Yesterday I went with Alice Mansfield to meet Jack Russell whose work was being exhibited at a well-known gallery in St James London.
I already knew quite a bit about Jack as England wicketkeeper but wanted an art expert’s view on the quality of his artistic output.
Jack was the same generation as Alec Stewart, a better keeper, but after Ian Botham retired there was an obsession about replacing him and many a decent cricketer foundered on the next Ian Botham tag – David Capel, Chris Lewis, Richard Ellison to name but three.
The selectors after Botham’s retirement had a problem as they lost a strike bowler and middle order batsman.
A new ethos developed in well-rounded cricketers going in at 6, 7, or 8 which put pressure on capable keepers who had low batting averages. Duncan Fletcher, in his successful team that won the Ashes in 2005, had Andrew Flintoff, Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles in those positions. Alec Stewart came to be preferred to Jack Russell though the Gloucester man was no mug with a bat.
Jack was already disappearing behind his easel on dull county days and now his career as an artist is longer then that of a cricketer. By reputation he was an eccentric, so protective of his privacy that it was said that if you went to his home you were blindfolded. He also had a diet of baked beans and cups of tea. Most of all there was his trademark wooden top hat, much battered till it was shapeless, that he always wore.
Alice liked his work and she explained to him and me the great battles joined between figurative and abstract painters in Britain in the twentieth century.
Oddly enough, she continued, the titans of post-World War Two art – Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Howard Hodgkin were hard to classify.
With his depictions of landscape and use of light Jack is a figurative artist. This exhibition showcases cricket and in particular the famous and not so famous grounds. Alice liked the serenity of his work, particularly those of the the more rural grounds like Arundel. I always admire a man who succeeds in two careers – most of us struggle with one – and though he indisputably has achieved massively in both, he remains a grounded, modest man happy to talk cricket.
Although they will not admit it, some ex-pros are jealous of the money now in the game with the new white ball formats. As each innovation comes in, the first limited overs, the helmet, the T20, it was always better in their day. Let me remind you and them that their day consisted of two dressing rooms, two entrances and two genres – the amateur and the professional – which seems totally absurd now.
Conversation turned to second career artists. Alice referred to Bob Dylan and Ronnie Wood in the rock world. She mentioned a certain Englishman who had a good war, Winston Churchill, a noted artist.
In the film acting planet, Antony Quinn painted well whilst Edward G Robinson was a cultivated collector. Others came into art via architecture. We could not think of too many cricketers.
Rich grounds like Lords and the Oval will purchase his paintings of them; he has no doubt a profitable side-line in commissions as he does portraiture.
He would be sensible to keep his prices affordable.
Many a fine painter’s career has foundered by going to a well-known Gallery which has jacked up his prices.
So hail Jack Russell, fine cricketer and artist