There is some corner of an English field that is no ordinary art gallery. With patriotic fervour stirred by the forthcoming Autumn internationals at Twickenham, one amateur rugby team have already set up camp. But they are not here to learn of any dark arts to overcoming a side from the Southern Hemisphere.
The Old Streetonians currently prop up the eighth tier of English rugby with four points from six games. While the side struggles to consolidate its London North West Division Three status on the field, their off-field exploits show they can rise from the canvas.
The Hackney-based club, consisting of players who earn their living from painting and designing to jewellery and sculpturing, have opened a gallery in the East Stand as part of the World Rugby Museum inside Twickenham HQ.
But as Club President Dick Stringer told me, you wouldn’t know it from the Shoreditched décor.
“We rebuilt an authentic 1990s Shoreditch loft in Twickenham,” Stringer succinctly said of the transformed venue for Old Streetonians: Life, Rugby and Art in Shoreditch. “It’s brick, there’s a chipboard flooring and plaster with jointed edges. It feels as though you are walking into one of those cheap, damp lofts that people lived in.
“All the artwork in the exhibition is from practicing artists. We have more members from Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art in the club than any other in the world. That’s its heritage, and that is what we are trying to celebrate.
“There are approximately 15 artists, including works from wives and girlfriends of the players. There’s a fantastic film by a lady called Kate Hawkins with one of the players demonstrating the laws of rugby using flowers. There’s some wacky stuff in there too!”
Sensual art hums beneath the exhibition’s surface. Patrick Colhoun’s ceramic Gimp Shield with coloured Corian mouthguard detail compliments Mark Woods’ delicate fetishes that are redolent of sadomasochistic sex toys. This motely crew of British artists most certainly possess an edge.
On the playing side, camaraderie is key for Stringer, who founded the club over 20 years ago at the Bricklayer’s Arms pub near Old Street. The bohemian boozer was a mecca for local artists in the strong Britart era of the late 1980s. The likes of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the Chapman brothers and Rachel Whiteread were all based in Shoreditch.
“It was the centre,” Stringer recalls. “If you walked into the Bricklayer’s back then, everyone you spoke to was either a designer or an artist – and that became the core of the team. The rugby team was almost more like an art project and the most amazing thing is that we’ve actually kept on going and survived.”
“We used to gather to play a game of cricket in the local park during the summer evenings. When it got to September, we didn’t really know what to do. A friend of mine said we should start a group of amateur dramatics. We flipped a coin to see whether we would put on a play or play rugby. The coin landed the right way up, but even then it was only supposed to be a one-off rather than the foundation of a club.”
A derelict Hackney Marshes pitch on a freezing Friday afternoon before Christmas in the early 1990s was where it all began. The game itself was described as shambolic, but little did they know it would lead to the formation of a rugby club that has steadily risen up the league pyramid.
The union of bone-on-bone brutality with light brushes is an unlikely one but it is those contrasting elements that Stringer believes has held the club together.
“A surprising number of rugby players have been artists,” Stringer continued. “It’s not quite as unusual as it first appears. Playing rugby made a big difference to the founding members because being an artist, like nowadays, meant spending a lot of time on your own.
“It’s quite a lonely existence at times, and the fact that we could all go and have this great release of energy and have a few beers afterwards once a week was an important part of their lives.”
Stringer hopes the success of the exhibition, which shall presently last until the end of the Six Nations Championship next Spring with a view to an extension until the Rugby World Cup held across England and Wales starting next September, will spur on the First XV to improved results in the coming months.
“The threes and twos are doing really well in their respective merit tables, but the firsts are struggling at the moment,” Stringer admitted. “The standard of amateur rugby is going up all the time, and these things can be very cyclical.
“We are at the bottom at the moment but we’re confident of turning that around. The nature of sport in the inner city is that you need a very big pool of players because in the amateur game, you are not paid to play. In London, we have to accept that there are a lots of other fun things to do as well.” Attending an art gallery at the home of rugby is certainly one of them.
‘Old Streetonians: Life, Rugby and Art in Shoreditch’ is now open at the World Rugby Museum, Twickenham Stadium. It is open every Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 – 17:00 and on Sundays from 11:00-17:00 until April 2015.