was one of the amateur game’s staunchest defenders, and stated that he would rather split the sport than introduce player payment.

It therefore takes only a small leap of the imagination to picture an incandescent Sir George stomping about HQ demanding that Wollen paint the offending player out of history, for having committed the heinous crime of defection to the Northern Union.

While this is a compelling scenario, it is unfortunately perhaps the least likely explanation for the ghostly exclusion.

History records that almost all the players featured in the painting defected to the Northern Union, and if a similar punishment had been meted out to them all, the painting would take on the bizarre scenario of perhaps one or two players running around an otherwise empty playing field.

Another common suggestion is that the phantom player was deliberately painted out for failing to pay for the privilege of inclusion. This theory is particularly popular amongst Lancastrians.

However, that, too, is unlikely. Had all those included in the painting held a financial stake in its production, we would be far less likely to have an unaccountable 60-year gap in our knowledge of the painting’s history.

A third recurring theory is connected to the positioning of the ghost player. Overlapping his position on the field is the match referee, who has been identified as Rowland Hill himself.

Might the painting’s commissioner have sought to please the RFU secretary by positioning Hill as the great arbiter of the sport and ordered a late alteration, of which the apparition is the unfortunate victim?

Other theories suggest that the composition of the painting is a statement in itself. The nicest of these theories centres on the inclusion of high-profile rugby officials among the spectators, while the players dominate the foreground.

Could the message be that rugby, at its heart, is only a game, and what happens on the field is all that truly matters?

It could, and the Royal Academy has indicated that the painting was sold after it was displayed in 1896, which suggests that Wollen retained control over the creative direction of the work. However, this type of message has not been a feature of any of Wollen’s other work.

In some ways, the tremors of 1895 undoubtedly still surround the painting, and many of its unsolved mysteries remain a ready source of conjecture and myth.

But the best thing of all about the painting, and so many other historical mysteries, is that we simply don’t know, meaning that none, any and possibly all of the above may be true. The counter-conspiracy theories, gossip and mischievous rumour may continue.