Dated 1878 and exhibited at the Royal Academy two years later, this is the earliest known painting of polo being played in England. It shows a match which took place on 7 July 1878 at Hurlingham, on the banks of the Thames at Fulham, between the Monmouthshire team and the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues). The sides wear respectively white flannel shirts and red and black striped jerseys. The focal point is a dramatic confrontation between the captain of the Monmouthshire, Captain Francis (Tip) Herbert (1845-1922), and one of the Blues' most experienced players, Captain John Brocklehurst (1852-1921). Captain Herbert charges down the field, his stick poised to whisk the ball away from his opponent. The match is watched by an elegantly dressed crowd, whose coaches are drawn up in the distance on the left. Among them are the Prince and Princess of Wales, their presence betraying a royal interest in the game which still exists today. Not for nothing has polo been called 'the king of games and the game of kings'.
Polo originated in Persia, possibly as early as the 6th or 7th century BC, although the first written accounts occur in the writings of the Persian poet-historian Firdausi (940-1020 AD). In the sixteenth century the game enjoyed a vogue in India, and the British army took it up during the Raj, when it was known as 'hockey on horseback'. It was introduced into England in 1869 when a group of officers of the 10th Hussars, led by Captain Edward (Chicken) Hartopp, challenged the 9th Lancers to a game on Hounslow Heath. The teams played on army chargers with upturned walking sticks.
The 9th Lancers was Captain Herbert's regiment. He was not in the team on this historic occasion, but by 1871 he was playing polo with a passion and commitment that were to make him one of the game's great pioneers. The second son of William Herbert of Clytha Park, near Usk in Monmouthshire, he belonged to a family that had been established in the Welsh Marches since the Middle Ages and was a cadet branch of the Herberts who were Earls of Pembroke. In 1872, having retired from his regiment, he founded the Monmouthshire Polo Club, the first such club in England. Home matches were played at Clytha or on Abergavenny racecourse. Indeed for the first two seasons there were only home matches, for the simple reason that no other clubs existed. The Monmouthshire had to make up two teams from its own members, of which there were sixty in all, each paying an annual subscription of ten shillings. Dress consisted of a white flannel shirt, a red sash, tie and cap, white breeches and butchers' boots. In the early days, rules were either non-existent or ignored, while balls and sticks were of every conceivable pattern. Tip Herbert experimented with golf clubs, and, until it proved too dangerous, used a specially manufactured stick with an oak head shod with iron. Small ponies were preferred because it was felt that they made it easier to reach the ball. 13 or 14hh was the norm, and the animals were generally of the Welsh variety, commandeered from local farmers.
As time went on, other country clubs were established, while in London polo was played first at Lillie Bridge, a small ground near Earls Court, and then at Hurlingham, which added polo to its other activities in 1874. Indeed within a few years Hurlingham had become the centre of English polo, and its ascendancy caused country clubs to decline. Monmouthshire itself played its last season in 1896. During its heyday, however, it was one of the leading clubs in England, quickly outgrowing its rather provincial origins to shine on the national stage. It was at its peak in the late 1870s, playing several exceptional matches at Hurlingham and winning the coveted Champion Cup in 1878 and 1880.
The match recorded in the picture was yet another triumph for the Monmouthshire, which trounced the Blues 4-1. It would undoubtedly have been a highlight of what was then quite a short season. The two distinguished teams, an outstanding country club pitched against a regiment that yielded to none in its devotion to polo, ensured prowess of a high order, while the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales, who had patronised polo at Hurlingham from the outset and had watched the Monmouthshire play before, guaranteed the social success of the occasion.
Hurlingham is said to have attracted the attention of polo playing officers when they visited the Club for pigeon-shooting. They recognised its potential for the more glamorous sport, and the management realised that polo would ensure the Club's future. Nonetheless, creating a suitable field was a costly business. Hurlingham House and its estate had to be purchased for 27,500; an orchard had to be felled and uprooted, and the ground levelled and prepared. All this, moreover, took no more than a year, a committee being appointed to oversee the development in June 1873 and the first matches played the following summer. The old pigeon-shooting ground lay behind the tall wooden palisade that can be seen on the left in the picture. A flagstaff nearby flies the Hurlingham colours, and part of Musgrave House overtops the trees in the distance.
The Prince and Princess of Wales appear in front of the marquee, the Prince standing, in top hat and grey frock coat, the Princess, in a blue dress, seated beside him. Also in the middle distance are the officials in charge of the match, the two umpires, Sir Bache Cunnard (1851-1925) and Sir William Carne Curre (1855-1930, and the starter, Captain Walter Smythe (1827-1919). Captain Smythe, the top-hatted and heavily bearded figure standing a little to the right of the marquee and holding a flag, was the Club's secretary and had been in charge of creating the polo ground. An old friend of Captain Herbert, he had married his younger sister, Marie Louise, and taken part in the Monmouthshire's first ever recorded game, held at Clytha on 28 September 1872. He was to succeed to the family baronetcy in 1897, becoming Sir Walter Smythe of Ashton Court, Bristol.
The two umpires, in top hats, black coats and grey trousers, are seen mounted on bay horses. Sir Bache Cunard, on the left, is one of the most interesting figures in the picture. A third baronet and grandson of the founder of the shipping line, he had been born in New York and educated at Rugby and Trinity College, Cambridge. His country seat was in Leicestershire, where he played a prominent part in public life, serving as JP and Deputy Lieutenant. Besides being a keen huntsman and shot, he was a passionate devotee of polo, captaining his own team, The Tyros, and playing in many of the great early matches both at Lillie Bridge and Hurlingham and in the United States. The Monmouthshire team had played The Tyros in an epic encounter at Hurlingham in 1877, battling for the Champion Cup in a match so evenly balanced that after two hours a draw had been declared. Again the Prince and Princess of Wales had been present. Unfortunately, this same year Bache Cunard's younger brother Edward, a subaltern in the 10th Hussars, lost his life in another polo match. This caused Bache to give up playing, which accounts for his role as umpire in the match shown here.
The other umpire, Sir William Curre, was even better known to the Monmouthshire team, having played with them against The Tyros in 1877 and when they won the Champion Cup the following year. He became Deputy Lieutenant of the county and was Master of Foxhounds of the Itton, later known as Mr Curre's, after his father.
The earliest polo matches in England were played between teams of six or even eight a side. In 1873 the official number was reduced to five, and in 1882 to four. The picture therefore shows teams of five players, all of whom can be identified. On the far left is Charles Gore, Lord Kilmarnock (1852-1927), who was to succeed his father as 20th Earl of Erroll in 1891. Captaining The Blues, who had won the Hurlingham Champion Cup in 1876, the first year it was awarded, he looks on anxiously at the tussle between Brocklehurst and Herbert. Brocklehurst, who rose to command his regiment in 1895 and was later elevated to the peerage as Lord Ranksborough, was known as a master of the dribbling game, a skill he is shown exercising here.
Somewhat to the right of Kilmarnock, mounted on a dark bay pony, is the Hon. Charles Fitzwilliam (1845-1927), son of the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam. He was Tip Herbert's exact contemporary and in his time had played for the Monmouthshire team, notably in their first ever away match, held at Lillie Bridge on 9 June 1874. To Fitzwilliam's right, riding a chestnut pony, is Captain Evelyn Atherley (1852-1935), who later transferred to the 7th Hussars, while further right again, behind Brocklehurst, is Captain Frederick Trench-Guscoyne (1851-1937), who became a Major General. All these were veteran members of the Blues, and had played when they won the Champion Cup in 1876.
The rest of the Monmouthshire team are as follows. Immediately to the right of Captain Herbert, riding a chestnut pony, is Sir Charles Wolseley (1846-1931), 9th Bt.net, of Wolseley Hall, Staffordshire. He had played with the team from its earliest days, and started the Staffordshire Polo Club shortly after the Monmouthshire's foundation in 1872. He was also, like Sir Bache Cunard, a member of the Hurlingham Committee. The other three players to the right were also Monmouthshire regulars. James Mellor, on another chestnut pony, had been in the teams which had won such glory at Hurlingham in 1877 and 1878, as had Hugh Owen (good Welsh name), the man on a black pony in the distance, who was later to become a starter for the Jockey Club. More prominently placed in the right foreground, on a grey pony, is Reginald Herbert (1841-1929), Tip Herbert's elder brother. Like his sibling, he was an early enthusiast for polo and among the foremost players, founding and managing the Ranelagh Polo Club in London. He was also a keen huntsman, acting as Master of Foxhounds of the Monmouthshire on the Clytha estate, and inaugurated a celebrated rowing match on the Thames for a prize of 1,000 guineas. In 1922 he inherited the Sawston estate in Cambridgeshire and took the name of Herbert-Huddleston.
So much for the players; what of the artist? George Earl belonged to a family of artists who specialised in animal subjects. He exhibited at the Royal Academy 1857-83, as well as supporting the Society of British Artists and the British Insitution. He owned two houses: 76 Newman Street in Bloomsbury, London's bohemian quarter in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, and Burgh House at Banstead in Surrey. At least six other artists named Earl are recorded from the late eighteenth century onwards. Whether or not they were all related, Thomas Earl was probably George's father or elder brother since he used the Newman Street address for his RA exhibits, and Maud Earl, who settled in New York and died as late as 1943, was certainly George's daughter.
Although the Earls were primarily animal painters, they occasionally treated other themes, and George sometimes sought to use animals as the basis for elaborate compositions involving figures as well. No doubt he was inspired by famous animal painters who had excelled in this field, such as Landseer and Rosa Bonheur. Three examples have been handled by Christie's in recent years. The Carlisle Otter Hunt, a dramatic conception of 1876, was sold on 26 April 1985, lot 37, while Going North: King's Cross Station and Perth Station: Going South followed on 22 June 1990, lots 84-5, selling respectively for 264,000 and 308,000. These two enormous canvases of 1893-5, in which crowds of sportsmen and sportswomen are seen waiting to board trains with their dogs, are now in the Railway Museum, York.
The present picture is clearly another example of Earl's work at its most ambitious. It is conceived in heroic terms, with the focus on an epic confrontation between two acknowledged champions. The figures are disposed as if on a classical frieze, and indeed the central group of Captains Herbert and Brocklehurst engaged in combat was later borrowed by the designer of the Westchester Cup, so symbolic did it seem of the game's skill and drama. The prominence given to Tip Herbert and his brother Reginald suggest that one of them may have commissioned the picture. It is true that, if this was the case, it had left the family by 1901, when it was offered for sale at Christie's by J. Wiener; and it was still in other hands in 1921, when it was again consigned to Christie's, this time by Cora, Countess of Strafford, an American who had previously been married to the 4th Earl Byng. That year, however, both Tip and Reginald Herbert were still alive, and it seems likely that Tip re-purchased the picture, which has descended to his great-nephew, the vendor.
We are grateful to Roger Chatterton-Newman, Horace Laffaye and Nigel Miskin for their help in preparing this entry.