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...

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