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28 Sept 2020

A tale of two champions: the Cribb and Molineaux boxing drawings at Brodick

Written by Dr Heather Carroll, Exhibition & Events Officer, Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum
A mounted ink drawing of a boxing match, mostly in sepia colours. It shows a large crowd surrounding a fenced boxing ring outdoors, with hills in the background. The boxer to the left is punching the boxer on the right in the face, and he is shown falling.
Thomas Rowlandson, ‘The Boxing Fight Between Cribb and Molineaux’, c1811, ink and wash, Brodick Collection
It was the biggest boxing match of the era: the formerly enslaved American who couldn’t be beaten, against England’s champion. Two drawings from Brodick Castle tell the tale.

Brodick Castle has a vast collection of sporting artwork, ranging from depictions of boxing matches, horse races and even champion fighting cockerels. Among this treasure trove of sporting history are two unassuming drawings that record the famous boxing matches between Tom Cribb (1781–1848), England’s undefeated champion, and Tom Molineaux (c1784–1818), a formerly enslaved African American, who fought his way to freedom.

Thought to have been born on a Virginia plantation in 1784, Molineaux was taught bare-knuckle boxing, or pugilism, by his father. The sport was still relatively new but popular due to its combination of violence with strict rules and gentlemanly conduct. After reportedly winning his freedom in a bout against another enslaved boxer from a neighbouring plantation, Molineaux used his purse winnings to sail to England, the epicentre of pugilism, in 1809. Once there, he met Bill Richmond (1763–1829), who offered to train him. Richmond had been born into enslavement in New York and was now a professional boxer. After continuing to win bouts in a new country, Molineaux challenged Cribb for the English title in 1810.

A mounted watercolour illustration of a boxing match, mostly in sepia and grey tones. Two boxers deliver blows to each other's face in a fenced-in boxing ring, with two trainers behind each boxer. A large crowd is shown watching the fight. Above the illustration is a handwritten paragraph of notes. Below the illustration are two darker labels on the mount.
Samuel Alken, ‘Cribb beating Molineaux, Dec 18th 1810’, c1810, pencil and watercolour, with notes added by a later hand, Brodick Collection.

Samuel Alken’s drawing at Brodick depicts this famous match. Thousands of spectators turned up to Copthall Common in Sussex in torrential rain; many can be seen in the background of Alken’s drawing holding a device that had slowly become popular in Britain: the umbrella. Cribb and Molineaux exchange blows in the centre of the ring accompanied by their trainers, who stand behind them. After several rounds and a crippling punch to the neck, it appeared that the champion was about to be defeated by the challenger from America. Cribb’s quick-thinking second, Joe Ward, was able to buy Cribb enough time to recover by interrupting the match to accuse Molineaux of holding bullets in his hands. In the time it took to disprove the accusation, Cribb regained his composure and was able to win, though barely, and notably through his second’s underhand tactic. Later notes have been added on Alken’s drawing about the match, although most of these relate to Cribb’s trainer, Robert Barclay Allardice of Ury (1779–1854), known as ‘Captain Barclay’.

Molineaux was frustrated by the result and it did not take long for him to challenge Cribb to a rematch. Cribb accepted, but was shaken by how close he had come to defeat. He spent the next few months training heavily with Captain Barclay in Scotland, knowing that he had been out of shape for the last match and was lucky to have won it. Molineaux meanwhile was enjoying his fame in Britain ... and the vices that came with it. On 28 September 1811, the rematch was held. Over 20,000 people from all walks of life descended upon Thistleton Gap in Rutland to see the highly touted bout.

A mounted ink drawing of a boxing match, mostly in sepia colours. It shows a large crowd surrounding a fenced boxing ring outdoors, with hills in the background. The boxer to the left is punching the boxer on the right in the face, and he is shown falling.
Thomas Rowlandson, ‘The Boxing fight between Cribb & Molineaux’, c1811, ink and wash, Brodick Collection

The satirical printmaker Thomas Rowlandson portrayed the heaving crowd in his drawing, now at Brodick Castle. The rematch was much swifter than the first fight, lasting under 20 minutes. In the centre of the drawing, Cribb is represented delivering his triumphant left hook to Molineaux, who falls backwards, fists clenched and in the air. The referee stands behind Molineaux, scratching his head, whilst Bill Richmond places his hands on his knees and crouches for a better look.

A hand-coloured illustration of a boxing match, surrounded by a very large crowd. The boxer to the right is punching the boxer on the left in the face, and he is shown falling backwards. Beneath the illustration are a couple of lines of handwritten text, giving a description of the event.
Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Rural Sports, A Milling Match’, hand coloured etching, c1811, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959

Rowlandson’s drawing would later be made into at least two editions of prints, purchased by consumers all over the country. The process of printmaking reversed the scene from Rowlandson’s original drawing and the bold colours were added by hand after. Pottery figures and souvenir jugs of the two boxers were also popular souvenirs, and some still survive today.

Both pugilists’ careers waned after the Thistleton Gap match, with Molineaux later succumbing to alcoholism and Cribb retiring to become a publican.

It is thanks to drawings like these at Brodick that we have records of some of boxing’s earliest, and largest, events. Alken and Rowlandson’s drawings demonstrate how these matches captured the interest of the public.

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