Boy with a bat

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Boy with a bat' page

Examination of a painting with local references, by Thomas Hudson


The Boy with the Bat

The summer of 2012 has not, to date, been the most inspiring of cricket seasons owing to rain-effected or abandoned matches. In the case of Kelham Road, the main home of the Newark Ransome & Marles Club, waterlogging has rendered the pitch unplayable for much of the season. Before this great English summer is condemned into oblivion, however, pause a moment to consider this colourful (the original is, anyway!) image by eighteenth-century portraitist, Thomas Hudson (1701–1779).

If the vivid and solid Baroque figure is overlooked momentarily, there can be little doubt that the skyline architecture is that of Newark Castle. The partial destruction following the English Civil War of the previous century is discernible, and areas of heavy shading describe features still familiar today, such as the gatehouse and certain windows. The smaller structure to the left is perhaps the toll house, monitoring, as it did, the turnpike that was part of the Great North Road.

It is questionable how much the watercolour painting reflects Newark of the time, for there is no documented evidence suggesting that Hudson ever visited Newark. Born in Devonshire, he trained under Jonathan Richardson, taking up the latter's genre of portraiture in 1728. He was influenced by famous English artists like Van Dyke and William Hogarth. His own pupils included Joseph Wright of Derby and Joshua Reynolds, the latter of whom was to produce work to rival his teacher in style and setting. Much of Hudson's time was spent in London, Devon or Bath, or visiting Holland. Yet it seems beyond belief that Hudson had never set eyes on Newark, even if he only travelled through and observed the picturesque townscape on his departure. The Castle detail is too authentic not to have derived from, at least, memory recall. It also seems a remarkable coincidence that the choice of location should be so close to the present-day Kelham Road ground, Photographic records were not then commonplace, and it is unlikely, though not impossible, that the landscape had been observed in another person's painting. Yet the grouping of background features is inaccurate in the sense of geographical layout. The suggestion that Hudson may have added this as a contextual skyline to a studio portait merits consideration, for it could certainly not have been a plein-air composition. His bridge may have been æsthetic only; though it bears remarkable resemblance to that depicted by Rolph Vernon (whom many readers may remember as ‘Viggy’) in Newark before Victoria. This was reconstructed in 1775 at the instigation of the Duke of Newcastle, and preceded the present Victorian bridge. But Hudson is thought to have painted his picture around 1760, and to have retired to Twickenham in 1766. If so, one would have expected the old wooden bridge to have endorsed the scene.

Yet art and cultural history are inseparable, even if expressed only in tone. The picture certainly bears witness to the social condition of England at this time. The painterly style is Baroque. In simplified terms, it uses a sculptural figuration; a stance that is obviously posed and purposely stiff. The artist would have made an initial sketch, or sketches, to enable him to complete the final image in his own time, without subjecting the model to prolonged posture. This normally suggests studio work. The background could, of course, have been painted beforehand, and the portrait added as a finish, but vice versa is more likely. Each one needs the other.  Hudson also uses vivid colouration proper to the style known as Rococo. This adds definition to the boy. The artist's exaggerated use of light and shade, termed chiarascuro, helps to add a three-dimensional effect. Yet for all this, the shapes are simple. It is hard to discern individuality from the work; it could easily have been a Gainsborough. This typifies the Georgian style, and also much of its architecture. Georgian homes tend to be box-shaped, unadventurous and very much duplicated.

Yet it would be untrue to deny that the image speaks nothing of Newark. True, there is poetic licence used, but this could have been a compositional strategy. Rarely does an artist copy a scene exactly; usually there is adaptation in the form of creativity. From this, individual personality is stamped. There is much suggestion of rurality. But Newark was village-like until the unprecedented Victorian surge in population. The Georgians made their mark, for example in the building of John Carr's magnificent town hall and the construction of the new Trent waterway, to supersede the Kelham branch and enable trade to return to the town. Perhaps that's why Hudson attributed importance to the subject, the model's proud stance mirrored that of nobility, the normal subjects of Hudson's art. The garb of the cricketer is unrecognisable as such; the long coat would surely have been removed for play. The bat looks more like a modern hockey-stick, and the two-stump sport of the day was evidently practised. Cricket is an older game than is generally recognised, but the standards of gentility and tranquility existed, allowing cricket the reputation that was later to commend it to the Empire.

So what message does this image have for the social historian? Basically it is that some things are ever changing. This is the definition of history, and indeed of progress, and one is encouraged  to accept this. But there are standards which are part of a firm foundation, part of a rock of stability. It would not be heresy to suggest that the game of cricket is fundamental to English society; although appearances change, rules of the game change, and so do attitudes. But the sport can, in a very small way, be paralleled with life. The latter, too, has its stable foundations, although dramatic upsets in life can come as quickly as a fallen wicket, often when the observer's back is turned for just one second. But sporting traditions have evolved from the barely-recognisable to the familiar, and so have sports venues and the social ‘class’ of players.

© Roger Peacock: 17 th July 2012

Adapted from an article first compiled by the same writer for the Newark Anglican Team Ministry magazine, Crosstalk , on 14 th September 2009.

This page was added by ROGER PEACOCK on 20/07/2012.

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