The painting shows a croquet party at Pennington Cottage, a striking example of a Victorian cottage orné, complete with outbuildings and a garden, that Hicks used to lease on an annual basis. It was situated on the Hampshire coast, with a fine view across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, and was probably popular with the Hicks family because it was near their Lymington relations.
Hicks is known to have been a keen player of croquet, which enjoyed a great vogue in England in the 1850s and 1860s. There are various theories as to the game's origins. Some have identified it with a game called 'crooky' which was played in Ireland in the 1830s and later brought to England, others with an eighteenth-century sport called 'pall mall' (or, in France, 'paille-maille') which enjoyed a revival in the mid-nineteenth century, when it was considered gentle fresh-air exercise for convalescents. This is the version favoured in the catalogue of the exhibition The Pursuit of Leisure: Victorian Depictions of Pastimes, mounted at the Djanogly Gallery, University of Nottingham, in 1997, which included a painting of a croquet match by Sir John Lavery (no. 42). Though nearly thirty years later than our picture, this makes an interesting comparison, emphasising the role of women players and showing the game taking place in a seaside setting.
The prominence of women in both pictures is no accident. From the outset, croquet was popular with women, partly because it was the first outdoor sport that could be played by both sexes on an equal footing, partly because it did not involve violating the Victorians' very strict ideas on the subject of female dress. Other recommendations were the modest amount of space the game required, and the equally modest amount of equipment. The first public championship took place in 1867, three years after our picture was painted. In due course national championships were held at the Wimbledon All England Croquet Club, and in 1900 croquet was played at the Olympics. However, by the turn of the century, the increasing popularity of tennis signalled the end of croquet's heyday.
According to his notebooks (published as an appendix to Rosamond Allwood's catalogue to the 1983 Hicks Exhibition), Hicks painted a finished picture of this subject and a sketch, both of which were sold to the dealer Henry Wallis. Hicks's work was handled by a number of leading London dealers, including Gambart, Flatow, Vokins, Tooth and McLean, but many of his early pictures went to Wallis and appeared in the winter exhibitions at the French Gallery, 120-121 Pall Mall, which Wallis had owned since 1861.
There has been some confusion about whether our picture is the finished work or the sketch. In 1864, evidently flown with the notion of painting croquet subjects, Hicks also executed two 'vignette studies' of individual women players, entitling them The Croquet Player (mallet down) and The Croquet Player (mallet up: 'Take Care'). Cataloguing a sketch for Mallet up: 'Take Care' for the 1983 exhibition (no. 27), Rosamond Allwood reproduced an old photograph of what she described as 'probably the sketch' for The Croquet Match (i.e. the present composition), the whereabouts of which were then unknown. However, so far as one can tell from the small and rather murky reproduction, the photograph corresponds almost exactly to our picture, while the high degree of finish which the latter exhibits suggests that this is not a sketch but the final work. This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that a smaller (6 x 9¾ in.) and less resolved version was sold at Sotheby's on 13 June 1990 (lot 147). Dated 1864, this was undoubtedly a sketch for our picture, presumably the one Hicks records in his notebooks as having sold for £20 to Wallis.
The only striking difference between the old photograph and our picture is that in the photograph the man shown wearing a dark jacket and raising his right hand, immediately to the right of the central trio of figures, wears a black top hat. Close scrutiny of our picture, however, shows that originally this figure did sport a top hat, which has been painted out. Since the figure also wears a top hat in the sketch, we can only conclude that the artist conceived him as hatted and painted him as such in the finished picture, but had second thoughts after the photograph had been taken.
The photograph is annotated with the names of the models, probably in Hicks's own hand. The two young women players to the left are Mrs Creagh Osborne and Mrs Crozier. Mrs Taylor sits behind them, surveying the game with a rather supercilious expression and shielding herself with a sunshade. The principal female figure, wearing a white dress with a pink sash and a straw hat stylishly bedecked with feathers, is Mrs Maturin, while Mr Peacock (bearded) and Mr Daniell engage her in conversation. The originally top-hatted man is Mr St Barbe, and the man lounging on the grass to the right is Mr Joubert. All were presumably friends of Hicks and his wife, although only Mr Joubert is more than a name. He can almost certainly be identified as the photographer F. Joubert, of 96 Porchester Terrace, Bayswater, who was a neighbour of the Hickses in London and had taken their photographs in the early 1860s (1983 exhibition, cat. nos 11-12, illustrated). Perhaps he was staying with the couple in their rented cottage orné, or perhaps this was a circle of London friends who all took holiday accommodation in the area and met at the Hickses' for a congenial game of croquet.