Next week, the U.S. Open returns to Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia for the fifth time since the club was established 100 years ago. It has played host to some of professional golf's most memorable moments, including Bobby Jones' completion of the Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Amateur in 1930 and Ben Hogan capturing his second of four U.S. Opens in 1950, months after a near-fatal car accident.
Just down the road the Philadelphia Museum of Art has taken the opportunity to explore the less well known artistic representation of the game, in Victorian-era Britain, with the exhibition "The Art of Golf." The show is a scaled-down version of a larger traveling show organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in collaboration with the National Galleries of Scotland.
"I was particularly interested in the Scottish section of the show because in 2002 the National Galleries in Scotland acquired Charles Lees' 1847 painting 'The Golfers,'" said curator Jennifer Thompson of the centerpiece of the exhibition. "It's one of the most remarkable paintings of golf ever done."
The 7-foot-wide canvas depicts a decisive moment in a match played in fall 1844 on the Old Course at the prestigious Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Scotland. Featured are four principal players surrounded by more than 50 spectators, all of whom have been identified. Many can be seen clad in the club's traditional red jackets.
"It was a critical moment — one ball was teetering close to the hole and university provost Major Playfair had just hit a putt. You literally appear to be watching it roll at this great moment of suspense between," Thompson said.
Lees was a pupil of Edinburgh's foremost portrait painter of the late 18th century, Sir Henry Raeburn. With "The Golfers," Lees shifted from portraiture to sporting subjects. He spent three years composing the work from concept to execution using a series of sketches of select, prominent individuals. A photograph taken by pioneers Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, believed to be one of the earliest images of the sport, assisted in accurately portraying the realistic play on the greens.
"Lees' challenge was finding a way to capture the action and make it lively," said Thompson of the likelihood that he used the photograph as preparatory work. "In the history of Scottish art, Charles Lees would be a minor footnote were it not for this picture, which has been embraced by the golfing community," Thompson said.
Sadly, because of incomplete records the winner of the match is unknown.
Other pieces on display consist of an array of sketches, golf clubs, a St. Andrew's red coat, 12 paintings by Scottish artists including Raeburn, Sir Francis Grant and Sir George Reid, and feathery balls that were painstakingly produced by stuffing goose and chicken feathers into a tiny hole in a ball made of pieces of leather.
An enticing English travel poster serves as a reminder that Scotland, the birthplace of the game, was and is the preeminent place to play it.
The exhibition runs through July 7.