The Tennis Party was purchased with the help of £5,000 from the newly founded Friends of Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum in 1986 – one of the Friends’ first substantial donations. It is now on display again, in the 20th century gallery, after a short absence.
The artist, Charles Gere (1869-1957), was born in Gloucester and studied at Birmingham School of Art. He was not only an accomplished painter but also a wood engraver, draughtsman, illustrator, and designer of embroidery and stained glass. He was associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement and illustrated many books for William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, including the frontispiece to News from Nowhere. He lived at Painswick from 1902 until his death in 1957.
The painting depicts the artist’s family and friends – several of whom were leading figures in the Birmingham Group of painters and craftsmen – at a tennis party at Sandhurst Villa, Leamington Spa, around 1900. In the foreground (left to right) are Robert Gere, Arnold Gere, an unknown lady and Ethel Gere; playing tennis in the background (left to right) are Margaret Gere (the painter) with an unknown man, and Edith Gere (also a painter), with Henry Payne, a stained glass artist, whom she married in 1901.
The Tennis Party is composed and painted in a Pre-Raphaelite style, but instead of knights and ladies it depicts a decidedly contemporary scene. The world’s first tennis club had been founded in Leamington Spa in 1872 and lawn tennis quickly became an extremely popular sport amongst the middle and upper classes. It was considered a suitable activity for women (despite them having to play in some extremely restrictive clothing) and played at country estates or suburban villas, it was an opportunity for young people of both sexes to socialise in an informal setting.