Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Eric Ravilious and the Art of Cricket

With the Cricket World Cup about to start it's strange to think how this eccentric old game has become a global sensation. Is there a sport of similar standing in which two national teams compete for anything as bizarre as the burnt remains of a set of bails? Back in the 1970s, cricket still seemed weird and archaic compared to soccer, but today its players can earn fortunes and TV audiences of millions tune in for the big events.

Some eccentricities survive, though, like the Wisden Cricketer's Almanack,  an annual compilation of the sport's facts and figures that means nothing to most people and everything to the die-hard cricket follower. Founded in 1864, Wisden has been published annually ever since, irrespective of minor inconveniences like world war.

David Inshaw, 'The Cricket Game'
Since 1938 the cover of this venerable sporting annual has born a suitably archaic illustration of two Victorian gentlemen at cricket. Eschewing leg pads and other modern nonsense in favour of a sound top hat, the batsman looks as though he wants to give the ball a wallop over cow corner but may instead have to settle for a dab through third man, while the keeper in idiosyncratic striped jumper waits to whip off the bails.

By the time Eric Ravilious was commissioned to create this memorable cover illustration he was a renowned master of wood engraving, with a taste for old-fashioned subjects that made him the ideal man for the job. He also played cricket once in a while at the village ground in Castle Hedingham, Essex.

WG Grace memorial, Bristol
In June 1935 he played for the Double Crown Club against the Hedingham village team, reporting afterwards that he was 'not out, hit four balls and made 1, also bowled  a few overs and in consequence feel stiff as a poker today.' Another time, only a couple of months before the outbreak of war, he hit three sixes, and wrote, 'It is you might say one of the pleasures of life hitting a six.'

Another artist inspired by cricket is David Inshaw, one of Britain's finest living painters. During the 1970s and 1980s he painted serene, sometimes haunting, gardens and rural scenes with extraordinary attention to detail, and in this painting captures the beauty of the village game when the sun is shining and the match is evenly poised.

Sally Prior, 'Beach Cricket'
The great cricketer WG Grace has himself been represented in various art forms, from a set of iron gates at Lords to a cameo role as the face of God in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'. This mural can be seen at his birthplace in Downend, Bristol.

And the sport continues to inspire artists working in diverse media and styles, from sculpture reminiscent of Giacometti (not a cricketer so far as I know) to paintings by players like Jack Russell. Former England captain Michael Vaughan made some very odd paintings a couple of years ago, by whacking paint-covered balls at a canvas in the manner of a cricket-crazed Jackson Pollock.

More interesting is glass artist Lucy Amsden, who in 2009 created a series of pieces that recreate famous cricketing moments in graphic form, using a series of colour-coded balls to show a passage of play. In one, she recreates a venomous over bowled by Andrew Flintoff in the 2005 Ashes series, while the piece shown here represents the final passage of play in the inaugural T20 cup final. Good to see that cricket fans are as eccentric as ever...

Thursday, 10 February 2011

PJ Harvey, TS Eliot and Paul Nash in Dorset

Listening to PJ Harvey on the radio the other night I felt homesick for Dorset. Billy Bragg may have chosen to live in Burton Bradstock but Harvey is Dorset born and bred; I went to nursery school in Wimborne with kids who talked like her, though they were a lot less articulate. Listening to her I wanted to jump in the car and drive to Worth Matravers, have a pint of cider at The Square and Compass and then walk down the green terraced valley to the sea.

This most extraordinary of singers was plugging her new album, 'Let England Shake'. In tone it follows on from her previous outing, 'White Chalk' (2007), which is as fragile and haunted as Nick Drake's 'Pink Moon' (1972). You never get the impression, however, that Harvey is a danger to herself or others. She's an explorer, and in recent years - with the global success of previous records no doubt keeping her bank balance healthy - she's been busily exploring both the limits of her vocal range and her feelings about her homeland.
     White chalk hills are all I've known
     White chalk hills will rot my bones
The new record is much broader in scope and more sophisticated than 'White Chalk'. To her interviewer she gave a rather exhausting list of things she'd read and watched for research, among them the complete films of Stanley Kubrick, and the poetry of TS Eliot. He wrote in 'The Wasteland':
     If there were only water amongst the rock
     Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
And Harvey in her song 'On Battleship Hill', which is about the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of World War One, refers to:
      Jagged mountains jutting out
      Cracked like teeth in a rotting mouth

I would love to hear PJ Harvey sing her way through 'The Wasteland'. As well as the linguistic echoes ('the Thames river, glistening like gold'), the dystopian beauty of 'Let England Shake' reminds me of Eliot's poem, which was written during another period of international turmoil. In 'The Last Living Rose' she sings:
     Take me back to beautiful England 
     And the great and filthy mess and ages 
     And battered books and fog rolling down behind the mountains 
     And on the graveyards and dead sea captains
Harvey has the ability (as Eliot did) to make one shiver simultaneously with dread and pleasure.

We shouldn't be surprised to find such a poetic voice coming from Dorset, a hard land and the home county of Thomas Hardy and William Barnes. It was also a favourite haunt of Paul Nash, an artist who thought long and hard about Englishness, and in the process created a unique body of work in which he explored the theories and ideas of the day within and across the landscapes he knew and loved. Nash edited the 'Shell Guide to Dorset', in which he drew attention to the county's dramatic scenery and ancient sites.

He was particularly keen on the seaside town of Swanage, which he branded in the mid-30s a Surrealist town on account of its combination of 'beauty, ugliness and the power to disquiet.' In an effort to express what he felt about the town, he made collages of disparate objects. But he also left for posterity beautiful paintings of the Dorset landscape; when I look at his painting of Worth Matravers I hear PJ Harvey singing about her white chalk hills...