Old Streetonians are masters of their art at Twickenham

Exhibit from the Old Streetonians art exhibition at Twickenham

Exhibit from the Old Streetonians art exhibition at Twickenham - Credit: Archant

There is some corner of an English field that is no ordinary art gallery.

With patriotic fervour stirred by the 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.

Old Streetonians currently prop up the eighth tier of English rugby with four points from six games but, while the club battle to consolidate London North West Division Three status, their off-field exploits show they can rise from the canvas.

The club, made up of players whose professions range 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 the Gazette, you wouldn’t know it from the Shoreditched décor.

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“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.

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“All the artwork in the exhibition is from practising 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 and 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 complements Mark Woods’ delicate fetishes that are redolent of sadomasochistic sex toys.

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, with the likes of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the Chapman brothers and Rachel Whiteread all based in Shoreditch.

“It was the centre,” Stringer recalled. “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 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 supposed to be a one-off rather than the foundation of a club.”

A derelict Hackney Marshes pitch on a freezing Friday afternoon in the early 1990s was where it all began – and 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 Stringer believes those contrasting elements have held the club together.

“A surprising number of rugby players have been artists,” Stringer said. “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. 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 will last until the end of the Six Nations Championship next spring and could then be extended until September’s World Cup, will spur on the first XV to improved results in the months ahead.

“We are bottom at the moment but we’re confident of turning that around,” he added. “The nature of sport in the inner city is that you need a very big pool of players because you are not paid to play. In London, we have to accept that there are 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, every Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and on Sundays from 11am to 5pm until April 2015.

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