William Baillie-Grohman’s Sport in Art (1913)

“Sport in Art” commences with the fifteenth century, just previous to the invention of printing, and ends with the French Revolution, thus taking in the four centuries that are as vital to the history of venery as they are to that of art.

So explains William Baillie-Grohman (1851–1921) in the preface to his 1913 book Sport in Art: An Iconography of Sport, which includes a grand total of 243 illustrations — two in colour, the rest in black-and-white. A warning for tender-hearted readers: here “sport” means the pursuit and killing of animals, though this encyclopedic tome enfolds other topics too. You will learn, for instance, what jolly song was sung while the seventeenth-century Duke of Coburg used his “waidblatt” (game knife) to spank the buttocks of an etiquette-lacking huntsman, laid across the corpse of a stag: “Jo, Jo, ha, ho ! this is for the King, princes and lords!”

The English-Austrian author was raised in Tyrol, where he honed his hunting and mountaineering abilities before moving abroad. Baillie-Grohman found a welcome new landscape in the Rockies of North America and settled in British Columbia during the 1880s, where he invested in canal and land development. While the author produced various articles and books on hunting practices in both of these stomping grounds, Sport in Art remains his tour de force.

As evidenced by some of the earliest human cave paintings, art and hunting have long entwined. Baillie-Grohman claims that, “as hunting was made the subject of the earliest pictorial designs, hunters can rightly claim to have given the first impulse to art”. The author himself certainly combines intimate knowledge of the two spheres. The illustrations presented range from Gaston de Foix’s La livre de chasse, ca. 1440; through Edward of Norwich’s mid-fifteenth century The Master of Game; to Horace Bénédict de Saussure’s Alpine hunts during his ascent of Mont Blanc, illustrated in 1790. Along the way, Baillie-Grohman presents works by Cranach the Elder, Dürer, Jan van Eyck, Le Moyne, and a flock of lesser-known others.

Baillie-Grohman does not limit himself to straight-forward representations. He understands that hunting is at once an allegorical and visceral pursuit (see Hendrik Goltzius’ The Hunt after Wealth below). He also includes material pertaining to the wider world of hunting: an emblem showing the brands on hounds; a certificate of indenture for a hunt apprentice; a page from Emperor Charles VI’s diary, detailing a day’s take in 1732; and an extraordinary engraved brass hunting calendar, for keeping track of the bag.

The great range of images is intercut with knowledgeable discussion of the activities at hand. Not that the author always approves: fox-tossing is described as “A still worse instance of decadent sport”. Indeed, many might see this sentiment aptly applied to much of the hunting pursuits covered which, alongside more familiar prey, include the killing of otters, wolves, bears, and bison. Still, despite the bloodlust and destruction of life that sits at its core, the book remains a fascinating reminder of the importance and popularity that hunting has held, not only in the workings of society at large but in the confines of the artist’s studio too.