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Meet Premiership Rugby Player-Turned-Painter Ed Williamson

Meet Premiership Rugby Player-Turned-Painter Ed Williamson
May 2024
Reading time Ellie Patterson

Sporting careers are famously short-lived...

For some professional athletes, retirement entails coaching… or even a presenting gig if they're lucky, but former Newcastle Falcons player, Ed Williamson had a different idea. Instead, he returned to his love of art.

‘I'm unbelievably lucky,’ says Ed. ‘I’ve basically done things that people do in their spare time and I've made them both into a career.’ Rugby and painting might both be popular hobbies, but the similarities end there. How can someone who spent 15 years revelling in the sweat, blood and mud of a professional rugby pitch also thrive in the quiet solitude of long days creating an oil painting in a studio?

It might sound like an unexpected segue, but for anyone who knew Ed before he embarked on his rugby career, his new vocation will come as far less of a surprise. 

Art was a big part of his upbringing. ‘I was born in Stockton, but we moved to Staindrop when I was pretty young, and that’s where we stayed for the next 20-odd years,’ says Ed. ‘My mum and dad had fine art framing shops. They were older parents [and] they were very art-minded. I was aways getting dragged to museums. My uncle was a professional artist as well, [he] sold his work through the galleries that my mum and dad had.’

This translated into a fairly precocious art practise. ‘I was encouraged to draw at quite a young age and use different techniques and different paints, My dad died when I was about 11, but even before that, so eight, nine years old I was using oil paints.’

Meanwhile, Ed went to Barnard Castle School where he began playing rugby. His talent was obvious, and he joined Newcastle Falcons straight out of school. This went well for a few years, but ultimately the game started to take its toll. ‘I had a season at Newcastle where everything went wrong,’ Ed says. ‘It was just injury after injury.’

This had a huge impact on his career. ‘I accumulated something like 23 minutes in total for the whole year,’ he says. ‘So after that year Newcastle Falcons let me go. I had 11 months out of the game and it was a really, really dark time.’ 

Eventually he bounced back and joined London Welsh, but he promptly sustained a serious injury to his knee. He credits his wife with prompting him to consider his plan for retirement at this point. He was conscious that, unlike a lot of the men he was playing with, he hadn’t studied for a degree before turning professional. Without qualifications to call on, the only thing he could think of was his knack for drawing. ‘I was doing the odd drawing here and there for like £50 for the lads at the club of their dogs or babies,’ he says. ‘That’s how it started.’

After a few more years playing and coaching at Rotheram Titans and then UA Libournaise in France, Ed officially retired from rugby in 2017 and committed to his art full time. He experimented with lots of different subjects and styles of painting, but it was a trip to the Louvre and that initially inspired his trademark style. It began with wondering what would happen if he combined the traditional style of the Louvre’s Vermeers and Rembrandts with the surrealism of its Dalis. Then, after a trip to the ballet, he and his wife discussed the parallels between the physical sacrifices that dancers make for their careers, and those made by rugby players. The culmination of these two trains of thought was a painting of a ballet dancer wearing a Grecian-style helmet. 

Since then he has moved to Dublin, where his wife works as a competition lawyer, and Ed continues to paint what could be inelegantly described as glamorous women with objects over their heads (they are much more sophisticated than the image that conjures). The focus is now on honing his skill. ‘I’ve really slowed down and the detail’s gone through the roof’, he says. ‘The next step would be to get them as real as I possibly can.’ 

His process begins with creating the image he wants to paint. ‘I'm not at the level where I can have my own photography studio,’ says Ed, but he hopes to get there. ‘Then I’ll be able to get exactly what I'm after,’ he says. For now his approach is closer to collage. ‘At the moment it’s what catches my eye in magazines, TV, internet, Pinterest. I’ll pop them on my iPad and see what works.’

His work is still evolving but, thankfully, there’s no rush. ‘There’s no time limit on the job that I'm doing now,’ he says. ‘I can do this for as long as I can lift my arm up, see the canvas and I’ve got my fingers working.’

In the meantime, he’s quite happy to be confounding preconceptions. ‘I’ve been at art fairs with my wife and [people] go straight to her thinking she’s the artist instead of myself. “That big idiot can’t be painting this kind of stuff.”’.

I hope he’s exaggerating – but it must feel great to prove them wrong.
Instagram @williamsonartofficial

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