This is the finished sketch for one of the most important and widely-known paintings of a golfing subject, The Golfers by Charles Lees (National Portrait Gallery of Scotland). The picture represents a celebrated encounter on the St. Andrews Links in which Sir David Baird and Sir Ralph Anstruther were matched against Major Playfair and John Campbell of Glensaddell. The scene is the 15th green on the Old Course. Major Playfair has just putted and Sir David Baird bends forward with his club in his hand to watch the fate of the stroke. Sir Ralph Anstruther stands by the hole, bare-headed, while Major Playfair's partner, Campbell of Glensaddell, is seen further to the right, smoking.
Charles Lees was born at Cupar, Fife, and was a pupil of Sir Henry Raeburn, R.S.A. (1756-1823). After studying for some years in Rome, he settled in Edinburgh where he enjoyed a successful career as a painter of portraits, landscapes, historical subjects and scenes of Scottish life. He was fond of outdoor sports and painted many sporting scenes. In 1830 he was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Academy (for which he became Treasurer), and The Golfers was shown there in 1851 (no. 29). The picture was engraved by Charles F. Wagstaffe of Edinburgh and published on 20 December 1850 by Alexander Hill, print seller to the Queen, of 67 Princes Street. It is discussed at length in Robert Browning's A History of Golf (New York, 1955, pp. 55-8), and reproduced by David Stirk in Golf: A History of an Obsession (London, 1987, pp. 90-1).
As Browning observes, the picture dates from 'the golden age of foursome play, (when) public interest was more excited over matches for high stakes beween partnerships of well-known amateurs than by the contests for the Silver Clubs or the stroke play competitions that succeeded them. All four contestants were famous players in their day, and are celebrated in verse in George Fullerton Carnegie's Golfiana, written in 1833 for the entertainment of the North Berwick and Royal and Ancient Clubs, to which they each belonged.
In developing the final picture from the present sketch, Lees made a number of changes. Two other games of golf were shown taking place in the distance, and the number of spectators was increased, the additional figures including a mounted man and woman on the left. In both picture and sketch, many of the spectators are shown wearing the pink coats which indicated their membership of the Royal and Ancient. Both capture brilliantly the tension and drama of the match as everyone watches with bated breath to see if the putt will reach the hole and drop in.
Major Playfair (1786-1861), later Sir Hugh Lyon-Playfair, was the third son of Dr James Playfair, principal of St. Andrews. At the age of eighteen he obtained a commission in the East India Company's Bengal army, in which he pursued a distinguished career, rising to the rank of major. Ill health caused him to return in 1817 (interviewing Napoleon on St Helena on the journey), and he spent the next three years travelling in Scotland, Ireland and Europe, but in the summer of 1820 he went back to India, finally resigning his commission in 1831. He settled at St. Andrews and in 1842 was elected provost, a post which he held until his death. His later years were devoted to municipal reform, fund-raising for the University, and the welfare fo the celebrated golf Club, all of which earned him a knighthood in 1858.
Playfair's partner, John Campbell of Glensaddell, Kintyre, had been one of the knights in the famous Eglinton Tournament of 1839. He was described by Robert Clark in his book Golf: A Royal and Ancient Game (Edinburgh, 1875) as 'a sort of Magnus Apollo with the fashionables of his day...He was a great sporting man and, though a heavy-weight, rode remarkable well to hounds. He went in a balloon from Heriot's Hospital to Fife when such a thing was considered a bold feat. He was a noble-looking man, pompous in his manners, and very irascible; In golf he was well known for his long drive.
Sir David Baird (1795-1852), 2nd Baronet, of Newbyth, Co. Haddington, was, as his tense and eager attitude indicates, a passionate devotee of golf. He listed his favourite sports as golf, salmon-fishing, deer-stalking and fox-hunting. He was the moving spirit in the creation of the North Berwick Club in 1832, serving as its first captain and, as an instance of his keenness for the sport, it was recorded that on a pouring wet day he drove from Newbyth to Musselburgh, played eight rounds of the nine-hole links, and drove back to Newbyth 'without changing a stitch'. He invariably played in a tall hat such as can be seen in the present painting.
Like Major Playfair, Sir David Baird (1795-1852) had been in the army, achieving the rank of captain. He too, moreover, had an Indian connection, since he was a nephew of Sir David Baird, 1st Baronet (1757-1829), who had led the storming party which took Seringapatam in 1799 and appears in Wilkie's great masterpiece Sir David Baird discovering the Body of Tipoe Sahib (Edinburgh Castle, on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland). During the Peninsular War, Baird had been at the Battle of Corunna, in which he lost an arm, and it is interesting that his nephew's partner, Sir Ralph Abercrombie Anstruther (1804-1863), 4th Baronet, of Balcaskie, had also inherited his title from a hero of Corunna, his father, Sir Robert Anstruther, 3rd Baronet. Sir Ralph himself had served in the army as a captain in the Grenadier Guards. According to Carnegie he also had political ambitions, although he was never in Parliament.
No doubt their military background help to bind these men together as golfing companions or rivals, but as Browning observes, the foursome seem to have varied somewhat in skill: 'Major Playfair appears, from an account of a handicap competition at North Berwick, to have been slightly the best, for he gives a stroke to Baird and Anstruther, who in turn are three strokes better than Campbell. But this was no doubt one of the attractions of foursome play. In matches between players of approximately equal skill, it was usual to strike a balance by giving of odds in the betting rather than by conceding a stroke or two in the round, and in foursome play any minor differnce could be adjusted in the arrangement of the partnerships, as in the present case, in which the strongest player and the weakest combined against the other two, with the added interest...that it is not always the strongest players who make the strongest partnerships. So pronounced was the taste for foursome play at this epoch that when the first attempt to hold a championship meeting was made, it was by foursomes...that it was decided'.