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Lucas Gassel, The grounds of a Renaissance palace with episodes from the story of David and Bathsheba, an extensive landscape with mountains and a harbour beyond, detail. Photo: Bonhams

LONDON.- Estimated to sell for £70,000 to £100,000, this oil painting by Lucas Gassel shows the grounds of a Renaissance palace with episodes from the story of David and Bathsheba, an extensive landscape with mountains and a harbour beyond. On a tennis court in the foreground, two players are using what appear to be very modern style tennis strokes.

The present work is one of a group of paintings that originated in Flanders in the years between 1530 and 1560, three of which are attributed to Lucas Gassel (Helmont c.1500-c.1570). The location of eleven of the pictures is known and there are several more which are only known by hearsay. Four of the series are in public collections. There is one at the MCC, Lords, London, and one in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

By the 16th century tennis had become one of the most popular of all games in the royal courts. The court shown here is similar in construction to those at Falkland, Bruges and Richmond, but these pictures are of tremendous interest to Real Tennis players because they show details of 16th century courts that would otherwise be unknown. The picture shows a cord suspended across the court but no net, as well as a paved floor. This corresponds with the description of the game given by the humanist scholar, Luis Vives, in his Latin exercise entitled Leges Ludi (The Rules of the Game) in 1539. There are galleries cut out of the side wall which provide accommodation for spectators. Viewers are also seen sitting in the court by the net, a custom which still survives in the early form of tennis played in Tuscany. Above the galleries is a broad band painted on the wall. It has been suggested that this is the dead-ball line which became the bandeau of the Real Tennis court.

This composition shows a singles game and the rather flamboyant strokes depicted are not necessarily thought to be what would be expected in modern Real Tennis, but it is possible that the rules by which the game was played in these pictures are not quite those by which the game is played today. Interestingly in an article for the Sunday Times on the 29 August, 1976, the paper's tennis correspondent, John Ballantine, made an observation on the two figures in the Lord's version, which correspond closely to the players in the present painting: 'Figure A [on the left] is preparing a forehand almost identical with renowned modern and revolutionary "loop" of the Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg and he has his eye impeccably fixed on the ball in sound textbook style. Figure B [on the right] has followed through on a top spinback handdrive just like Ilie Nastase, although the twirl of the legs is more à la Suzanne Lenglen.' The stooping figure on the left side of the court, who appears to be holding a square flat object, is thought likely to be the marker marking a chase.

During the 15th century, antique writers, such as Galen, inspired humanist scholars to advocate the revival of ballgames for exercising the body, resulting in the building of purpose-built tennis halls by the illustrious Sforza, Medici, Gonzaga, Este and Montefeltro dynasties in Italy, which emulated the descriptions of villas in classical antiquity. It cannot be established whether this group of paintings is the first to depict a tennis court, since it has been suggested that Donatello may have depicted one in the background of a bronze relief of the Miracle of the Repentant Son on the San Antonio Altar in Padua's Basilica del Santo. Nevertheless, this series would still appear to be the earliest known depiction of a game of tennis in play.

Caroline Oliphant of Bonhams comments, “Tennis is such an enduringly popular sport it’s remarkable to see such a wonderful early depiction of the game.”
 
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Lucas Gassel, The grounds of a Renaissance palace with episodes from the story of David and Bathsheba, an extensive landscape with mountains and a harbour beyond, oil on panel, 51 x 68cm (20 1/16x 26 3/4in). Estimate: £70,000 - 100,000, € 78,000 - 110,000, US$ 110,000 - 160,000. Photo: Bonhams
 
PROVENANCE: Robert A.D. Fleming
J.E. Hope of Edinburgh
Sale, Christie's, London, 20 December 1929, lot 41 where bought by Leggatt for Jervis Wegg, godfather of John Rickards, to whom he bequeathed it and thence by descent to the present owner

LITERATURE: W. Meyers, The Illustrated London News, 31 May, 1930, illustrated in colour (as The Master of Brunswick)
Frank R. Davis, 'Sixteenth Century Painters and Real Tennis, The Illustrated London News, 29 July, 1950
A. de Luze, A History of the Royal Game of Tennis (Kineton, 1979) ill. p. 216
R. Morgan, Tudor Tennis a Miscellany (Oxford, 2001), pp. 105-115, ill. p. 54

The present work is one of a group of paintings that originated in Flanders in the years between 1530 and 1560, three others of which are attributed to Lucas Gassel. The appearance of eleven of the pictures is known and there are several more which are only known by hearsay. Four of the series are in public collections. As well as the present painting, the series comprises: Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford (oil on panel, 45 x 69 cm., attributed to Lucas Gassel); Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts (oil on panel, 45 x 69 cm., attributed to Herri Met de Bles); Marylebone Cricket Club, Lord's, London (oil on panel, 52 x 73.6 cm., attributed to Jan van Amstel); formerly the Duque de Palmella (oil on panel, 34.3 x 45.7 cm., attributed to Lucas Gassel); Lord Aberdare (signed and dated 'A.R. 1559', oil on panel, 50.7 x 66 cm., attributed to Andreas Ruhl); Dr. Restrelli (signed and dated 'LG 1540', oil on panel, 90 x 115 cm., by Lucas Gassel); formerly Weerth Collection (oil on panel, 71 x 90 cm.); Private Collection, Chicago; Louvre Museum, Paris (bistre drawing, 23.7 x 35 cm., attributed to Lucas van Leyden); Kende Gallery, New York, sold 1951; Sale, Christie's London, 8 July 2005, lot 19 (dated '1538', oil on panel, 64.7 x 91.3 cm., by Lucas Gassel).

All the pictures have the same basic layout, but each differs in its details. The Gardner and the present paintings are close copies of eachother, but show slight differences in the backgrounds. In the right foreground is King David's palace, and from the upper window he observes Bathsheba bathing in a pool to the far left of the composition. He is also shown standing on the steps of his palace handing Uriah the letter that will lead to his destruction. In the middle of the foreground is a Real Tennis court and to the left of this is a rectangular enclosure for the game of Boule à l'Anneau, in which a ball is propelled through a vertical ring by means of wooden clubs (rather like Pall Mall, the precursor of the modern croquet). This game was common in the Low Countries during the 15th and 16th centuries. Behind the tennis court is a pleasure garden with archers competing, on the left of which is an ornamental fountain. Beyond the garden is a maze. The other features in the distance show much wider variation, some pictures showing mountains and others estuaries and sea coasts with a variety of buildings in different positions.

By the 16th century tennis had become one of the most popular of all games in the royal courts. The court shown here is similar in construction to those at Falkland, Bruges and Richmond, but these pictures are of tremendous interest to Real Tennis players because they show details of 16th century courts that would otherwise be unknown. This and all the pictures, except one, show a cord suspended across the court but no net. This and seven of the other pictures show the floor to be paved. This corresponds with the description of the game given by the humanist scholar, Luis Vives, in 1539 in his Latin exercise entitled Leges Ludi (The Rules of the Game). It also ties in with the appearance of the floor of the 16th century court at Tübingen, and with Garsault's description of a French court in 1769 being paved with squares of Caen stone, each one foot square. All the pictures with one exception show galleries cut out of the side wall which provide accommodation for spectators. Spectators are also seen sitting in the court by the net, a custom which still survives in the early form of tennis played in Tuscany. Above the galleries is a broad band painted on the wall. It has been suggested that this is the dead-ball line which became the bandeau of the Real Tennis court.

The present composition corresponds with four others which show a singles game (rather than the doubles game shown in three others). The rather flamboyant strokes depicted are not necessarily thought to be what would be expected in modern Real Tennis, but it is possible that the rules by which the game was played in these pictures are not quite those by which the game is played today. Interestingly in an article for the Sunday Times on the 29 August, 1976, the paper's tennis correspondent, John Ballantine, made an observation on the two figures in the Lord's version, which correspond closely to the players in the present painting: 'Figure A [on the left] is preparing a forehand almost identical with renowned modern and revolutionary "loop" of the Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg and he has his eye impeccably fixed on the ball in sound textbook style. Figure B [on the right] has followed through on a top spinback handdrive just like Ilie Nastase, although the twirl of the legs is more à la Suzanne Lenglen.' The stooping figure on the left side of the court, who appears to be holding a square flat object, is thought likely to be the marker marking a chase.

During the 15th century, antique writers, such as Galen, inspired humanist scholars to advocate the revival of ballgames for exercising the body, resulting in the building of purpose-built tennis halls by the illustrious Sforza, Medici, Gonzaga, Este and Montefeltro dynasties in Italy, which emulated the descriptions of villas in classical antiquity. It cannot be established whether this group of paintings is the first to depict a tennis court, since it has been suggested that Donatello may have depicted one in the background of a bronze relief of the Miracle of the Repentant Son on the San Antonio Altar in Padua's Basilica del Santo. He and his contemporaries would no doubt have been aware of such a structure from Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote about a space for the game of tennis (giuocare alla palla) near the portico of the palace or villa in Book V of his De re aedificatoria. Nevertheless, this series would still appear to be the earliest known depiction of a game of tennis in play.

The hedge garden in the centre of the composition represents what has been termed the 'Labyrinth of Love', which is a precursor of the type of hedge maze that became popular during the Elizabethan period, when the hedges were taller so that you could not see over them. They were popular with courting couples who could wander within them. It is thus most likely symbolic of courtly love and intrigue. The tree in the centre of the maze (and of the composition itself) is a lime or linden tree, which in Germanic and Celtic mythology represented the cosmic axis and survives in popular culture today in the form of the maypole. www.bonhams.com
 
The one sold at Christie's, IMPORTANT OLD MASTER PICTURES, 8 July 2005, London, King Street (www.christies.com) :
 
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Lucas Gassel (Helmond c. 1495/1500-c. 1570 Brussels), The grounds of a Renaissance Palace with episodes from the story of David and Bathsheba, an extensive landscape beyond, dated '1538' (centre right, on the plaque), oil on panel, 25½ x 36 in. (64.7 x 91.3 cm.). Estimate £60,000 - £80,000($104,280 - $139,040). Price Realized £72,000 ($125,136). Photo: Christie's Images Ltd. 2005
 
Provenance: (Presumably) Anonymous sale; Cologne, 1 October 1913, lot 717, as Anonymous.

Literature: L. van Puyvelde, La peinture flamande au siècle de Bosch et Breughel, Paris, 1962, p. 235.
H.G. Franz, Niederländische Landschaftsmalerei im Zeitalter des Manierismus, Graz, 1969, p. 112.
M. Weemans, 'Le modéle scopique. Regard et paysage chez Henri Bles', Actes du colloque 'Autour de Henri Bles', J. Toussaint, ed., Musée des arts anciens du Namurois, Monographies 21, Namen, 2002, pp. 211-24.

Exhibited: Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, De uitvinding van het landschap, 8 May-1 August 2004, no. 8, p. 102, illustrated, in the exhibition catalogue, Antwerp, 2004, note by S. Janssens.

Notes: This remarkable landscape is one of a handful of six related versions of the composition. The earliest is believed to be the painting generally attributed to Herri met de Bles in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (inv. no. P25W40). In addition there are three other versions also by Gassel: in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut (inv. no. 1956.618.); formerly in the Restelli la Fretta collection, Como; and formerly in the collection of the Duke de Palmela, Lisbon. The last known version, by an unknown hand, is in the collection of the Marylebone Cricket Club, London. There is, in addition, a related drawing by a follower of Gassel in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. The present version is presumably that sold in the Cologne sale cited in the provenance above.

That a version should be owned by a sporting club is not surprising. The composition is remarkable not only for its general quality and originality but also, and perhaps most importantly, for its depictions of the recreations of the Renaissance gentry. The reason for this is found in Rabelais' 1534 comic novel Gargantua, in chapter 55 of which ('Comment estoit le manoir des Thélémites') is a description of the gardens of the Abbey of Thélème, an idealised place where those who live there are free to pursue Rabelais' ideological ideal Fais ce que vouldras. Rabelais' text included the following description that matches the composition in so many ways that it is clearly based on that text:

'In the middle of the lower court there was a stately fountain of fair alabaster ... Before the said lodging of the ladies, that they might have their recreation, between the two first towers, on the outside, were placed the tiltyard, the barriers or lists for tournaments, the hippodrome or riding-court, the theatre or public playhouse, and natatory or place to swim in, with most admirable baths in three stages, situated above one another, well furnished with all necessary accommodation, and store of myrtle-water. By the river-side was the fair garden of pleasure, and in the midst of that the glorious labyrinth. Between the two other towers were the courts for the tennis and the 'grosse balle'. Towards the tower Criere stood the orchard full of all fruit-trees, set and ranged in a quincuncial order. At the end of that was the great park, abounding with all sort of venison. Betwixt the third couple of towers were the butts and marks for shooting with a snapwork gun, an ordinary bow for common archery, or with a crossbow. The office-houses were without the tower Hesperia, of one storey high. The stables were beyond the offices, and before them stood the falconry ... The venery, where the beagles and hounds were kept, was a little farther off, drawing towards the park.'

The tennis game represents what had become one of the most popular of all games in the royal courts of the sixteenth century. Simple ballgames had been common all over Europe since classical antiquity, but the earliest form of tennis seems to have originated in the Renaissance princely courts of Italy. Renaissance humanists such as Guarino da Verona and Vittorino da Feltre were inspired by antique writers such as Galen to advocate exercising the body, and were particularly fascinated by the ancient sphaeristerium, a manner of walled-in ballcourt, a sporting facility with which many luxurious Roman villas were equipped. By the second half of the 15th century (see G. Lubkin, A Renaissance Court. Milan under Galeazzo Maria Sforza, 1994) these had inspired the purpose-built tennis halls of the illustrious Sforza, Medici, Gonzaga, Este and Montefeltro dynasties (the first being thought to be that of circa 1457 at the Este Villa of Belriguardo) that became the setting for the revival of the ballgames of classical antiquity. The Humanist Prince experienced the game of tennis (gioco della palla) as an exercise for the recreation of the body as well as for the mind, whilst the tournaments played by the court professionals (of which the Sforzas employed the first in circa 1465) provided a form of indoor spectacle: a clear manifestation of the splendour and magnificence of his court. However, the Burgundian Duke Philip the Good may well challenge Italy's claim as to the construction of the first walled-in tennis court (kaatsbaan). The city accounts for the years 1453-1455 detail the masonry costs for the ducal Jeu de Paume (an open court) erected at Bruges' Prinsenhof Palace, the Duke's favourite residence.

By 1490 a new term for the game of tennis started to crop up in Italian documents: gioco della pallacorda or sometimes just pallacorda. The name provides evidence that the first tennis net (actually a cord at first), dividing the service and the receiving sides, originated in Italy. Similarly Cortesi provides the first known specific usage of the term 'corda' in a letter from 1490 that recounts how the young writer was involved in an interesting tennis match when he spent some time at the Medici court in Florence to study the grand life-style of Lorenzo the Magnificent. His own Roman team played a Florentine partnership of Piero de Medici, Lorenzo's son. The losers of the Roman-Florentine match were to pay 25 ducati to the winners. This development seems to have spread quickly, however, as the the poem Le Jeu de Palme by Jean Molinet suggests that the net (or cord) was also introduced in the Low Countries by the year 1490. In this allegory Molinet, Duke Philip the Fair's official chronicler, employed a tennis metaphor to describe how in July 1492 the City of Ghent was attacked by the army of the Archduke Maximilian: the metaphor was based on the similarity of the words for glove (gant) and Ghent (Gand), as at the time the players did not use a racket, and employed the phrase 'dessus le corde'. Coincidentally, Duke Philip may actually have been one of the first tennis players to use a racket, as recorded in a match in 1506 he played at the royal tennis court of Windsor Castle; according to the inventory drawn up after his death (as a result of a game of tennis during which he had drunk too much cold water) in 1506, Philip owned '3 raquettes et 4 gants pour jouer a la palme'. There are clear indications that the racket was invented in the Low Countries and that the word 'racquet' is derived from the Dutch verb 'raecke' (= hit, strike).

France also played a pioneering role in at least the architectural development of the game of tennis. By the mid-sixteenth century, France was the new playground of the High Renaissance architectural style, and when in 1555 a young theologian at the court of Ferrara, Antonio Scaino, published a manual, the Trattato del Giuoco della Palla on how ballgames were to be played in a refined, courtly manner, his examples of courts in the grandest manner, called Jeu à Dedans courts, were from France, as there was no such tennis court to be found in Italy: that in the Louvre and that in Le Grand Ferrara, Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este's classical residence in Fontainebleau, both of which had probably been designed by François' court architect Sebastiano Serlio. Magnificence and luxury in architecture was a popular topic among French humanist educators, including of course Rabelais, in the mocking of which the latter created his Abbey of Thélème. However Rabelais' views on material splendour fell on deaf ears with François I who sought to outshine all his princely rivals in this area of architecture as much as every other, particularly King Henry VIII of England, a recent convert of the royal game, who by 1530 had 'tennis plays' erected at four of his favourite palaces: Greenwich, St James's, Hampton Court and Whitehall. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau's Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France (1576) illustrates several of the French courts; in his drawings the French architect and engraver detailed thirty of France's most beautiful châteaux, in twenty-one of which are depictions of jeux de paumes in play. Particularly interesting are his designs for Charleval (with four tennis courts laid out in the gardens) and Verneuil (with tennis players on court and spectators in the galleries), both of which architectural projects had actually been commissioned from him by Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother.

It is hard to say whether these are the earliest known depictions of a tennis court. It is possible that as early as circa 1445 Donatello may have depicted one as the background to the bronze relief of the Miracle of the Repentant Son on the San Antonio Altar in Padua's Basilica del Santo. That he and his contemporaries would have been familiar with such a structure can be inferred from Leon Battista Alberti who wrote about an undefined space for the game of tennis (giuocare alla palla) near the portico of the palace or villa in Book V of his De re aedificatori (1452, published 1485-1486). If that is the case, then this composition would still seem to be the earliest to depict a game of tennis in play.