- Yorkshire played Lancashire on this day 124 years ago
- The county clash became inspiration for a painting
- 'Ghosts' appear in the detail of the canvas
On this day in 1893, Yorkshire played Lancashire at Bradford’s Park Avenue ground, in a game that would later become inspiration for one of the most iconic rugby pictures ever painted.
‘The Roses Match’ by William Barnes Wollen has resided on the wall of the President’s Suite in the West Stand of Twickenham Stadium since 1969, but prior to this, hung in a number of galleries, a rugby club and a second hand shop.
Painting a journey
Wollen was a portrait painter who specialised in sporting and military art, and his depiction of this particular county clash went on exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1896, three years after the game.
"At the time of this tussle, these two counties dominated English rugby and their players dominated the English national team," said Phil McGowan, World Rugby Museum Curator.
"Yorkshiremen and Lancastrians had always figured in the national team but their numbers spiked in the late 1880s as rugby grew in popularity with working class players in urban areas across the two shires."
The painting was subsequently shown in Bradford and Leeds before disappearing for more than 60 years – where it is believed to have been part of a private collection – before resurfacing in a second hand antiques shop on Grey Street, Newcastle in 1957.
The details surrounding what happened next remain unclear however. Some say it was spotted by officials from Yorkshire RFU, who paid £25 for it before donating it to their county, whilst others suggest it was a travelling Yorkshire team that stumbled on it, paying significantly less, before bringing it back to their club.
Two details remain a constant in both versions however: the picture ended up at Otley RUFC, and Mr Frank Malir – a former England fullback – was involved in the purchase.
Ghosts in the canvas
The picture has an air of mystique attached to it: with the existence of certainly one – but perhaps multiple – ‘ghost players’ in the canvas, who were originally included in the work but taken out retrospectively.
It was transferred to the RFU by Otley 48 years ago, where it underwent emergency restoration work, and it was during this time that the mysteries appeared in more detail, and theories – as many as there already were – resurfaced.
The theories of the ghost player vary, from him thought to be a rugby league defector, to a Yorkshireman who failed to pay his subs that season – a popular notion among Lancastrians – but there is no way to be sure.
Along with the excluded player, it is worth noting the inclusion of RFU officials at the time. The referee is depicted as former RFU Secretary George Rowland Hill, and President William Cail also features, casting more speculation over the work and its meaning.
“As a kid I remember being told stories about the ghosts,” explains RFU Director of Professional Rugby, Nigel Melville, whose childhood clubhouse the picture adorned. “The figures were much clearer to me then than they are now.
“We would play rugby outside until it was dark, then go into the clubhouse drenched and covered in mud, sit in front of a roaring fire and dry out with a coke and a packet of crisps, just looking at the picture. "All the big stars played in those games..."
“There was a big brick fireplace at Otley and smoke would billow upward toward the picture regularly. It wasn’t particularly treated with museum-like respect, and could have even been hit by a rugby ball once or twice.”
Melville, who won 13 international caps, also featured for Yorkshire over 30 times and recalls one of his first ever county games was against Bill Beaumont’s Lancashire.
“Lancashire was the biggest game for us; the rivalry was huge,” he said. “I was brought up with that match being a big deal, and playing in it was extremely tough. All the big stars played in those games back then.”
From staring at ‘The Roses Match’ as a child, to playing in a handful as an adult, for Melville the grand painting holds a special significance, and the former scrum half admits being reunited with it years on was a surreal experience. "It was part of my life"
“It was really weird seeing it all those years later in Twickenham,” he added.
“As a kid it was something I saw frequently and sat under with my mates. It was something I had been brought up with, like a family thing; it was part of my life.”
In ‘The Roses Match’, Wollen captures a final moment of unity before rugby underwent its north/south, union/league divide, and although the painting’s connotations, history and participants might not be clear, one thing is: rugby’s story was deemed important enough to tell.
And it’s a story that continues to be painted, 124 years on.