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"The Heartbreak of Table Tennis in the Era Before Tennis Tables"

Andrew Ambrose

The inventrix of tableless tennis, Darlene Gams, is shown here with her family. You can see by the expression on her face and those of her children, Bingo, Spot and Lassie, that they knew something was wrong, but exactly what it was escaped them. The twins, Cate and Duplicate, shown holding the net between them, are too young to perceive the mood of familial discontent, yet even they are aware of the wrongness of what they're doing, expressed best by Cate's questioning look at her mother and half-fearful attempt at a brave smile.

Ambrose's work is an excellent demonstration of the craft of the Depressionist. Every one of his portraits (he did 37 before shooting himself in the head on July 4, 1877, during a misguided attempt at celebrating Independence Day) shows a glum, dour, morose, sulky, gloom-ridden or melancholy subject. Even the wedding pictures and baby portraits. It's really a wonder he did 37 paintings, given their execution. Most artists would have been hard up for commissions after the second or third. It's rumored that Ambrose had a private income and gave his paintings away, which would explain a lot. Less kindly commentators claim that he paid people to pose for him, and gave them an annual stipend to keep the paintings displayed in their drawing rooms, but this is just too, too cruel.

The artist painted Mrs Gams and her family on another occasion, when she revealed to the world her entry in the National Pastime Contest & Jubilee of 1876— baseless ball. That painting has been lost,¹ but sketches show the inventrix again looking as though she'd rather be someplace else, as her children, older now and more aware of public humiliation, wander around a field striped with a chalk diamond, attempting to find a purpose for being there. From time to time somebody would hit a ball with a club as a diversion, but that did nothing to improve the overall mood.
¹ There's a legend in the sports world that Abner Doubleday, who added bases to Mrs Gams' chalk lines and was hailed as the Greatest American Sports Entity Ever, burned the painting during a house party at his summer home in Mamaroneck, New York. It's unlikely that this actually happened, as Doubleday had a morbid fear of fire after the notorious Burning Ball incident of 1880.
Acquisition aided in part by The Sports Authority® and by the Elisha Gray/Pete Best Foundation for the Nearly Famous.


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