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Transcript of A Country Cricket Match podcast

Pete Betts: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, my name is Peter Betts and I work in the Learning Division of National Museums Liverpool. I am based at the Walker Art Gallery.

For the next 10 or 15 minutes I would like to talk about the picture that I have chosen as ‘picture of the month’ for November; 'A Country Cricket Match' by John Robertson Reid. 

This picture together with work by Whistler and John Linnell is presently on loan, as an exchange from Tate Britain which has borrowed several pictures from the Lady Lever Art Gallery for their current exhibition of the work of John Millais.

'A Country Cricket Match' was one of the pictures in the collection of Henry Tate that he offered to the government in 1894.  He also offered to build a gallery provided the government supplied a suitable site and would agree to administer the gallery once it was open.

The picture shows a scene, ‘an everyday story of country folk’, if you like, at Ashington in West Sussex in the 1870s.  Despite the picture’s title, the artist has chosen to focus on the drama enacted off the field rather than the game.  The cricket match has been relegated to an incidental detail in the distance of this bold composition. 

The picture’s subject is the spectators rather than the players.

As with most painted scenes the composition is divided into three distinct parts, distance, middle distance and foreground.  In all of these areas, figures are predominant.  There is a fascinating cast of characters, men, women and children, workers and gentry; and a wide variety of activities, costume, postures;  reclining, seated, standing, are all depicted by the artist. 

The most important and clearly diverse group of figures are gathered around a marquee and table in the foreground, few of whom seem to be watching the cricketers visible in the distance; rather they seem more preoccupied with their drinks than the day’s play.

On the right of the picture there is a significant positioning of beer barrel and cricket bat from which we may infer, that on this occasion, boozing is as equally if not more important than batting. 

In the middle of the table, cluttered with clay pipes, matches and glasses both full and empty, stands a distinctive dark bottle with a cream label, on which there is printed a red triangle. 

This is a bottle of beer, Bass with its’ red triangle trade mark, the first registered trade mark in world, devised in 1876. 

Six years after Reid painted this picture, Manet was to paint exactly the same bottles in his celebrated depiction of modern life, 'The Bar at the Folies-Berger'.

During the course of my research for this talk I came across a reference to the fact that the trade mark had been discontinued in 2001

However I’m happy to report that Bass bitter is still available on draught, served in glasses adorned with the red triangle, at the White Star in Liverpool city centre.

The figures round the table display a wide variety of gestures and expressions and it is these various expressions of rapt attention, quiet satisfaction or distraction, together with telling details such as the glasses, matches and pipes that litter the table and the discarded cricket pads and gloves on the grass that impart a powerful authenticity to the scene. 

We are easily drawn in to an everyday drama and compelled to speculate on the lives of the characters portrayed; What is the cause of the despondent expression of the boy in the smock, holding a stick? 

Wearing exactly the same Tyrolean style hat adorned with a peacock feather, is another young lad, this time  lying beneath the table feeding a tit-bit to a terrier.

He shows not the slightest interest in the game being played.

Or is he literally lying low? If so; why?

We cannot but conclude that the artist has presented us with all the aspects of a first class Victorian soap opera.

And so naturally, we begin to question what exactly is the relationship between the cricketer in the cap and the young woman carrying the tray of drinks?  He pulls at and unties her ribbon choker in a manner that is faintly indecent; sexual harassment, it appears, was not unknown in West Sussex of the 1870s.

Throughout the composition there are brilliant contrasts of colour and tone which arrest the attention of the viewer.  And these areas of maximum contrast usually emphasise and draw our attention to important details of the varied narrative.

In the middle distance, an animated clergyman with a cricket bat or is it an umbrella? converses with a woman with a parasol and dressed in pink.

There are parts of the picture that appear unfinished or are painted in a sketchy fashion but it is precisely this lively, ragged brushwork that animates the picture surface and infuses the figures with the breath of life.

This shimmering realism is not reserved for the figures only. 

The marquee which occupies such an important place in the composition has been carefully painted in a succession of scrubbed glazes; in such a fashion that not only the grubby colour and texture of the marquee is recorded but also the translucent quality of the canvas.

John Robertson Reid studied at the Edinburgh School of Art and the Royal Scottish Academy.  At the age of 25 he was exhibiting in London at the Royal Academy and before the age of 30 his picture 'Toil and Pleasure' was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest. [This was a fund established in the 1870s to purchase work by British artists, in order to establish a national collection of British art.]

His picture which depicts agricultural labourers pausing to watch the hunt ride through the field of turnips which they are harvesting is also in the collection of the Tate Gallery. 

Groups of figures in a landscape setting became a successful and enduring theme for the artist.  In 1881 he moved to Cornwall and began to paint ‘en plein- air’ that is to paint outdoors, direct from nature and frequently at the same time to paint local people acting as artists’ models.

'Rival Grandfathers', John Robertson Reid

Reid’s work sold well, in 1884 the Walker Art Gallery purchased his 'Rival Grandfathers', a scene set in a Cornish fishing port.  In 1901 he moved to London but apart from the purchase by the Chantrey Bequest, he received no official recognition, perhaps because of the experimental quality of his later work and the generally conservative mood of the world of British art.  

He never became an associate or a member of the Royal Academy.  However his work was a great influence on an important group of young Scottish artists of the 1890s, the Glasgow Boys as they were known. 

By way of a postscript: I cannot say whether cricket continues to be played on this field, perhaps ‘executive homes’ now occupy the nineteenth Century greensward.

I have focussed my talk on the foreground and middle-distance of the composition and said nothing of the broad acres that extend to the horizon.

You may perhaps now be wondering what about the house and the trees, enlivened by a line of washing in the distance?

Well, surprisingly enough, I can offer you some up to date information on that house, of which in this picture we only see the roof.

While researching this work, I wandered down one of the countless obscure tracks that make up the information highway and came across the following; a property ad. on a Daily Telegraph website,

There is, believe it or not a section on houses for sale that appear in the work of well known artists.

And the house, here largely obscured by trees is one such.

I can now reveal that the property in question is, and I quote now from the ad.

‘...called the Well House, it is an attractive five-bedroomed house with detatched cottage in lawned gardens.  There are two wells and a large stone and brick terrace.’

The asking price is £595,000

Thank you for your attention.