What one of cricket's most iconic photographs says about the historical biography
One of the very first cricket books I was ever given, on the occasion of my tenth birthday, was a slim black paperback called Great Australian Cricket Pictures (1975). When I retrieve it from the shelf now, it falls open at page 87, corroborative of my boyhood fascination with the image it contains.
"Trumpered" read the bad-pun heading for the short caption, which described Victor Trumper as "one of our truly great cricketers", told me that he was "the first to score a century before lunch in a Test match", which proved to be true, and "once hit the first ball of a match for six", which did not. Such was my simultaneous introduction to the first cricketer from history who ever registered with me and to what remains perhaps its oldest truly treasured image, in the context of assertion, fact and myth.
I had also, though I would be unaware of it many more years, been introduced to the work of the pioneering Edwardian photographer George Beldam, in whose book Great Batsmen: Their Methods at a Glance (1905) the picture first appeared. Instead, as it almost invariably does, the photograph of Trumper in Great Australian Cricket Pictures appeared uncredited, undated, unaccounted for, as though it had taken itself - or even as though it wasn't a photograph at all, but a keyhole view of the past. When not long after, I commenced reading about Trumper, it can only have been with the image of him jumping out to drive in mind.
The photograph of Trumper appeared uncredited, undated, unaccounted for, as though it had taken itself - or even as though it wasn't a photograph at all, but a keyhole view of the past
That was then, of course, although now may be less different than we think. Nobody's found a great many more photographs of Trumper, or at least thought to make the others that do exist more readily available to the online browser. Today's ten-year-old would encounter Trumper pretty much the same way as I did, simultaneously with his most famous pictorial representation: google "Victor Trumper", and one is led to the image. For the more mature fan, meanwhile, the image attests to the residual Trumper reputation, even if a good deal of the residual Trumper reputation is based on the image.
When last year I first contemplated writing a book about Trumper, convention drew me towards a biography. Yet I also experienced misgivings. Three previous biographers had struggled to make much of him. The primary material was thin, his period remote, his contemporaries long gone, and the mythology thick indeed.
To write about any figure of the past is essentially to make a claim for them, to make a mission of substantiating their significance. In sport, the allure is of great deeds, stirring victories, public approbation. Yet legend is an uneasy companion of biography, if not an outright enemy. And to track the Trumper story through the obligatory sources is a little like entering a hall of mirrors. Everyone is quoting everyone else. Stories and their origins have long since parted ways. One channels, instead, impressions. My excellently iconoclastic friend Jarrod Kimber wrote about Trumper in Test Cricket: The Unauthorised Biography last year in terms of which Neville Cardus would not have disapproved - and let's just say that these two writers would not normally be thought of as singing from the same song sheet.
It wasn't a surprise that cricketers posed for Beldam, for they counted him as one of them
© Getty Images
It wasn't a surprise that cricketers posed for Beldam, for they counted him as one of them © Getty Images
So I struck a kind of bargain with the past. If dealing with legend was inevitable, why not look it in the eye rather than try to peer around it? Why not evaluate knowingly what a conventional biography would be unavoidably transacting in anyway? After all, it's one of my favourite lines of Chesterton's: "Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men."
That didn't mean ignoring fact. What became Stroke of Genius still needed extensive biographical underpinnings - partly to illustrate legend's deviations, partly because Trumper has been gradually winnowed away to a name and an image. But I was anxious to avoid what so many works about cricket history seem to become - chronologies of scores, transcriptions of match reports, recitations of anecdote. That's not only because these are seldom truly enlightening, but because so much now lies within reach of the interested reader. Want to find out Trumper's scores in 1903-04? Use CricketArchive. Want to read what people said about these scores? Try Trove or the British Newspaper Archive. In some ways, those of us enticed by cricket's past have yet to adapt to the modern accessibility of informational riches. In any case, what differentiated Trumper was not his scores so much as their interpretation, the heights of lyricism ascended in describing him, and the remarkable unanimity of opinion, so that their evocation by a single image did not in the end seem so unnatural - indeed, it would steadily become "proof" of claims for his aesthetic superiority.
Heading off down this track, I grew interested in how cricket was "seen" before World War I. Cricket, of course, is quite a challenging game to watch live, for reasons of distance and speed, without some kind of technological enhancement. Way back when, illustrative forms - painting, engraving, early photography - tended to reflect that. They hovered at the boundary edge, and perforce took in the whole scene. Classics of illustration - like WH Mason's "A Cricket Match between the Counties of Sussex and Kent, at Brighton" and Ponsonby Staples' "An Imaginary Cricket Match" - foregrounded the crowd and recessed the cricket. The Victorian Age's outstanding cricket photographic work, CW Alcock's Famous Cricketers and Cricket Grounds (1892), posed players for wistful portraits, and provided venues as tranquil panoramas. Intimacy with action was undreamed of - until George Beldam.
What differentiated Trumper was not his scores so much as their interpretation, the heights of lyricism ascended in describing him, and the remarkable unanimity of opinion
Quite why Beldam is not better known amazes me. Perhaps it is because he is sui generis - he belongs to a leisure society swallowed up by World War I. He was an amateur cricketer, for Middlesex and London County, who doubled as an amateur photographer: indeed it was one of the passing intrigues of researching my book to learn that photography underwent debates similar to those in cricket about amateurism and professionalism. A century on, we're apt to deem amateurism a kind of effete dabbling. In photography as in cricket, Beldam was a furiously industrious perfectionist. Between 1904 and 1908, he took thousands of photographs for eight works of sports photography, five of them substantial: not just cricket but tennis, golf and even jujitsu. Nor is this just a matter of versatility. He had the confidence of his caste and skill. It's not a coincidence that Beldam persuaded cricketers to do what they did for no other photographer: he was one of them, and as an amateur, atop cricket's social heap.
Beldam had the further cachet of a creative partnership with the era's arbiter elegentiae, CB Fry. Not only was Fry the finest flower of English amateur sport - batsman, footballer, rugby player, athlete, scholar - but a prolific journalist and editor of an eponymous magazine of outdoor recreation. Fry had both the Victorian fascination with technique and the Edwardian infatuation with style - which he defined with a Ruskinian formulation about the maximum effect for the least apparent effort. Long entranced by the unique elan and deftness of his Sussex and England team-mate Ranjitsinhji, Fry was captivated by a photograph that Beldam took of Ranji at Hove in September 1904.
These were not action photographs as we would now understand them. To bridge that abiding gap between boundary edge and action, Beldam circulated among his subjects during practice sessions and at intervals; sometimes he invited them to his home, where he had the gentlemanly indulgence of an outdoor and indoor pitch. Photography being such a novelty, and the idea of a glimmer of action so alluring, few if any seemed to say no to him.
Hove, September 1904: Beldam's picture of Ranji that foreshadows the iconic image of Trumper the following year
George Beldam / © Getty Images
Hove, September 1904: Beldam's picture of Ranji that foreshadows the iconic image of Trumper the following year George Beldam / © Getty Images
The photograph of Ranji was one of a portfolio collected after a Middlesex v Sussex county match, in which Beldam hit the winning run, put on his blazer, fetched his camera, erected his tripod, and pressed Ranji into going through his repertoire to Fry's bowling - not even Philip Brown has pulled that kind of thing off. One of the images is clearly kindred with the photograph Beldam was to take of Trumper - Ranji is prancing out to drive, eyes flashing, front foot in mid-air. Fry, who had previously expressed reservations about photography, felt them give way: the image took up a full page of the next issue of C. B. Fry's Magazine of Action and Outdoor Life across from an appreciative exposition.
Beldam's collaborations with Fry, Great Batsmen (1905) and Great Bowlers and Fielders (1906), signify such a breakthrough in the representation of cricket that they might almost have been of another sport, given their departure from the traditions of the portrait and the panorama, and their accent on the capture of the figure in motion. They reverse, in fact, cricket's existing descriptive grammar. It was the first time cricketers had been shown in close quarters in the physical performance of their deeds; it was the first time image had taken true precedence over text, Fry's captions serving only to tease out what Beldam's photographs introduced. In detail and comprehensiveness these companion volumes may never even have been equalled - certainly, but for them, we would have no idea what cricket looked like before World War I. You can spend countless hours poring over them. You can spend countless hours poring over one photograph alone - and I should know, because I did.
In Great Batsmen's section on Trumper there are no fewer than 33 photographs - more than for any other subject. They were accumulated across two sessions in 1905, at Lord's and at The Oval, separated by roughly two weeks. Pare those sessions apart and they are fascinatingly distinct. The former are a wide range of shots taken from more or less the same front-of-the-wicket off-side position, with Beldam acting as bowler while taking the photographs by means of a pneumatic push connected to the camera by a long cord - we know this because it was included in a diary entry by the painter Henry Scott Tuke, who was present on the occasion. The latter are, in the main, attempts to capture one stroke, a straight drive, from a variety of positions in an arc from mid-on to about fourth slip - we can surmise this from a photograph of Beldam at work at The Oval photographing Clem Hill, and published the same week in a London illustrated paper. No contact sheet survives, but Beldam's objective is apparent. He craves the sense of motion conveyed by the airborne front foot, which he had succeeded in capturing while photographing Ranji the year before. He craves it so badly that for a few plates he does something very unusual in his oeuvre: he adopts a landscape framing, wider than high, rather than a portrait shape.
Trumper's bat is poised at the moment of perfect stillness before commencing its downswing, which is foretold by the horizontals and verticals of the background, and the empty space at top right into which we can imagine the ball vanishing
What becomes "Plate XXVII: Jumping out for a straight drive", taken from side-on, is a photograph as audacious as the shot it immortalised. Trumper is launching from outside his ground: the crease is falling away at bottom left. Trumper is surging into light: the gap in the skyline caused by Clayton Street stretching away from The Oval. Trumper is alone in his estate: there are no stumps, no fielders, no square-leg umpire. Trumper's bat is poised at the moment of perfect stillness before commencing its downswing, which is foretold by the horizontals and verticals of the background, and the empty space at top right into which we can imagine the ball vanishing. You come to the photograph for Trumper, but part from it with as much admiration for Beldam.
What's almost as fascinating, especially in our present day and age, is that the photograph was not immediately identified as a classic, as distinct from simply of superior quality. Like the aforementioned image of Ranji and another of FS Jackson, it was offered as a limited edition photogravure. Yet none of them sold out. And while Great Batsmen and Great Bowlers and Fielders were critically acclaimed, they were too expensive to sell widely. Reprographic and communications technologies were inadequate for the broad diffusion of Beldam's images - a hundred years ago the only things that "went viral" were… well, viruses.
At the time this actually didn't matter: Trumper had no immediate need of pictorial elaboration. And in the annals of iconic photography, delayed appreciation is not unusual. On the recent death of Muhammad Ali, virtually every news outlet adorned their obituary with Neil Leifer's 1964 image of all-conquering Ali towering over the prone form of Sonny Liston. Yet 52 years earlier, the photograph had been buried deep in the recesses of Sports Illustrated, garnered little attention, won no award. It was rediscovered only when people had forgotten that the fight itself was a squib, and that what looks like Ali's bray of triumph was actually a demand that Liston, widely suspected of taking a dive, get up.
Trumper's grave in Waverley Cemetery, Sydney
© Getty Images
Trumper's grave in Waverley Cemetery, Sydney © Getty Images
To say, as I have heard it said, that Trumper's greatness is "based on a photograph", therefore, is a gross oversimplification. At the time and in the earthly decade he had remaining, Trumper was not just hugely admired but deeply loved: contemporaneous responses to him have an emotional incandescence that I suspect is almost unique. He also remained a decided enigma - something excluded from almost every account of his life, for example, is that he was an obdurate resister of administrative encroachments on what had been to that stage a player-led game. Perhaps it is this that accounts for his perdurable and adaptable reputation, that by his reticence he kept it free of complication, and also that he died, in 1915, along with a great many more beautiful, comforting, transitory things.
For the Anglosphere after World War I, memory was an exquisite self-torture. So much loss, so much waste and decay. Looking back on Trumper was at least only bittersweet. At first he was recalled chiefly in print. His extoller-in-chief, in an ecumenical gesture, was the rising star of English cricket writing, Neville Cardus, who wrote in the Manchester Guardian as "Cricketer". Cardus, of course, sought pitches of eloquence never before attempted in cricket writing; central to his critique, too, was the irrefutable inferiority of the cricket of his adulthood, with its serried professional ranks, to the cricket of his youth, with its confident amateur leadership. Of the latter, Trumper became the personification, unsullied and un-ageing. And it was in an elegy for Trumper in July 1926 that Cardus first trialled an evocative expression: "Trumper's winged batsmanship was seen in the golden age of cricket [my italics]; he was, at his finest, master of some of the greatest bowlers the game has ever known."
It was a conception Cardus would expand, burnish, celebrate and mourn the rest of his lengthy career. By the 1940s it had been entrenched by upper cases for "G" and "A"; by the 1960s it had been historicised by book-length treatments. Trumper did not hold the Golden Age up by itself. But by being Australian, being beautiful and being dead, he gave it a roundness and completedness that made it sound like more than an assuagement of fading class certainties.
Trumper was not just hugely admired but deeply loved: contemporaneous responses to him have an emotional incandescence that I suspect is almost unique. He also remained a decided enigma
Then, in October 1927, fully 22 years after it was taken, Beldam's photograph of Trumper was published for the first time in Australia, in the Sydney Mail, a popular weekly published on art paper. Whose decision it was we do not know, but it almost certainly involved the paper's brilliant English-born pictorial editor, Herbert Fishwick. There were no jpegs and tifs: the Mail relied on a copy of the gravure taken down from the wall of the New South Wales Cricket Association, still reproduced a little hazily. But the caption writer's excitement was unfeigned.
To look at this picture (kindly lent by the N.S.W. Cricket Association) is to see Victor Trumper as we used to see him from the pavilions. See him and marvel! It does not show his face clearly, but as an action picture it is wonderful. No hesitancy here. He is stepping out to meet the ball. Strength, grace, and balance, combine to reveal joyous and youthful sense of mastery. What was the secret of this joyous freedom? Simply the beautiful character of Victor. All young players should know all that can be told of him, whose other name was Modesty.
The odd thing is that had I elected to write a conventional biography of Trumper, I'd have left him in 1915, when his definition and significance were still far from clear. As it is, Trumper took on a new, posthumous effulgence from the late 1920s, abetted by his image, which slipped seamlessly into a mass media with an expanding pictorial quotient. The year after the Sydney Mail published the photograph, it published Fishwick's stirring action portrait of Walter Hammond cover-driving - a perfect counterpart, in a way, the Englishman in Australia to balance the Australian in England as they helped establish an aesthetic continuum. But a greater influence still, I suspect, was just hoving into view.
Another view of Victor: Trumper steps out in another image from the 1905 photo session
George Beldam / © Getty Images
Another view of Victor: Trumper steps out in another image from the 1905 photo session George Beldam / © Getty Images
We tend to think now of Donald Bradman as becoming the monopolist of cricket fame from the 1930s, arising as he did in the age of radio, the wire photo, and a ceaselessly expanding newspaper and publishing industry. Yet Trumper was kept flickeringly alive by all those with reservations about the onrush of modernity, materialism, industrialisation and professionalism that Bradman embodied. Originating his dichotomy of Trumper as "the bird in flight" and Bradman as "the aeroplane", Cardus could now flourish the most modern of empirical proofs. "Look at the photographs of him [Trumper], doubting young Thomases of the skeptical present, and see how far he would venture beyond the crease's rim at the sight of a well-tossed ball," Cardus wrote in Cricket (1930). "His bat is held up behind him punitively, he is leaping to the ball, his every muscle responding to the demands of the will to power and victory." Administrators discomfited by Bradman's popular heft also looked back fondly: in 1930, the NSWCA placed a line drawing inspired by Beldam's Trumper on the cover of its yearbook, where it remained 25 years.
As deeply as Bradman interred his precursor's records, then, he preserved a role for Trumper as a kind of romantic counterpoint to his overpowering rationalism. And while Trumper receded perhaps from the very front rank of fame, his spirit remained available for reproachment of modern mores, from joyless professionalism to flamboyant entrepreneurship. Trumper's centenary happened to fall on the eve of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket. The first public duty of Australia's establishment captain Bob Simpson was to place a wreath on Trumper's grave - somewhat of an irony given that Trumper had so frequently been at loggerheads with the establishment of his own generation.
In the generation or so since that centenary, the image has evolved further, and almost shaken off its subject: it is "Trumper", the equivalent of an artist known by a single work, or even a public man by a solitary, resonant, if only partially grasped, idea or phrase, like, in Australia, AA "The Cultural Cringe" Phillips, or Donald "The Lucky Country" Horne. The concluding chapter of Stroke of Genius, which could easily have been several times as long, is concerned with the appropriation of the photograph as a free-floating art object. It turned out, for example, that the owner of the most superb representation, Louis Laumen's one-and-a-quarter times life-size bronze of the image, has no interest in cricket: he is a collector who had some spare cash.
The basis of iconoclasm as it was originally understood was the objection that icons had heretical powers to destroy the divine presence - that they, rather than what they represent, become the object of veneration. Perhaps in a secular and sporting sense, this is the fate that has befallen Victor Trumper, effaced by his own image, reduced at times simply to a leap, so that every ESPNcricinfo reader knows what is meant when it is said that "Victor Trumper would have been proud" of AB de Villiers or a youth batting near Premadasa Stadium is making a "salute to Victor Trumper". Yet to complain of this would be pernickety. It is the image that has kept for Trumper an irreducible corner of this visual age, that brings him effortlessly up to date every time we see it. For all that Bradman is Australian cricket's historical lodestar, no photographer ever succeeded in obtaining his aesthetic signature as Beldam did with Trumper. Without Beldam's photograph, Trumper would be no more than a distant name with a fading echo, a statistical remnant buried deep beneath a century's further achievement. And without Beldam's photograph, I doubt Trumper's name would ever have detained me at an impressionable age, and lodged in my mind to the degree that I wished to write a book about him.
Gideon Haigh's most recent book is Stroke of Genius: Victor Trumper and the Shot that Changed Cricket
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