‘The Curlers at Rawyards’ is a nineteenth century painting that shows the sport of curling. It was painted by John Levack in 1857 and deserves to be better known than it is at present. It is a large oil on canvas, in the care of North Lanarkshire Council and CultureNL, and is currently on display at the Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life in Coatbridge, Scotland. It can be found online here where a larger image can be studied in more detail than the small one above.
I knew of the painting but, until recently, I had not realised just how big it is. It is one thing to see the image on screen, or in a book, but it is quite another to see it ‘in the flesh’! It is around twelve feet by six feet, with the frame. It’s huge. At Summerlee, it is is contained in a large glass case. Here I am standing beside it. The idea was to give the scale, but because the painting is about a foot back from the protective front glass, it still appears smaller than it really is!
In the years before photography, paintings can tell us something about how the sport was played. If we assume that the artist painted exactly what he saw in the winter of 1855-56 (when it is thought the match depicted was being played), we can learn something about the sport at that time.
Importantly, the stones in use have goose-necked handles, centred on the stones which presumably are double-sided, made to be reversible. These stones are quite different from single-soled stones, such as those seen in ‘The Grand Match at Linlithgow’ which was painted just ten years earlier by Charles Lees, see here. I always have in my mind that the middle of the nineteenth century was when double soled stones with goose-necked handles began to replace single-soled stones.
John Levack has depicted the stones at Rawyards in different colours, and we know that in the nineteenth century, different types of rock were used for making curling stones, see here.
There are two games taking place, one in the foreground, and the other on a sheet set at an angle to the first. There is no doubt that play is four-aside. By 1857 most curling clubs were playing matches with four players on each side, playing two stones each, as recommended by the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. Some clubs were still adhering to eight-aside play, but not that illustrated here.
The curlers are all depicted with broom cowes, rather than hair brushes. Even some of those just watching the play are carrying brooms.