When I was a student in London I used to kill a lot of time wandering around the free museums and galleries, especially if there was a gap of several hours between my lectures. The National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery were particular favourites as they are both within a ten minute walk of King’s College on the Strand. Over the Christmas period I again found myself casually walking around the Portrait Gallery which, as you’d expect, is full of historical icons, from Shakespeare to Henry VIII, from Mick Jagger to Keira Knightley.
In Room 31 you’ll find Thomas Burke’s 1938 painting of former world light heavyweight champion Len Harvey (pictured), wearing his red ring robe and his knuckles painted deliberately prominently. To the confusion of the friend I was with, and in blatant contradiction of the rules of the gallery, I took out my phone and photographed the details of the Len Harvey painting. Seeing the portrait of Len Harvey, who also held titles at middleweight and heavyweight in his distinguished twenty-two year career, provoked the question of art and its relationship to boxing, and what role art, in its various forms, has played in the boxing world.
It’s true to say that boxing, as with most sports, has been supplemented by art in the past two hundred years. Firstly it was out of necessity, as it predated the camera, then as pure iconography, which continues to an extent now, and then in the form of fight posters which really took on an artistic significance from the 1960s onwards.
The early paintings and drawings are from the pre-gloved era, and a much reproduced image is Thomas Rowlandson’s Description of a Boxing Match between Ward and Quirk, which depicts two bare knuckled pugilists participating in what more closely resembles a brawl than a boxing match. Rowlandson was also responsible for Boxing Match for 200 Guineas between Dutch Sam and Medley, where the ring is formed by the spectators sat on the ground, and Boxing Match.
W.E. Downing’s Fight Between Jack Randall and Martin the Baker, though still with bare knuckled fighters, depicts a somewhat more civilised scene, with the officials sporting top hats. Bare Knuckles by George Hayes and Vittorio Raineri’s Boxing in England also depict bare knuckle boxing matches from the late nineteenth century.
Thomas Eakins’ contributed Taking the Count (1896), Salutat (1898) which shows a boxer waving to the crowd after a match and, famously, Between Rounds (1899), which features boxer Billy Smith posing in the corner at the Philadelphia Arena. This was not a live painting by Eakins, in fact all of the principle figures in the composition were posing a re-enactment of an actual bout.
At the turn of the twentieth century there was the weekly Famous Fights: Past and Present paper. The paper researched top fighters and their fights and these were presented to the reader in detail from 1901 to 1904 in twelve volumes and one hundred and fifty six editions. Artistic interpretation was required in order to reproduce action from the matches, such as Corbett defeating Mitchell and Bob Fitzsimmons knocking out Peter Maher. The covers included Tom Cribb v Tom Molineux (1810) in ‘The Great International Contest for the Championship of England' (vol. 2 no. 15), Birmingham’s Charley Mitchell in his draw with John L. Sullivan in 1888 (vol. 1 no. 13) and Jem Ward and Tom Cannon battling for the Championship of England and £1000 in 1825.
Artist Ernie Barnes produced some of the most interesting sports artwork. The Boxing Gym painting looks crowded and chaotic, but if you’ve ever trained in an over-crowded gym like I have, you can easily relate to the scene. He also painted Olympic Boxing, from the point of view of a ringside spectator, showing the referee intervening between the two fighters as one hits the canvas.
Paintings and drawings are not the only artistic contribution to the sport, however, as photography has not only contributed but has surpassed the more traditional art forms. Some prized possessions of mine are genuine boxing cigarette cards from the early twentieth century. These were very popular collector’s items from 1908 when Ogden’s released its Pugilists and Wrestlers series, which featured Bob Fitzsimmons among others. A year later the second series had portraits of Sam Langford and Jack Johnson, and the Cohen Weene set of 1912 featured Georges Carpentier, Jim Driscoll and Tommy Burns. Ogden’s released a further set in 1914, which was essentially a skill manual for budding boxers, with images demonstrating moves such as parrying, ducking and slipping. WT Davies released a similar series in 1924. The Rocket released the first action shot cigarettes, called Famous Knock-Outs, featuring knockouts in the Carpentier-Lewis, Johson-Burns and Willard-Johnson fights.
Odgen’s Pugilists in Action (1928) featured Kid Berg, Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, and my distant relative George Kid Socks. Other sets include the WA&AC Churchman Boxing Personalities (1938) and D. Cummings’ Famous Fighters (1949).
The other significant contribution to boxing art is fight posters. In the 1960s we saw a movement from fight posters being purely functional and informative and becoming works of art in their own right, and this probably started with Muhammad Ali – although how much influence he personally had over this is negligible. The poster that accompanied the 1964 world title fight between Ali and Sonny Liston promised it would be ‘The Greatest Fight in History’, and although it wasn’t his greatest fight, the legend that would become Muhammad Ali claimed his first world title when the fearsome Liston retired on his stool. The poster from Thrilla in Manilla in 1975 featured a painting of Ali and Joe Frazier by sports artist Leroy Nieman, who would also paint the famous Marvin Hagler v Thomas Hearns poster in 1985, dubbed The Fight.
The Sunshine Showdown between Joe Frazier and George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica in 1973 is another example of fight posters attempting to set a scene for what spectators could expect from the event, rather than being purely informative. But the poster could not have foreshadowed Foreman’s TKO of the undefeated world champion the second round.
All of the fight posters that appeared during the 1980s in the fights between the quartet of Hearns, Leonard, Hagler and Duran are collector's items and considered works of art. The Leonard-Hearns poster of 1981 bears some resemblance to a film poster, where two warriors are about to go head-to-head in an epic showdown, and all the promises that were made in this poster were fulfilled with Leonard’s TKO victory in the fourteenth round in a bout that was Ring Magazine Fight of the Year 1981. A personal favourite is the poster from the world title fight in 1979 between Larry Holmes and Earnie Shavers for the WBC heavyweight title.
So what is the contribution of art to boxing? It has taken numerous forms, from photography, painting, drawing, and even sculpture – there is a statue of former lightweight world champion Joe Gans in Madison Square Garden- and all of these various artworks contribute in different ways to boxing. Some give us a glimpse into legends of the sport from bygone eras, such as the Harvey painting; some give us a raw and brutal insight into to bare knuckle origins of the sport; other forms like the cigarette cards that were available to the masses speak volumes of just how popular boxing was at the time, and fight posters contribute to the sense of expectation as two boxers at the top of their game are preparing to face each other in a battle wit, skills and nerve under the eyes of millions from around the world.
But, of course, the true artists of the sweet science are, and always will be, those that climb between the ropes and demonstrate what a fantastic and ancient art form boxing is.