Mixed media | Round ball, flat art

Titled “Army Football,” the mixed-media work in pen and black ink, graphite and watercolor by James Boswell is one of 41 World War II–era drawings, watercolors and linocuts the British Museum holds in its Boswell collection.

British Museum database shows football in mix of media

London | Perusing institutional archives for football-related arcana has been made considerably easier in the Internet age. A recent example is the quiet launch to the Web of a portion of 50,000 drawings and a far greater number of prints—so-called flat art—within the British Museum collection (James Fenton, “Rembrandt Reaches the Web,” Guardian, Nov 10).

A simple keyword search on “football” yields 34 results. Tantalizingly, much of the material that has thus far been cataloged remains unavailable—a poster, “Kuwait FC,” depicting a football and “an imprisoned hand”; a papercut (papel picado) banner by Maurilio Rojas, an elaborate Day of the Dead Festival creation from Mexico that incorporates a skeleton goalkeeper; “Madadeni Mental Hospital Which Has Many People,” a 1969 montage by John Muafangejo of the South African government hospital that includes patients playing football and planting a tree; and other drawings and satirical sketches.


A slideshow of football images from the British Museum Digital Collection Database: “ ‘Flat Art’ | Football Images from the British Museum.”

But the rewards make a virtual visit worthwhile, as demonstrated in our slideshow.

First is the early-17th-century panel, a nearly two-foot painting with gold leaf, depicting a 10th-century game of kemari, the juggling football variant for courtiers that emphasized aesthetic principles over competition. The painting attributed to Tosa Mitsuyoshi illustrates an episode from the epic Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, what some call history’s first novel. In chapter 34, “Wakana-jo” (rendered “Young Shoots” or “New Herbs”), the young Kashiwagi demonstrates his prowess at the imperial court, participating, in full court regalia, with three others in a “rough, noisy game” that “suddenly took on an unwonted gentleness and grace” (from Arthur Waley‘s translation, Houghton Mifflin, 1929).

[Kashiwagi] had not been in the game for more than a few moments when it became apparent, from the way in which he gave even the most casual kick to the ball, that there was no one to compare with him. Not only was he an extremely handsome man, but he took great pains about his appearance and always moved with a certain rather cautious dignity and deliberation. It was therefore very entertaining to see him leaping this way and that, regardless of all decorum. The cherry-tree was quite near the steps of the verandah from which Genji and Nyosan were watching the game, and it was strange to see how the players, their eye on the ball, did not seem to give a thought to those lovely flowers even when they were standing right under them.

Visible in the large online version are two cats who have scampered onto a balcony.

Another football precursor, pallone, appears in the background of a 17th-century Dutch engraving. An Italian game played at least as early as the 16th century, pallone involves two sides of players striking an inflatable leather ball with a wooden cylinder, a bracciale, worn over the forearm. In the foreground, two men work to inflate one of the balls; air-filled leather balls were a relatively recent innovation at the time, having been referenced in 16th-century English schoolbooks.

That football, at least the folk variety, had entered British public consciousness by the late 18th century is evident in use of the game as a motif in satirical period drawings. We display two examples, the first by caricaturist Matthew Darly. “The Game at Football” shows two stubble-faced British sailors giving a Spanish don a literal kicking, one saying to the other, “Damme Jack lets have a game of football.” The second sailor, arms folded, replies, “With all my heart, kick him up Tom.” An earlier curator at the British Museum surmised that the reference is to two naval victories by Admiral George Rodney to help relieve Gibraltar in January 1780.

The second sketch, “The Man of the People, the Foot-ball of the People,” employs the identical gag in 1784. Whig politician Charles James Fox, supporter of American independence and anti-slavery activist, is booted skyward by backers of William Pitt the Younger, who had secured a House of Commons majority. “He flyes like a Wild Goose,” says an onlooker. Writes Hunter Davies in Boots, Balls and Haircuts: An Illustrated History of Football from Then to Now (Cassell, 2003):

The use of a football, being kicked about, as a political or metaphorical image, in art and language, predates organised football, showing just how old football is in our culture. Parliamentarians and political writers used the term “political football” to describe someone or some idea being knocked about from as early as the eighteenth century. (225)

We come closer to the modern era with two en plein air creations by World War II–period artists. The two painters, the expatriate New Zealander James Boswell and German-born Erwin Fabian, fill their wartime sketchbooks with everyday facets of military camp life, although from different perspectives. Boswell, branded the “unofficial war artist” due to his Communist Party membership and anti-establishment drawings of British leaders, penned wartime art in an “unpretentious, unheroic, unsmarmy style” (William Feaver, “Land of Dead Ends,” Guardian, 16 Dec 06).

Called up in January 1941 and enrolled in the [Royal Army Medical Corps], he went through radiography training at the military hospital on Millbank and was transferred later in the year to Peebles [Scotland]. Undeterred, he drew where he could—as did many others, similarly uprooted. Pencil and wash studies of barrack room activities before lights out became a regular genre for browned-off conscripts with Penguin New Writing in their knapsacks. … In Scotland there were Nissen huts under dripping trees, medical inspections, lumberjack chores, weekend excursions to mean village streets, shops closed, rain, rain, rain.

Darkness and tedium pervade the 1941 ink and watercolor sketch, “Army Football,” from Peebles of three conscripts kicking the ball about, corrugated-steel huts and military vehicles arrayed in back. After time in Scotland, Boswell was posted to Egypt, then Iraq, a potential conflict zone that became less important after German defeats in North Africa. Boswell’s Iraq series from Camp 17 records what the artist, in journal entries, describes as a “guerrilla war against … ennui.” “Here in the middle of nowhere with barbed wire perimeters and ruler-straight roads leading to vanishing points in featureless horizons,” writes Feaver in James Boswell: Unofficial War Artist (Muswell, 2007), “he drew the constant unloading and loading, the business of cookhouse and latrine, tents pitched during storms, swill sloshed into oil drums and the sun threatening to melt corrugated iron roofs.”

James Boswell, 1942


Boswell’s widow, Ruth, would reproduce several of her late husband’s anti-war images for protests against the recent Iraq war (Garth Cartwright, “James the Obscure,” NZ Listener, Sept 22–28).

Fabian, creator of the watercolor depicting 1941 prison-camp football in Australia, numbers among a collective of Italian- and German-born artists encouraged to produce work in the manifold internment camps (see the National Gallery of Australia exhibit, “The Story of Australian Printmaking, 1801–2005,” 30 Mar–3 Jun 07). Fabian’s image, about 13″-x-18″, conveys stasis and uncertainty on a bleached landscape, camp barriers blurred in the distance.

Finally, the work of portrait artist Hubert Andrew Freeth, “Football in the Snow at Watford” (1977), offers a more familiar rendering of the game. Supporters plunge hands in overcoat pockets and cower beneath Trilbys. Players strive on a white sheet of snow. As a whole, the work suggests the gray industrial North and the requisite stolidness in its face.

From a trove of political, propaganda and social-issue posters and handbills at the Library of Congress comes this example from 1978 in Argentina. The text, in translation, reads, “Argentina ’78: World’s Site of Torture and of the Violation of Human Rights. To Condemn It May Save a Life.” (Yanker Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Other sources

For football “flat art,” we also recommend the New York Public Library Digital Library, including its collection of 125,000 cigarette cards, many featuring early-20th-century English footballers. The American Memory project at the Library of Congress contains images of early American soccer, many from the Chicago Daily News archives (see also the Chicago Historical Society).

For gritty black-and-white fare from northern England, see the Cottontown site, covering the Blackburn area, and Humphrey Spender‘s photography from Bolton (see 12 Sept 06). Also, the London Transport Museum maintains an online archive of 5,000 city transport posters, 48 on a football theme. These date to 1912, with an extended selection promoting Underground travel to FA Cup finals at Wembley. Such art was commissioned in order to extend ridership during off-peak hours, writes Nigel Richardson of a tour with museum director Sam Mullins (“London Transport Museum: Back in Service,” Daily Telegraph, Nov 24):

The museum’s poster collection is one of the finest in the world. Once, they were plastered along Tube platforms, extolling the virtues of “Metroland”—that Arcadia stretching out into the Chilterns along the Metropolitan Line—of “Theatreland,” and of wholesome hikers on country walks. Now they stand in their own right as pieces of period art.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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