Ruby Levick's 1901 statue, Rugby Football, is a monument to the cult of muscular Christianity that developed in English public schools in the nineteenth century. Beginning at mid-century, the broadchurch (or liberal) Anglican F.D. Maurice and his pupil, the Rev. Charles Kingsley, began espousing the virtues of muscular Christianity. Maurice and Kingsley, like many Englishmen, worried that the Anglican Church and Britain were suffering from the evils of industrialization: among others, growing slums, poverty, secularization, and urban decay. Life was a battle, Kingsley argued, and Christians should be at the center, actively employing their "manfulness" and "usefulness" against the evils of industrialization. Kingsley doubted that traditional morality would be able to cope with the effects of industrialization unless the Church reformed itself. He also deplored what many considered to be increasingly suffocating effeminacy within the Anglican Church, and believed that muscular Christian men equipped with a cohesive philosophy consisting equally of athleticism, patriotism, and religion could rescue Church and country from sloth.
The promotion of manliness became steadily more intense in public schools as the cult of muscular Christianity developed. There had been muscular Christians before Kingsley, just as many of the features of school and university life which one associates with muscular Christianity were in existence before the pursuit of manliness enveloped England. But Kingsley helped turn a mild pursuit into a national obsession. New emphasis was given to old activities, especially athletics. Boys were encouraged to play sports and abandon pursuits that might be considered childish or effeminate. Football, cricket, and crew once barely tolerated or even strongly discouraged ceased to be just amusements; they became organized and compulsory. It was believed those activities bred manliness, virility, and respect for duty — ust the qualities needed to reinvigorate the Anglican Church and manage the British Empire.
Levick's sculpture captures the spirit of manliness and sport. The figures are noticeably schoolboys, not men, soldiers, or heroes. Both wear near identical uniforms and footwear. Their features do not stand out or allude to mythological figures; rather, their unremarkable features suggest the pair could be any public school boys. The runner and the tackler display the determination and strength expected of athletes. Their back, arm, and leg muscles are visibly prominent. The tackler does not appear ready to let go, and the runner cocks his right arm as if to banish his pesky competitor once and for all to the mud and grass. In short, the exemplar muscular Christian boys are ubiquitous in spirit and form to late nineteenth century England.
1. Is it not odd that Levick, a female sculptor, monumentalizes manliness? What reasons might she have had for carving Rugby Football?
2. Can we read the sculpture as allegorical? Would it make sense to see runner as a proper Briton and the tackler as an urban deviant or foreign heathen?
3. The sculpture is detailed but some parts are left slightly abstract, such as the players' ears. Which is more important to the overall meaning of the sculpture: the realistic depiction of detail or boys' activity and position?
John P. Nagler. No Commonplace Man: The Education of Endicott Peabody. Brown University History Honors Thesis, 2007.
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Last modified 1999