Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Singer Sargent's Googly

It has taken Fantasy Bob too long to visit the summer exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on the American Impressionists, now in its last week.

  Of course, previous experience of such exhibitions had given him little cause to expect much of cricketing interest. And the presence of American in the title also reinforced his lack of expectation - American impressions of cricket are generally less than illuminating.

So he had not set his hopes high and was duly not disappointed by them being dashed.   He can report to his faithful readership that there is nothing of cricketing interest in the wide array of pictures which are full of charm, colour and sunlight and depict people and landscapes at the turn of the 20th Century.   It is a most enjoyable show.

But as he came away from the show something nagged in FB's brain.  Had he been too cavalier in dismissing the cricketing content?   John Singer Sargent's picture of his fellow painter Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot kept coming back into mind.

Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot
by John Singer Sargent
Now,  FB's worldwide readership will be familiar with Singer Sargent as a great society portrait painter and creator of what FB considers his favourite painting in the National Galleries of Scotland. Despite a long residence in England, Singer Sargent did not see fit to include cricketing subjects in his work. A grievous failure.
But in this charming picture cricket seems to have slipped in. For although the title suggests that the subject, standing to the left, is painting, his atire - his whites his blazer and his white cap - are far more appropriate for cricket.
FB is not aware of anyu other picture claiming to show painters at work when they are dressed in cricket gear.  So there can be no mistake.  Sargent's title is deliberately misleading.
The so called painter depicted is taking a few moments before donning his pads to bat in the game proceeding behind him out of the picture's frame? If so, it might be a dull game for the young lady seems to be taking no interest in proceedings. It could therefore be the tea interval.
If Bunker was painting there is no clyue as to what his painting depicted.  The game in progress may well be the subject of Bunker's painting but it has been lost from his surviving work.  (Bunker himself was an artist of some note but sadly died at the age of 29 in 1890).

There is further mystery in the painting. The location is given in the title - Calcot is a suburb of Reading. But there is no record to suggest that there was a cricket club there at the time of the painting being made - 1887. Of course there are other cricket clubs in the vicinity, but not at Calcot. The painting therefore must be painted there and not at Calcot - so why should Sargent mislead?    What was he up to?

1887 might have been an inspiring year for any cricket painter for it was the driest summer for nearly 20 years and this fact and the developmento f the heavy roller in pitch preparation meant that it was a good year for batting. Arthur Shrewsbury averaged 78.71 for twenty-three innings, beating W.G. Grace’s 1871 record of 78.25. This itself was not beaten until Robert Poore averaged 91.23 in 1899. Shrewsbury’s innings of 267 against Middlesex, at 615 minutes remains the longest innings ever played in a county match. W.G. Grace for the third time reached 2,000 runs for the season.

So there was lots to depict if only Sargent had looked.  Instead he played clever tricks pretending to show painters in action in a place where there was probably no cricket.  It's this kind of thing that gets art a bad name.


  1. I recently read Donna Tartt's new tour de force of US literature, The Gold Finch. Even she managed two mentions of cricket in its 800 pages. Shame on Sargent.
    I dropped by to leave an invitation to take part in the Cricket Blogger Survey. 20 questions, about 10 minutes. Would be great if you could participate. Thanks, Chris.

    1. So done - many thanks - Donna Tartt's latest is on FB's reading list. FB enjoyed her previous works greatly but cannot bring to mind cricket scenes - so good to see her breaking new ground.