In Search of the Blackheath Golfer

[Blackheath meant nothing to me until one day it meant everything.  That a portrait two centuries old could dispatch me to the ends of the earth — if not in fact then at least in my imagination — was alarming.  Such is the lure of Blackheath — sporting treasure, work of art, and footnote to a bloody revolution all rolled into one long-lost canvas.]

I was antique hunting, hoping to uncover the Holy Grail.  Bending over to examine a landscape of cypress spires, I must have started dreaming of far-away places because when I straightened up it startled me — a golfing scene.  I stepped back.  It was vaguely familiar, a proud golfer in scarlet tunic, posing with long-nosed driver resting on his right shoulder.  In his left hand, a glove and featherie.  A ruffle at his neck and tan breeches, he was a real dandy.  Behind him, clutching the gentleman’s wooden-shafted arsenal, was the caddie complete with whisky bottle visible in his coat pocket.  A portrait, it lacked drama, except for the tension latent in the servant-master relationship.  It appealed to me as a window onto an era when nobody but a Scot had ever swung a golf club.  I wanted to climb right in there.

I lifted it off the wall.  This was no time for haggling.  Measuring two feet by three feet, the cherrywood frame was convincingly heavy.  The shop owner explained that it had hung with other sporting prints in the old Hotel Vancouver before it was demolished in the 1940s.  It had been forgotten in a warehouse for fifty years and only recently acquired by the dealer for ‘beer money’.  With what I paid her for it, she could drink Laphroaig into the near future.

“What is it?” my wife said, when I brought it home.  My golf junk didn’t normally evoke a response.  It must have been the antique paper that seduced her, and the late-Edwardian conceit.  “It tells us here at the bottom,” I said.  “To the Society of Goffers at Blackheath.”   “Don’t they mean ‘golfers’?” she said.  “That shows how old it is,” I said.  “See here — Painted by L. F. Abbott, 1790.

“It’s a mezzotint engraving, dear, not a painting.”  She pointed out the artist’s name, someone named ‘V. Green’.  She examined more writing below the image.  “William Innes, merchant of Time Street Square,”she read aloud.  “With view of Blackheath and Greenwich Pensioners.  Sorry to disappoint you, honey, but this isn’t Scotland.  Blackheath is in London, where I grew up.  Your caddy is the pensioner, a retired sailor.”

I hurried to the Internet and learned that The Blackheath Goffer was the first golf print ever published.  In the world of golf antiques, that should have been worth bragging rights.  Blackheath turns out, however, to be the most-copied golf image of all time, which likely meant that mine was a subsequent edition.  Probably.  But, hey, maybe not.

Leo Kelly, Jr. ran the Old Chicago Golf Shop.  He returned an e-mail enquiry, confirming that Abbott’s oil-on-canvas and Green’s engraving were produced in the same year.  But there were thousands of reproductions out there, so I shouldn’t get my hopes up.  “An original print is extremely rare,” he said.  “From that first edition of fifty, only fifteen are known to exist.”  About the original painting, it’s commonly believed to hang in the Royal Blackheath clubhouse.  But it doesn’t.  There was another rumour about it perishing in a fire.  He suggested I talk to Mort Olman.

I phoned Mr. Olman, author of Golf Antiques, which lists Blackheath’smajor print editions and their dimensions, most being much smaller than the original.  Mine was a match, but for an irksome quarter of an inch.  In 1893, a same-size, black-and-white ‘platinotype’ print was produced.  Valentine Green’s original mezzotint was also black and white, Olman told me, but many were later hand-tinted.  Mort couldn’t describe a platinotype, except to say it was a photographic rather than a printing process.  Well, mine had edges impressed by a metal plate.  Mine was a mezzotint, and until otherwise proven, possibly an original.

Mort knew as much about this print as anyone, he said, and often wished he’d never heard of the damn thing.  “You wouldn’t believe how many collectors out there think they’ve got their mitts on an original,” he said.  “They should go to St. Andrews and check it out for themselves.”  As for Abbott’s painting, he’d heard that a mad Japanese collector owned it.  He didn’t believe it.

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