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A (Very) Short History of Rugby and Its Illustration


Whether or not William Webb Ellis actually "took the ball in his arms and ran with it" in 1823 at Rugby School , it was about then, and there, that the game of rugbyfootball was slowly evolving into something like its present form. After centuries of basic hooliganism in fields and streets chasing some sort of ball, and decades of slightly more (but not much) refined exercise for cleanlimbed young chaps in England's leading schools, Rugby School drew up, and more importantly, wrote down, the Great Game's first set of rules.

Each school played to its own rules and so attempts were made to codify the game. These mostly ended in favour of the dribbling, 'Association Football' game (for the pansies who didn't like charging, tripping, hacking and other such manly practices) until the RFU were formed in 1871 and had to come up with some rules for their pick-up game against the Jocks in Edinburgh on Monday, 21st March 1871 (good tour that first one - and no worries for the toffs involved about getting back to work!).


The 'Last Scrimmage' from 1871 is a good illustration of early rugger - 20-aside, mostly forwards who spent most of the game standing upright pushing to not much effect. The backs were largely there for decoration, as actually passing the ball to them was seen as a tad effete. As Tim Cunis will tell you, the Old Paulines were founded in that very year, and the Old Pauline B XV still play that way!


Football in its various forms was painted and drawn from the very beginning, but it took the advent of mass-printed, popular illustrated magazines, led by the Illustrated London News (The Last Scrimmage), in the latter half of the 19th Century for such images to be widespread. And then came the books; Shearman's 1887 Athletics and Football was the first, from which Collared is taken.


Towards 1900 it became possible at last to print colour cheaply in quantity, and magazines began to have some wonderful covers. The legendary Edwardian sportsman C.B.Fry's magazine (for 'Boys and Old Boys') had a splendid series of sporting covers including the one shown, presumably of a Richmond player. But it was the 1920's and '30's when colour illustration flowered as never before, with rugby used for boys comics (The Try), lifestyle magazines (My Home) and advertisements (Bovril). After 1945 the quality of photographic printing improved in leaps and bounds, and the advent of colour photography especially rather pushed illustration to the side - except, of course, for cartoons….but they will have to await another issue.


All Illustrations courtesy of The Lordprice Collection

© Tony Price, 2010
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