This Sporting Life: Lines of Beauty

Analysis of Beauty - Six Nations
What would William Hogarth have made of the likes of Luther Burrell and Mike Brown? Six Nations image courtesy of EPA.

The Six Nations rugby tournament came to its conclusion this past Saturday. Only two of the three games mattered to the overall outcome: in the early game, England needed to beat Italy in Rome by a sizeable number of points – fifty or more – and hope that Ireland would lose to the French in Paris later in the day.

These are the facts – and facts are a fine, valid way of judging a sport. But they’re not much use when attempting to write about it. I could tell you that England won, heavily – by a score of 55-11- but that as the Irish did indeed go on to beat the French, they took the Championship. Except that would do a disservice to the grace, the bravery and the beauty on the pitch, all of which demand in their greatness an appreciation that extends beyond the mundanity of facts and figures.

To judge a sporting contest is to put norms of beauty to the test. To do this, there is no better benchmark than William Hogarth’s 1753 treatise, The Analysis of Beauty. As Ronald Paulson writes in the preface to the 1997 Yale University edition:

What Hogarth proposes is an aesthetics of the middle range, which subordinates both the Beautiful and the Sublime to the everyday world of choice and human contingency.

Is that not a perfect definition of sport itself: incredible acts performed by fallible men, godlike athleticism in mortal hands?

What would the artist have made of rugby union – a game that, in its sleek modern iteration, combines brute ugliness and grace like no other sport? He might well have understood it better than any of us could imagine. For Hogarth,

pursuing is the business of our lives, and gives pleasure. The love of pursuit, merely as pursuit, is implanted in our natures.

It’s comforting to think that every time Rob Kearney, the Ireland full-back, hoisted a high kick – or “Garryowen” to give it its more lovely, Irish name – into the Parisian sky, he chased it by this ideal: for the sheer love of the chase first, and for the importance of winning second. Hogarth continues:

Every arising difficulty gives a sort of spring to the mind, and makes what would else be toil and labour become sport and recreation.

Ireland, trailing at halftime in the cauldron of French rugby, faced a monumental task to win the game – and, evidently stimulated by the size of the challenge, went on to do so. Contrast this with England’s earlier demolition of Italy, where the result was never in doubt beyond the first five minutes, such was the Saxon superiority. Our artist would have noted England’s clear lack of difficulty, and seen only toil and labour. France and Ireland provided sport – and great sport at that.

I like to think that, had he been sitting in the crowd at the Stade de France or the Stadio Olimpico, Hogarth would have had much to ponder about the bodies on show. He writes of the

grace and beauty which is to be found in well-turned limbs; in fine, elegant, healthy life.

There were men on both pitches who embodied this: Mike Brown, the England fullback, whose muscularity belies a sleekness of form and foot; Brian O’Driscoll, the Irish centre famous for his soft shoe shuffled elegance. Across both games, there was a grace of vigour that would have delighted our artist. He’d have been pleased, too, that the figures on the field seemingly conformed to his principle, that

the bulks and proportions of objects are governed by their fitness and propriety.

So Jonathan Sexton, the Irish fly half stood out for his slender build – his job is not to destroy but to create. The juxtaposition between Sexton and Nicolas Mas, all seventeen squat stones of him, was a sharp one. Mas’s job is to heave and shove and grunt; he’s the heavy lifter of the French team. Sexton is an artiste, and he’s built for the job. On commentary, Yoann Maestri was described as a “giant of a man”, while Devin Toner, his Irish counterpart at lock, was “taller, but more slender”. Hogarth would have appreciated the difference, for “all the senses delight in variety, and equally are averse to sameness”.

The smaller players, however, were the ones creating the beautiful moments. “He who is most exquisitely well-proportioned is most capable of exquisite movements”, Hogarth writes  – and over in Rome the same was true. The consummate elegance of Luther Burrell stood out amongst the English giants, more so when he was replaced by Manu Tuilagi, who is as wide as he is tall and effective for it, yet hardly beautiful as a result. In his squatness he evokes the famous Hogarth description:

When we consider the great weight chairmen often have to carry, do we not readily consent that there is a propriety and fitness in the Tuscan order of their legs?

This came to mind as those huge legs pumped towards the try-line, extending England’s lead still further. The near ludicrously proportioned prop David Wilson meanwhile evoked Glykon’s ancient sculpture Herculeswhich Hogarth holds up as an example:

The neck larger in circumference than any part of the head; otherwise the figure would have been burdened with an unnecessary weight which would have been a drawback from his strength, and, in consequence of that, from his characteristic beauty.

There was more than a touch of the Herculean about Wilson as he dragged his great frame about the turf. Something beautiful, too, in a sport that allows a triple-barrel-chested man to ply his trade next to countless exquisitely proportioned figures.

Above a love of pursuit and a fascination in the perfect forms on the pitch, Hogarth’s overriding interest in the game of rugby would have lain in its use of lines. The artist was of course the theoriser of the “line of beauty”, which he described as

a twisting, bending line that not only gives play to the imagination and delights the eye, but informs it likewise of the quantity and variety of the contents.

Rugby has its own line of beauty, except it’s ramrod-straight. The “gain line” is the game’s measure of forward progress. Cross it and the opposition is forced to retreat; fail to cross it and you have proven yourself lacking in strength. In rugby, the straight line rules. French centre Mathieu Bastareaud stood out during the early minutes against Ireland for his bullocking runs through the heart of midfield. Jonny May of England was too often guilty of sideways steps: “too bulging”, to use Hogarth’s words, they were easily swallowed up by the massed Italian hordes. And yet – the most effective runs in each match bore no small comparison to the artist’s Serpentine Line. There was little Conor Murray for Ireland, whose decisive break midway through the first half had just enough of a kink to bamboozle the French defence. For England, that man Mike Brown cut sinuous, waving lines the likes of which Hogarth surely would have approved.

I approached these games looking for beauty and expecting brutish ugliness. Instead I found grace in more forms than I could have wished for. It was heartening that, in a game apparently dominated by strength, there was ample occasion for the formal sublime. I hope that the old painter himself would have thought the same.

Teddy Cutler

About Teddy Cutler

Teddy is a sportswriter exploring where the worlds of literature and sport intersect. His writing highlights sport as metaphor: as an expression of cultures, and, on a human level, as a technicolour image of our own lives. He supports Aston Villa Football Club, which has taught him that sport's losers invariably have more interesting stories to tell.

Teddy is a sportswriter exploring where the worlds of literature and sport intersect. His writing highlights sport as metaphor: as an expression of cultures, and, on a human level, as a technicolour image of our own lives. He supports Aston Villa Football Club, which has taught him that sport's losers invariably have more interesting stories to tell.

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