clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The famous Sunderland v Aston Villa painting that hangs in the lobby of the SoL - a history of

Tonight’s Championship match-up between Sunderland and Aston Villa serves as a kind reminder of one of the oldest and greatest rivalries in the history of association football - one which was famously captured in art-form by painter Thomas Hemy in the late 19th century.

Sunderland against Aston Villa can rightly be described as football’s first great rivalry, with the Wearsiders capturing the First Division Championship in 1891/92, 1892/93 and 1894/95, and with Villa taking the title in 1893/94, 1895-96, 1896-97 and 1898-99.

In 1912/13 Sunderland again won Division One, but were beaten by the Villans in the FA Cup Final at the Crystal Palace before a then World Record crowd of in excess of 120,000.

The rivalry was marked by the painting that resides in the entrance to the Stadium of Light, the one in the lead photo of this very article.

This is of the game at Newcastle Road on 2 January 1895 - a match which ended 4-4, with two goals from Gillespie and one each from Hannah and Millar for the home side and two from Smith, a penalty from Reynolds and one from Devey doing the damage for the away team. The attendance was 12,000.

The painting is recognised as the oldest of an Association Football match anywhere in the world, and thus marking it out as something special.

The “Hemy Painting”, as it is commonly referred to, is in due deference to the artist Thomas Maria Madawaska Hemy.


The painting has over the years had two titles - “A Corner Kick” and “The Last Minute – Now or Never”.

Both Sunderland and Villa at that time were huge clubs - a draw wherever they played, and this meeting of the two sides was eagerly anticipated.

Villa were the current league champions and although they had started their league campaign badly, including losing to Sunderland in the September, they had gradually climbed the table to lie just behind Sunderland, who were top. With this in mind, Villa were confident of winning and at odds of 6/4 appeared a good bet.

The match took place on a Wednesday and Villa arrived on the Tuesday.

They looked in the peak of condition. The weather was fine and much warmer than on the Tuesday, although a strong North East wind was blowing. Meehan returned at right back for Sunderland and Johnstone moved to left half, with Auld dropping out.

The pitch was in pretty fair condition with a sprinkling of snow on it and the crowd of around 12,000 was bigger than that of the New Years Day match. Sunderland won the toss, took advantage of the wind and Devey kicked off for Villa. The game itself was a thriller, 4-4, with Villa taking the lead after quarter of an hour. It was nip and tuck all the way, and it was generally agreed that a share of the spoils was a fair result.

Sunderland vs Aston Villa 1893/4

It has been mooted that there is something odd about the painting of the footballers hands, and that Hemy had been used to painting pugilists. There is no evidence that this was the case and there are no art works of Hemy’s showing pugilists.

What is interesting to note is that Thomas Hemy was actually at the Aston Villa game. We know this because in The Echo’s 7th of January 1895 edition their reporter at Newcastle Road spoke to him and their conversation was recorded in print. Interestingly, there is no mention made of Hemy being there to paint the now iconic match scene.

It is also said that Hemy was commissioned to paint the image to celebrate Sunderland’s 1894/95 triumph, but that cant be right. Clearly both the football club and Hemy would have no advance knowledge of Sunderland’s league triumph. It seems more feasible to suggest that as Hemy did and would have a track record in painting some memorable sporting scenes, both football and rugby, and as he lived in Sunderland, that he was of a mind to paint the scene from memory following his attendance at the match. Subsequently, he presented it to Sunderland AFC for purchase.

In the June 1898 edition of the Sporting Mirror, it was reported:

The annual meeting of the Sunderland Football Club has been fixed for the 29th of this month. The officials have purchased the painting by Tom Henry (sic), representing the cup tie (sic) between Aston Villa and Sunderland in 1894 (sic) and also the artist’s supplementary proofs. Both the painting and the proofs they propose to put up as a prize drawing for the Benefit of the funds of the club.

Strange, therefore, that The Sporting Mirror should indicate that the painting is of the cup tie from the previous season. It was most probably just a mistake. Considering we now know that Hemy attended the 1895 game, then, it is surely beyond doubt that the four-all draw fixture was the game he painted a scene from. Not only that, but the team lineups along the bottom of the painting correlate to the 4-4 match report.

Finally of course the game was played in winter, and if you look closely at the painting you will see bails of straw around the field; straw was of course the covering used on football pitches at this time when frost was expected. Sunderland fell foul of this practice in the 1950’s when they used the refunds from returned bails of straw to supplement some of the players wages and therefore exceed the maximum wage that was in force at that time.

On the 11th of July 1900 Sunderland AFC’s annual meeting took place at the Grand Hotel, Bridge Street. The clubs chairman, JP Henderson, presided over an excellent turnout. The annual report showed an excess of expenditure over revenue of some £247.

At the close of the meeting a discussion took place regarding the Hemy painting of the famous match against Aston Villa. It was explained that the painting had been raffled, but as no-one had yet established a claim it was being stored in a Sunderland furniture dealers establishment. The chairman thought that he might hand the painting to the Borough Art Gallery or perhaps the Town Hall. No decision was taken.

So what happened to the painting?

Intriguingly - and only recently - a postcard was located on eBay of all places showing the painting hanging on the wall of a Sunderland pub called The Bells, which was located at 14 Bridge Street, just up from The Wearmouth Bridge.

It operated under the ownership of Jas Henderson and Sons; the father of the club chairman. The Bells had an upstairs restaurant and in that upstairs restaurant the Hemy work was displayed for a period. It dominated the grill room.

So, we know that from the furniture dealers it found its way to the Chairman’s Father’s pub.

The story can be further pieced together in that a picture emerged of the painting hanging on the wall above the reception area at Roker Park.

Underneath was a plaque indicating that the Hemy Painting had been “Presented to Sunderland AFC by Samuel Wilson Esq., September 4 1930.”

Who was Samuel Wilson and how did he end up with it? Wilson was on the SAFC Board of Directors in the 1920’s and he was a local businessman. Quite how he came to get his hands on the painting is a moot point. Nevertheless here the painting was, back at Roker Park.

However as time went on the Hemy painting fell into a state of disrepair and the Sunderland AFC Supporters Association raised an alleged £8,000 to have the painting repaired; and so it left Roker Park in the late 1980’s.

On Monday 15th September 1997, Sunderland revealed that the famous painting by Thomas MM Hemy which had been on loan to Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery since 1990 was returning, now though, to the club’s new home; the Sunderland Stadium of Light. There it resides to this day, a hugely impressive tribute from the early days of association football and to our team which at that time was the best in the world.

Latterly a rumour emerged that the supplementary proofs referred to in the minutes of the 1900 Annual Meeting turned up at the SAFC Supporters Association. It was alleged that they were then bought to the attention of and bought by one of the Directors of Sunderland AFC.

And what of the artist? Thomas Marie Madawaska Hemy was born in and around February 1852 off the Murtar Var Rocks near the Brazilian coast.

The “Marie” was in due deference to the Catholic Church of which his father was a devout member and the “Madawaska” in homage to the ship that Thomas was born on. The ship Madawaska was registered in Canada and named after a river in Ontario. His sea birth was due to the family emigrating (temporarily) to Australia, leaving Liverpool in late 1851/early 1852 bound for Sydney Harbour.

The family’s roots were in Newcastle, where his brothers had been born, and having found life tough in Melbourne, where they had settled, and the family returned to the North East in 1854.

At aged 14 Thomas Hemy ran away to Sea for four years sailing exotic seas such as The Dardanelles aboard such ships as The Brindisi, a passage of his life that he recounted in his autobiography Deep Sea Days.

That is perhaps then no coincidence given all of this that one of Hemy’s brothers (Thomas had 9 brothers and 3 sisters), Charles Napier Hemy, would become one of the finest British maritime painters to have lived, a talent that was to be passed on to Thomas. All the family had a love of the sea and the Arts; Hemy’s Father Henri was an accomplished musician.

Back in England a substantial amount of Thomas’s time was spent at the mouth of the Tyne River painting boats or inspiring paintings of shipwrecks. Perhaps his most famous work being “The Wreck of the Birkenhead” and locally “Winter on the Tyne”. However he also gave us masterpieces such as “The Eton Wall Game”, “Goal!” painted in 1882 and of course “The Last Minute – Now Or Never”.

That said, it would be wrong to think of Hemy as a parochial North East painter. We have read about his sea faring exploits which gave him a very broad horizon and he also exhibited at such places as The Royal Academy in London and studied at the Antwerp Academy Of Arts for two years studying under Charles Verlat. He was often commissioned to paint and had his subsequent efforts purchased by such people as Lord Charles Beresford.

Towards the end of his life Hemy left the North East and settled in Ryde, the largest town on the Isle Of Wight where he died on 3 April 1937, ironically a month before Sunderland won the FA Cup for the first time. One of his sisters, Annie, also died in the same year.

History has left Thomas Marie Madawaska Hemy pretty much a forgotten man, but not in Sunderland. His footballing masterpiece and his legacy live on.

Taken from the Dribbling Game website that is run by Sunderland fans and historians Mark Metcalf and Paul Days. You can buy prints of the painting, as well as many other linked to Sunderland, including one of the teams from the 1893/94 season. Click here to learn more, and to find all the neccessary links to prints that you can purchase.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Roker Report Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Sunderland news from Roker Report