January 17, 2010

The artist known as Jack Russell

The eccentric England wicketkeeper spent rainy days and time on the bench sketching and painting. Two books chronicle his art
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Despite the recent entry of Michael Vaughan into the register of cricketers who are also artists - his "artballing" is "art formed by hitting a paint-covered ball on a canvas" - the list is a short one. There's England opening batsman Ken Taylor, who earned his art degree from the prestigious Slade School in London, and Sussex batsman Martin Speight whose collection of cricket paintings is contained in A Cricketer's View.

The best known, and probably the best, of the lot is the wicketkeeper Jack Russell, who played 54 times for England and began his second career by sketching on a rainy day in 1987. "If Rembrandt can do it, why can't I?" he asked himself modestly before launching a remarkably successful second career with the same thoroughness he brought to his first. That first sketch ("Man Reading His Newspaper") after rain had stopped play between Gloucestershire and Warwickshire is a starting pointing in Caught on Canvas: The Art of Jack Russell, the first of two books on his wide range of works.

In 1987, England toured Pakistan. Russell was reserve wicketkeeper to Bruce French, and as he says, "there was plenty of time for artistic activity". It helped that he had an understanding with a gallery owner in Bristol, who "suggested that if I came back with a good selection of sketches, he'd hold a one-man exhibition for me", Russell recalls in his book. It also helped that he played only two-and-a-half days of cricket on the eight-week tour, and "the material was rich and plentiful and I wandered around sketching like crazy". When the 40-piece exhibition was held after the tour, it sold out in two days. Two years later an exhibition of 30 oil paintings also sold out and the cricketer inspired by Constable's landscapes, Rembrandt's portraits and the wildlife paintings of David Shepherd had arrived as a serious artist.

Even as he was building up a reputation as a wicketkeeper in the highest class and a painter of exceptional skills, Russell was also becoming known for his various eccentricities. There were the 30 cups of tea he drank every day, for instance, or his habit of soaking Weatabix in milk for exactly 12 minutes.

As the legend grew, so did the stories. He had willed that his hands be amputated and preserved in The Jack Russell Gallery, which houses his office, workshop and gallery. So fiercely did he protect his privacy that visitors were asked to be blindfolded before being taken to his house. Greta Garbo could have taken lessons in how to be a reclusive from Russell.

Caught on Canvas is a wonderful collection of Russell's works and includes cricket paintings such as "Moment of Victory" (Jamaica 1990), which captures Wayne Larkins hitting the winning run. It is a wonderfully atmospheric work, which Russell considers one of his finest technically. It was sold in 1998 for ₤25,000. Russell's paintings of cricket around the world freeze moments in Australia, West Indies, South Africa (including one of Russell and skipper Mike Atherton in mid-pitch conversation during their epic four-hour stand to save the Jo'burg Test of 1995), Zimbabwe, and Russell's beloved Gloucestershire.

Russell's works are on display in the Imperial War Museum (war is one of his themes), the Tower of London ("We Will Remember Them" was commissioned by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers), and the Sir Don Bradman Museum in Australia (a painting of the Bradman Oval in Bowral). His range is wide: landscapes, cityscapes, portraits (Bobby Charlton, Eric Clapton), wildlife studies and military scenes, besides cricket.

A second book, New Horizons, appeared two years ago, about a decade after the first one. As Rory Bremner says in the foreword to the earlier book, "As with his wicketkeeping, so it is with his art: he has a wonderful eye."

Caught on Canvas captures both the artist and his art. Russell says, "[Painting] gives me another challenge in life - although I hope I never paint the perfect picture. Each time I start a new canvas, I try. But if I get there, where would I go from then on?"

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

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