Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Curlers at Rawyards

'The Curlers at Rawyards' is a nineteenth century painting that shows the sport of curling. It was painted by John Levack in 1857 and deserves to be better known than it is at present. It is a large oil on canvas, in the care of North Lanarkshire Council and CultureNL, and is currently on display at the Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life in Coatbridge, Scotland. It can be found online here where a larger image can be studied in more detail than the small one above.

I knew of the painting but, until recently, I had not realised just how big it is. It is one thing to see the image on screen, or in a book, but it is quite another to see it 'in the flesh'! It is around twelve feet by six feet, with the frame. It's huge. At Summerlee, it is is contained in a large glass case. Here I am standing beside it. The idea was to give the scale, but because the painting is about a foot back from the protective front glass, it still appears smaller than it really is!

In the years before photography, paintings can tell us something about how the sport was played. If we assume that the artist painted exactly what he saw in the winter of 1855-56 (when it is thought the match depicted was being played), we can learn something about the sport at that time.

Importantly, the stones in use have goose-necked handles, centred on the stones which presumably are double-sided, made to be reversible. These stones are quite different from single-soled stones, such as those seen in 'The Grand Match at Linlithgow' which was painted just ten years earlier by Charles Lees, see here. I always have in my mind that the middle of the nineteenth century was when double soled stones with goose-necked handles began to replace single-soled stones.

John Levack has depicted the stones at Rawyards in different colours, and we know that in the nineteenth century, different types of rock were used for making curling stones, see here.

There are two games taking place, one in the foreground, and the other on a sheet set at an angle to the first. There is no doubt that play is four-aside. By 1857 most curling clubs were playing matches with four players on each side, playing two stones each, as recommended by the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. Some clubs were still adhering to eight-aside play, but not that illustrated here.

The curlers are all depicted with broom cowes, rather than hair brushes. Even some of those just watching the play are carrying brooms.

It has been said that the painting shows curling in an industrial landscape, but this is hardly the case. In the background, there is a chimney stack and winding gear of a local colliery, of which there were many in New Monkland.

The variety of bottles and the baskets on display indicate that the 'inner man' was being looked after!

When I first looked at the painting online I wondered who the various personalities in the painting were, and why the artist had included them in his composition. When I saw the painting on display I was excited to see that the most prominent figures are all named in little plaques attached to the frame.

I have copied these out, as best I could sitting on the museum floor, with my nose pressed up against the glass case! Those named are:

Thomas Chapman of Commonhead
Claude Storrie (Airdrie)
John Fram (Airdrie)
Robert Mitchell (Airdrie)
James Arthur (portioner, Airdrie)
James Waddell of Whinhall
Baillie Longmuir (Airdrie)
Peter Thomson (baker, Airdrie)
Henry Walker (coalmaster, Airdrie)
James Taylor (baker, Airdrie)
Provost JT Rankin of Auchengray
David Mitchell (banker, Airdrie)
John Davidson of Broomfield
James Thomson (architect, Airdrie)
James Boston (flesher, Airdrie)
Robert Graham (farmer, Rawyards)
John Dalziel (banker, Airdrie)
Patrick Rankin (junior) of Auchengray
Patrick Rankin of Auchengray
John Russell of Eastfield
John Aiton (town clerk, Airdrie)
Gavin Black of Rawyards
James Mochrie (Airdrie)
James Forbes (Royal Hotel, Airdrie)
John Russell (merchant, Airdrie)
William Whyte (writer and registrar, Airdrie)

In all, twenty-six figures are identified in the painting, including an architect, a baker, a banker, a farmer, a hotelier, and the town clerk! James Arthur was a 'portioner', the owner of land, previously divided amongst co-heirs. John Fram should probably be John Frame. Note that there are two John Russells on the list.

It is possible too, to identify the team members 'in action' in the scene. Thomas Chapman has delivered his stone. Gavin Black is directing the play. Claude Storrie and James Waddell are the sweepers. 

That's Gavin Black of Rawyards in the prime position in the painting. The pond, on his land, was home to the New Monkland Curling Club. Black was among the keenest members of the club.

Evidence for this can be found in the Glasgow Herald of March 10, 1854, which records a club dinner in Forbes's Hotel in Airdrie. James Thomson Rankin was in the chair. That's the Provost JT Rankin in the 1957 painting, the striking figure in the kilt! The dinner was in honour of Gavin Black of Rawyards, and he was duly presented with 'a massive silver claret jug'. This had the inscription, "Presented by the members of the New Monkland Curling Club, to Gavin Black, Esq, of Rawyards, as a token of their esteem and respect for him as the leading curler in the club, and as a grateful acknowledgement for the facilities which he affords them in curling - Airdrie, 3d March, 1854."

The newpaper reported that, "Mr Black replied in a speech full of manly feeling and kindly sentiment, assuring his brethren of the New Monkland Club that it afforded him much pleasure to give them the use of his loch at Rawyards."

The New Monkland Curling Club was formed in 1842 and admitted to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1849. It likely took its name from New Monkland parish.

In the Royal Caledonian Curling Club Annual for 1856-57, the Patron was James T Rankin, and the President was Gavin Black. The secretary was James Thomson. He is featured in Levack's painting, and his plaque records that he was an architect. Of the twenty-six named persons in the painting, twenty-one can be found among the regular members of the club listed in the 1856-57 Annual.

In the years after the painting was completed, the club must have encountered problems of some sort. Its list of members appears in the Annual for 1861-62, with John Dalziel now the President, but there's no list of members the following year. Whatever the reason, the New Monkland club did not reappear in the Royal Club's listings again until the Annual for 1877-78, when it is recorded that it had been admitted to the Royal Club in 1877. The regulations of the Royal Club at that time stated, "If any Club shall fall three years in arrear of its annual fees, it shall be struck off the lists of the Royal Club, and not reponed except as a new Club."

But from the names of the forty-nine regular members in 1877, it was most definitely the same club, and must have had a continued existence, albeit not as a member of the Royal Club. Indeed, one can find in the Glasgow Herald of January 31, 1871, the record of a match between the New Monkland and Slamannan clubs at Rawyards, six rinks aside, on January 28.

In the absence of the old minute books it is not possible to say why the New Monkland club had not continued to be a member of curling's governing body. But when back in the Royal Club family, the New Monkland Curling Club teams went on to win the Grand Match Trophy on consecutive occasions in 1886 when the Grand Match was held twice, in January and then in December that year, at Carsebreck.

Where was Rawyards? The Ordnance Survey map, surveyed just a couple of years after the painting was completed, shows the curling pond clearly. The area is to the east of Airdrie. Rawyards was the name of the main house, and there was also a Rawyards Farm.

There is an indication of a small building on the western side of the pond.

And in the painting, there is also a building, and this is surely the club's curling hut where stones and other curling paraphernalia could be stored.

A later map from 1899 shows that the pond may have been modified somewhat, but the curling hut (highlighted in blue) stands out at the end of a track leading from the boundary road.

If you visit the area today, you can find the foundations of a small building, above, where the map predicts it should be. This may have been a later building than that in existence in 1857, but built in the same place. With this evidence and study of the local topography today, it is clear that the artist has taken his point of reference from somewhere on the north side of the pond, and is facing south. The red X on the map above roughly marks the spot!

There's no open water nowadays at Rawyards, but where the curling took place is still a marshy area within a newly established community woodland. It's a peaceful place to visit, although, as seen in this photo, it is overlooked by electricity pylons. This view is roughly in the direction that the artist was facing.

I do not know when curling was last played on the Rawyards pond, but the above report from the Kirkintilloch Herald shows that it was in use in the severe winter of 1895, the New Monkland club hosting visitors from Kirkintilloch.

The history of the painting 'The Curlers at Rawyards' raises some interesting questions. As mentioned above, it now belongs to North Lanarkshire Council following the 1996 local authority reorganisation. Monklands District Council, which held the collection from the original Airdrie Museum collection, was incorporated into NLC Museums and Heritage service, along with Motherwell and Cumbernauld and Kilsyth District Councils. Jenny Noble, who is the Social History Curator with CultureNL, suggests that the Rawyards painting, and others by John Levack, were donated to Airdrie Museum in the post-war period, possibly as late as the 1970s, as they weren’t mentioned in a 1936 list of paintings, nor the museum’s 1940 wartime precautions. Jenny says, "Unfortunately we have not as yet been able to locate any acquisition details."

The 'Curlers at Rawyards' was conserved in 1995 and has been on display at Summerlee since the exhibition hall refurbishment was completed in October 2008.

Who commissioned the work, back in the 1850s? One possibility is Patrick Rankin of Auchengray. Three generations of the Rankin family are depicted in the curling painting, and John Levack had previously painted a group portrait of that family, see below.

Jenny Noble provides the following information. "The Rankin family were prominent in Airdrie life from the later 18th century and through most of the 19th century. Patrick Rankin (1790 - late 1860s was initially of Mavisbank; later Auchengray near Caldercruix. He was a leading land and property owner in Airdrie and surrounding district. He was also a partner in Langloan Ironworks. His son, James Thomson Rankin (1819 - 1861), was a very progressive Provost of Airdrie from 1848 to 1856. He also founded the solicitors' firm Rankin and Motherwell. The Rankin family were related through marriage to many of the leading families in New Monkland.”

It is also possible that the painting might have been commissioned by Gavin Black of Rawyards, see above, the President of the New Monkland CC on whose land the pond was.

John Levack is known as an accomplished portrait painter, although he has not left a large body of work. 'The Curlers at Rawyards' is probably his best known painting, together with that of 'The Rankin Family' (see here) which is also on display at Summerlee. Some of his other work can be found online here, here, and here.

John Levack seems to have been born in Wick. His details on the Art UK website, here, says he was born in 1823, but I think this is incorrect. The biography of the artist held at Summerlee sugests that he was born in 1828, and that date is the more likely, given the ages stated in other records of his life. This being the case, he would have been in his late 20s when he painted 'The Curlers at Rawyards'.

According to this page, Levack became a mason when in he came to Airdrie in the 1850s. He joined the New Monkland Montrose Lodge 88 in 1860 and was a regular attendee in the early 1860s. He was appointed governor of the New Monkland poorhouse in 1864.

On November 24, 1867, he married Agnes Laughlan, a 26 year old seamstress from Airdrie, whose father, James, by then deceased, had been a lawyer. Levack's age in the marriage record is given as 40 which fits with him being born in 1828, rather than 1823. 

Unfortunately, the couple did not 'live happily ever after'.

The above does not make for pleasant reading. As a result of this attack on his wife on August 27, 1873, Levack appeared at the Sheriff Court in Airdrie on October 7. He pled guilty and was sentenced to three month's imprisonment with hard labour. The Sheriff considered 'extenuating circmstances' before deciding on the sentence, according to the report in the Glasgow Herald on October 8. What were these 'extenuating circumstances' I wonder?

On his release from prison, Levack seems to have moved away from Airdrie, to the Kinning Park area of Glasgow. On Monday, October 5, 1874, the Edinburgh Evening News reported, "An artist named John Levack, who had been in a desponding state of mind for some time, was found at his home in Henderson Street, Glasgow, on Saturday. Three phials which had contained laudanum were found by his bedside, and it appears that death had resulted from an overdose of laudanum. He must have been dead about eight days."

Henderson Street in Kinning Park is now Howwood Street.

These days the adjective 'desponding' is not in common use, having been replaced by 'despondent'. It would seem that Levack had suffered from depression. Laudanum, a tincture of opium, was in common use in Victorian times. Read the history of its use here. As Levack's body lay undiscovered for many days, it can be assumed he was living alone. It was a sad end for someone who had been so talented, and popular, earlier in his life.

The newspaper report of Levack's assault on his wife had said 'It is doubtful if Mrs Levack will recover'. Evidence that Agnes did survive is that her signature appears on her husband's death certificate, and on that of her mother who died in 1879.

I thank Jenny Noble, Social History Curator with CultureNL, for information about the painting, the artist and the Rankin family. The staff at the Summerlee museum could not have been more helpful. Do visit! Thanks go to Lindsay Scotland for taking the photo of me beside the painting, and for helping to decipher the little plaques on the frame. The other photos of the painting, and of Rawyards today, are mine. Apologies for the various reflections from the glass of the case in which the painting is housed. The British Newspaper Archive again proved invaluable in researching information about the artist, and the National Library maps website continues to be a wonderful resource for locating old curling ponds.

1 comment:

Hamish D. Cole said...

My family who farmed at Rawyards loaned the painting to Airdrie Museum in the 60’s,they said that they would clean it up and display for a time. The painting had been stored in the walkway between the walls of the house. It had from memory hung in the hallway at one time.
Hamish D Cole.