As England vie for a place in the World Cup final, Alastair Smart visits a little-known collection at Lord’s
Back in the 1860s, Sir Spencer Ponsonby-Fane, treasurer of Marylebone Cricket Club (the MCC), was urgently looking for artworks. He needed to decorate the newly refurbished and expanded pavilion at Lord’s, the MCC’s ground in London.
As well as scouring art dealerships and auction houses, he invited Club members to contribute any cricket-related work they owned. One member donated a cannonball from the Siege of Sevastopol: a memento from his service in the Crimean War, where the British Army played regular games of cricket (albeit not, presumably, with cannonballs).
Today it counts as one of 3,000 objects in the MCC art collection at Lord’s, where on Sunday the Cricket World Cup final is being held.
In the century and a half since Ponsonby-Fane set to work, the Club has continued to acquire art pretty much uninterruptedly. For cricket diehards, the collection is a must-see. In addition to the five highlights considered here, there are plenty of little-known gems – such as Jacques Sablet’s painting from 1792, Thomas Hope of Amsterdam Playing Cricket with His Friends. It depicts a young Anglo-Dutchman taking a break from sightseeing on the Grand Tour and picking up his bat. He’s in Campagna, with Mount Vesuvius for background.
The principal works are hung in the pavilion – either on the staircase or in the famous Long Room (both of which are on the players’ route from the dressing room to the field). Other pieces are dotted around the ground. “People refer to Lord’s as the home of cricket,” says Charlotte Goodhew, MCC collections manager. “But we like to consider ourselves the home of the cultural identity of the game too: the art plays a crucial part in that.”
The MCC was founded in 1787 and it remains, to this day, the custodian of the Laws of Cricket, by which the game is played internationally. The collection includes a silk handkerchief from the 18th century on which the game’s original laws were first printed.
Part of Goodhew’s job is to keep acquiring work. Big-name artists aren’t really of interest (the MCC owns none of Francis Bacon’s paintings of figures in cricket pads, for instance). More coveted are works with a connection to the history of the game than to the history of art.
Given the size of the collection, a large chunk is kept in storage. It should also be pointed out that access to the pavilion is for MCC members only. To see the art, non-members must book on to a tour of the ground.
Occasionally, the MCC commissions new works, mostly portraits, such as that of the recently retired Sri Lanka captain, Mahela Jayawardene, wearing a hoodie to protect him from the English cold. It’s typical of the modern portraits at Lord’s that the subject is captured more informally than in the days of yore, when blazer and tie were mandatory. One hopes the MCC’s next commission is a group portrait: of England’s World Cup team with winners’ medals around their necks.
Five of the best works from the Lord’s collection
A Cricket Match at Mary-le-Bone Fields (1748)
Painted in 1740 by Francis Hayman, one of the founding members of the Royal Academy, this is among the earliest ever depictions of cricket.
It shows a game under way in an oak-lined part of what is today Regent’s Park, with all players wearing white shirts and breeches.
It reveals many quaint, old traits of the game that have since become outdated, including the use of curved bats, wickets of just two stumps, underarm bowling, umpires holding bats, and scorers notching the match score on to sticks.
Captain of the Eleven (1882)
Philip Hermogenes Calderon, the Keeper of the Royal Academy for a number of years, painted this canvas in 1882. It depicts a cherubic Victorian boy defending his wicket in what looks like his back garden – a fine example of the pictures of childhood innocence for which Calderon was renowned. Captain of the Eleven gained fame nationwide at the turn of the 20th century when it was used in a Pears Soap advert.
An Ideal Cricket Match (1887)
To celebrate the MCC’s centenary, this painting (see lead image) depicts an imaginary match at Lord’s between England and Australia. The Englishman, WG Grace, is batting and has just hit a ball (that’s now being fielded). Among the crowd are the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra), who are standing on the far right, the princess carrying a parasol. Also there, rather intriguingly, is the actress Lillie Langtry, who is wearing yellow, with whom the Prince had a three-year affair.
The Mill, Lunchtime: A Cricket Match (1940)
When it comes to sport, LS Lowry is best known for his pictures of football matches being played against a backdrop of factories and mills in England’s industrial north-west.
But he also captured the occasional game of cricket in the same setting too, such as in this drawing from 1940. A friendly match is taking place between workmates during their lunch hour – though, as is the case with Lowry’s football scenes, the crowd is as much the focus as the players.
Charlotte Goodhew calls it “a key work in showing the history and development of cricket in a sociocultural context”.
Portrait of Viv Richards (2006)
In this huge 2006 portrait by Brendan Kelly, Richards can be seen dominating the canvas in much the same way that he dominated opposition bowlers.
He stares directly and unflinchingly at us, as befits a batsman who always refused to wear a helmet. Kelly says the bold way he applied his paint to the canvas, with great energy and dynamism, was intended to reflect Richards’s way of batting.
For information about tours of the art collection and museum at Lord's go to www.Lords.org/tours