When Marylebone Cricket Club members discuss “closing the face” and “leg theory,” one is unsure whether they’re discussing the state of play or the new paintings in the beautiful old Pavilion at Lord’s ground in London.
These days, MCC is not just about cricket. It is also a notable patron of the arts, with a sizeable collection of about 500 paintings, which it is currently adding to with a new batch of commissioned portraits from exciting young artists like Rupert Alexander, Brendan Kelly and Stuart Pearson–Wright.
Founded in 1787, MCC is a private club whose 20,000 members have an average age of 58 (sic). MCC is the owner, custodian and developer of Lord’s, which remains the spiritual (though no longer official) home of cricket.
Other than the National Portrait Gallery, very few British institutions have the resources to commission a series of portraits. MCC, however, is a generous benefactor of the arts, and has invested more than £60 million in refurbishing Lord’s during recently retired secretary Roger Knight’s 12 years at the helm, using (no doubt to the relief of hardworking taxpayers) the club’s money, not National Lottery money.
The club also has a scheme for young artists, which awards an up and coming painter a two-week trip to follow the England team on an overseas tour. The scheme was set up in the late 1990s, with the most recent recipient being Karen Neale, an architect by training, who sketched at Lord’s during the 2005 season. Her work illustrated an MCC publication, Tom Graveney at Lord’s, and a calendar.
The innings opened when art dealer Stephen Lacey asked the club if an 1807 painting called “Bedford Nursery Ground” that he possessed was connected to it (Lord’s has a practice ground called The Nursery Ground). It wasn’t, but Lacey was “aware that they had a collection and had at one time been quite adventurous, commissioning Ishbel Myerscough and the late Sarah Raphael to do two portraits, one of Graham Gooch and one of Gary Sobers, in the early ’90s.”
“There was a youngish curator (Adam Chadwick) who had taken over at MCC, and we got on very well.” Henry Wyndham, formerly of St James’s Art Group and now Chairman of Sotheby’s, was also influential while he was on the MCC Arts and Library Committee in progressing the idea for a series of portraits.
Thus the “Lord’s Portrait Project” was born, though there is no official name for it. Discussions about the portraits began in 2005, and commissioning began in early 2006, with 2009 as a target date for completion of all the paintings.
There is a travelling exhibition of the portraits planned for 2009, which will begin its journey in the Long Room, and then possibly continue to Birmingham and Southampton, with tours to India and Australia also in the pipeline.
MCC and Stephen Lacey have chosen nine artists to do a series of portraits of eminent Test cricketers from all the Test playing nations. The commissioned artists are Rupert Alexander, Phil Hale, Brendan Kelly, James Lloyd, Jennifer McRae, Justin Mortimer, Ishbel Myerscough, and Stuart Pearson-Wright. They are mostly young but established painters (though these portraits can still have a huge effect on how their careers develop subsequently) who have exhibited at the BP Portrait Award (with the exception of the Florence-trained Rupert Alexander), which has helped to establish an unofficial link between MCC and the National Portrait Gallery.
Justin Mortimer did the portrait of Lara that now hangs in the MCC museum; Rupert Alexander has completed the charcoal portraits of Roger Knight and of the distinguished former Times cricket correspondent John Woodcock; and former India captain ‘Tiger’ Pataudi (aka Mansur Ali Khan of Pataudi) has been depicted by Jonathan McCrae. Stuart Pearson-Wright will paint the Indians Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar and Dilip Vengsarkar; and James Lloyd will portray Nasser Hussain. As of September 2006 there were eight portraits in progress.
None of the commissioned artists knows anything about cricket – “probably because I’m Scottish,” says Brendan Kelly – so they were taken to Lord’s to get a feel for the place and were apparently deeply impressed by the history and aura of the place. Stephen Lacey describes Lord’s as “an utterly self–sufficient world” -once inside the ground (and particularly the Pavilion), the hustle and bustle of central London seems a million miles away.
Rupert Alexander says that Woodcock and Knight were “wonderful characters” to paint. MCC suggested that these portraits should be representative, so Rupert did them in charcoal. Brendan Kelly’s portraits, however, will be more radical – his commissioning brief was to paint them in the style of his oil canvas “My Brother (Paul).”
Sir Vivian Richards is described on the cricinfo.com website as playing with “calculated menace and magnificent theatre” and was famously intimidating as a batsman, but Kelly says that he was “very cool, very accommodating, even a little bit shy. He has a really interesting face’. Inzamam-ul-Haq was more challenging because “he doesn’t speak much English and reporters were after him all the time.” Kelly had only one sitting with his subjects – he works from photographs.
The logistics of the project are quite challenging for the artists. Getting hold of cricketers to sit for a portrait can be quite difficult, as current players travel so much. But retired players can also be difficult to get hold of, especially if they work in the media, and many of them live overseas, anyway.
“The artists all know each other and are supportive of each other,” says Lacey. Indeed, some of them work in the same building. Does this mean that they look at each other’s works in progress and make suggestions? Brendan Kelly responds to this googly with a straight bat: “We don’t really look at each others’ work and make suggestions. We tend to talk more generally.” Rupert adds, “I have in fact only met the other MCC artists a couple of times and even on those occasions there was not a particularly involved discussion of the portraits.”
MCC selects the cricketers and the artists have no say in whom they paint, nor do the cricketers have a choice of portraitist: “As soon as one starts introducing an element of choice, it can become chaotic,” says Lacey. Otherwise, MCC is quite an enlightened commissioner and painters are given a good deal of freedom in how they depict their subjects. Brendan Kelly says that MCC was “quite liberal, quite open, but my commission was based gained from them seeing ‘My Brother (Paul)’, and that painting was my brief.”
During briefings, the Gooch and Sobers paintings are used as examples of how the portraits should be. Adam Chadwick says, “Sobers and Gooch were more adventurous portraits – they addressed not only the representation of the cricketers but really emphasised the portrait as well.” Kelly also picks up on this theme, telling how he wants to capture “the psychological aspect, and depict them as people, not just as sportsmen.”
And does MCC pay well? “Yes” was Brendan Kelly’s one word answer.
The choice of subjects is governed by an MCC committee and its perceptions of who and who should not be painted. The principal requirement is that sitters have to be distinguished international cricketers, whether retired or still playing. The portraits intrinsically confer “greatness” (or at least distinction) on their subjects but there is, however, a slight risk of some players not being judged kindly by history – after all, there is quite a difference between a batsman that scores 5,000 runs and one that scores 8,000 runs during a career.
For its new series of portraits, the MCC has chosen, among others, the record-breaking West Indian batsman Brian Lara; the Sri Lankan spin bowler Muttiah Muralitharan; and Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq. The selection of Inzamam suddenly became both very pertinent and very controversial in the wake of ball tampering accusations against Inzamam – subsequently dropped – during the England vs. Pakistan match at The Oval in August 2006.
“Inzy” went off for a sitting with Brendan Kelly during Middlesex’s rain-affected match against the touring Pakistanis at Uxbridge on 24 August, while the tabloids got hot under the collar about events at The Oval. Even before the alleged ball-tampering incident, Inzamam was an interesting choice – he hasn’t played a great deal in England, but he has scored over 8,000 runs in Test cricket and so was deemed more than worthy of a portrait.
“Inzy” and “Murali” prove that a paintings’s subject can sometimes be more controversial than its style. Muralitharan has a “distinctive” bowling technique that some critics suggest is illegal. One wag suggested that his portrait would be even more controversial if his arm was painted straight rather than slightly bent, as some suggest it is when he bowls.
Other subjects include England’s Ashes-winning captain Michael Vaughan (by McRae) and the famous West Indian batsman Sir Vivian Richards (by Kelly). Chadwick feels, “it is more international this time. There has been a tradition (at MCC) of painting mainly England cricketers… This project is also slightly different in that it doesn’t just seek to pay tribute to great cricketers, it also seeks to be representative of a selection of international cricketers of a particular time.”
The main focus of the MCC’s portrait project is to capture contemporary leading players, but there are also some ancillary subjects. Former Times cricket correspondent John Woodcock sits on the Arts and Library Committee and has had his portrait done in charcoal on paper by Rupert Alexander, as has the recently retired Secretary of MCC Roger Knight. “They’re lovely pictures, what portraiture is about,” comments Lacey, though these portraits are not formally part of the “project.” Nonetheless, they’re a fine king pair.
The renovation of the Pavilion in 2004 gave Adam a chance to rehang some of the club’s paintings. The great Australian batsman Sir Donald Bradman wasn’t very keen on alcohol, so the bar was not really appropriate for him, whereas it was perfect for the bon vivant Aussie all rounder Keith Miller.
The Pavilion paintings are changed every two or three years, but the museum changes far more frequently, which leads to some confusion among the tour guides when they try and point out a particular painting, only to find that it’s no longer there. Eventually, though, “every picture finds its place,” says Chadwick.
There was some debate as to whether Shane Warne’s portrait should be hung in the Long Room while he was playing during last year’s Ashes series. Warne, of course, is still very much alive and playing (MCC prefers to hang portraits of retired players in the Long Room), though he himself was apparently more concerned that it might be defaced by one of his Australian teammates.
Some of MCC’s paintings have acquired iconic status. “The Sarah Raphael portrait of Gary Sobers has always intrigued a lot of artists, and artists talked about it,” says Lacey. For many people, sporting heroes are sporting heroes, however old they are, but the Sobers portrait was unexpected, showing him as an old man rather than the swashbuckling all rounder of legend. It’s an unflattering, but very accurate, likeness, though with a sporting portrait it is easier to capture the essence of the sitter during their prime than when he/she has been retired for some time. Very appropriately for his surname, Sobers’ portrait was hung in the bar.
Justin Mortimer’s vibrant portrait of Brian Lara, showing the preeminent West Indian batsman of his generation bare-chested, also caused some discussion. But such portraits are, says Stephen Lacey, an attempt to go beyond the “traditional” cricket portrait by showing something of the sitter’s personality rather than just a white sweater and cricket.
The “project” encapsulates some striking contrasts, such as that between the modern, sometimes challenging style of the artists and their sometimes older, retired subjects, and also between the paintings’ modern style and the more traditional surroundings of Lord’s. But there are also similarities, like the hand -eye coordination parallel between painting and cricket.
MCC is still hugely important within its own field, but it isn’t necessarily influential in the arts, though that might be changing as it continues to build a prestigious collection. The tradition of the cricket portrait needs bringing into the 21st century, and MCC is beginning to achieve that with these splendid new paintings.
It would surely be easier for MCC to commission a photographer, and a photograph certainly gives a better representation of a cricketer’s technique, but as Stephen Lacey puts it, “a painting can give you so much more.” To those that complain that “it’s not cricket,” it isn’t. It’s art.
(This is an unedited and updated version of the article published in Artists & Illustrators January 2007)