Through the Conservation Keyhole: Rugby Over the Ages


Examining our rugby team photographs – Raquel with the 1925 team (left) and Roxy with the 1912-13 team (right)

With the upcoming rugby match between Scotland and Wales tomorrow (13th February), we thought we’d share a short history of the long-standing sport of rugby at the University of Glasgow. Two early 20th century photographs we’ve been analysing as part of our work placement will guide us through time.

But first, introductions are in order. Writing today are Roxy and Raquel, two masters students in Technical Art History: Making and Meaning at the University of Glasgow. Our project-based placement is focused on the analysis and conservation of photographic archival material, which we just recently began in January. These rugby team photos were part of the first group we received to examine for condition and future preservation.

Glasgow University Athletic Club was established in April 1881 and it was one of three official organisations that represented the general body of students within the Union. Rubgy is listed among the original sports in this Club, along with Cricket, Tennis, Association Football, Shinty, Golf, Hockey, Cycling and Fives. Rubgy was also the only sport to have an uninterrupted record in the Club’s first 20 years and was clearly the most dominant sport in the University. The team had the advantage of calling upon the one pitch at Gilmorehill before any other team. Up until 1914 the team lost more than they won, but were never disgraced and had more successful seasons thereafter.


During our first week, we each got a collection of photographs to examine. Included were two rugby team photos, which according to our preservation manager are the only two in the collection. Our first photograph (see above) depicted the Glasgow University Rugby Club team from the 1912-1913 season showing the 16 members outside the building of the Club on the practice grounds. We think this photograph was taken on a special occasion, possibly at the end of the year in order to celebrate the merits of the members or even to gain notoriety. We were surprised to see two small round portraits pasted on top of the original photograph, which we discovered was the main captain of the team on the right, and the honorary secretary on the left. We looked at different characteristics like colour, surface texture and thickness that would help us identify the classification of this photograph. We landed on “gelatin”, which was common in this period.

As Technical Art History students, we are taught how to properly analyse and look at the methods, materials and physical properties of objects and works of art. Photographs are not exactly in our comfort zone, but we applied our analytical skills and attention to detail to evaluate the condition of our materials. On this one we observed the various tears and scratches, as well as splashes of ink. We decided to inspect the surface using a magnifying glass, which revealed the gelatin layer to be scraped off in the left corner. Moving on to the cardboard support, we observed water damage and tears most likely due to re-framing or improper storage conditions. Despite any physical damage, the quality of the photograph is clear and has maintained its pleasant warm tone.


Fast forward 12 years and the rugby team has increased in size to 30 members. Our second photograph (see above) is of the 1925 team who are organised in three rows before a wooded and grassy area. All of the players are wearing either a collared white long-sleeve polo, or a dark polo, some with a crest on the breast pocket and some without. It seems with more members also came a variation of uniforms. The captain can be found in the first row, directly in the middle with a white top and crossed arms.

The first thing we noticed was the deterioration across the surface that gave the photograph a mirror-like, bluish-silver appearance. This is characteristic of the medium “silver gelatin print” on a paper and cardboard support. We investigated the condition, and found the oxidation of elemental silver caused the effect called silver mirroring. Areas of shadow are particularly affected. The tone changed into a yellow-brown colour around the boys on the right side of the photo, which was discovered to be sulfiding – another common feature of silver gelatin. Water damage has left dark splatters of drip marks across the top and bottom of the photograph as well as on the cardboard support. However, we are happy to have these items available in the archive collection as a portal to the past. Being able to observe the changing faces and fashions, as well as the evolving medium of photography is a perfect exercise for history nerds like us.


Rubgy 2014-2015

And for a good comparison, here is the 2014-2015 official photo of the University of Glasgow Rugby team. The members have grown to 49 players, have upgraded to formalwear for their Club photo, and have moved off the field and into the picturesque cloister area of the Gilbert Scott Building. How things change!

We hope everyone enjoys the game tomorrow – may the best team win!

Look out for more posts from Through the Conservation Keyhole series by the both of us in the upcoming months.

Categories: Archive Services, Special Collections

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