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Cricket's Caribbean Finest

Sir Garfield Sobers portrait which is currently in the MCC Museum
Sir Garfield Sobers portrait which is currently in the MCC Museum

The West Indies have always produced great cricketers.

Their first Test side in 1928 included the legendary all-rounder Learie Constantine; George Headley - 'the Black Bradman' -was soon on the scene in the 1930s and from that point a seemingly unbreakable conveyor belt of talent brought to the game cricketers of grace, style, power and achievement.

But individual talent didn't always lead to collective success; entertaining they may have been, but the 'Calypso Cricketers' were riven by island factionalism and lacked unity and team spirit. It was not until 1950 that they won their first Test victory at Lord's.

In the following years the team went through an era of restructuring that led to eventual worldwide dominance in the 1970s and '80s.

As part of MCC's vision to contemporise and internationalise its art collection, it has commissioned portraits over the last 20 years of three truly great players who were pivotal in the glorious history of West Indies cricket: Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Vivian Richards and Brian Lara.

The three portraits encapsulate the changes in MCC's commissioning scheme over two decades, as well as the history of cricket in the West Indies.


Sir Garfield Sobers

The portrait of Garfield Sobers, painted in 1992, shows an important transition in MCC's history of commissioning art, as the Club moved away from portraits that privileged accuracy and realism to those of a more experimental approach.

All-rounder Garfield Sobers was painted in the quiet confines of the MCC Secretariat by society portraitist Sarah Raphael, who was widely known at the time for her naturalism and precision.

This piece, however, sees a shift in the artist's style, as Sobers' right hand is contorted and the left strangely magnified in the picture. Raphael's distorted vision may perhaps be a reference to the arthritic condition that has affected Sobers' later years. A few years after this portrait was commissioned Raphael's work became increasingly stylised; perhaps the beginnings of this change can be seen here.

Raphael's emphasis on the physical rather than psycho-social or professional traits of the retired ex-West Indies captain caused a stir among Members. The MCC Arts & Library Committee began to give more emphasis to its commissioning policies and this later resulted in the establishment of the Lord's Portrait Project (LLP), which has been ongoing since 2005.

The Project has a solidified set of criteria by which the Arts & Library Committee select and brief artists. The most fundamental of these is a refusal to commission posthumous portraits, on the basis that players should be captured at the height of their careers.


Brian Lara's portrait

Over ten years after Sobers' portrait another West Indies superstar was painted, but this time during his career. Brian Lara (2006) by Justin Mortimer was the first painting produced as part of the LPP. Shirtless, in a pair of board shorts and a West Indies cap, the former captain is depicted informally against a bright white backdrop.

This blank ground suggests Lara could be anywhere - perhaps strolling along the beach in the midday sun, or on a street in his home town.

In actual fact, the light source was not the sun but an electric spotlight set-up in the artist's studio where Lara sat for three hours. However, in this painting Mortimer transports Lara into another time and space.

Space and light are prominent themes in Mortimer's wider works, where he also examines ideas of boundaries and disconnectedness. He intended his portrait of Lara to hang unframed on a whitewash wall (like those found in 'white cube' contemporary galleries) so that the image would seem stencilled directly onto the wall. Indeed, the line around the figure is blurred to create a spray-paint quality reminiscent of graffiti. Mortimer's rejection of a frame and clothing for his subject marked a departure for the MCC art collection; before the LPP began, for example, players were typically depicted wearing a suit or club blazer.


Brendan Kelly's portrait of Viv Richards

Another portrait from the LPP that contemporised the collection was Brendan Kelly's portrait of Richards. Like Mortimer, Kelly emphasises the importance of light and does not reference the surrounding environment.

Unlike Mortimer, who depicts the West Indies' badge on Lara's cap, Kelly ignores any associations Richards has with a club. By focusing on Richards' face, the artist pulls the spectator into the mind of this devastating batsman.

Winner of the Changing Faces Prize in 2007, awarded by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters for a portrait that most powerfully connects with the viewer, this picture has provoked strong reactions from both players and Members alike.

Today the Club continues to encourage artistic experimentation and carefully matches artists with players. The collection has developed not only in terms of portrait commissions, but also by collecting oral histories, including interviews with artists and players, to form the MCC Audio Archive. An example is my recent interview with Brendan Kelly where he looked back at his experience painting Richards.

Where were you when you first met Viv Richards?

That's a bit of a story. I was meant to meet up with him at Lord's to chat about the commission, but for one reason and another it never happened. In the end I decided to go on holiday to Antigua with my wife and managed to set up a meeting with him. Neither me nor my wife knew what he looked like or realised quite how famous he was. But on the way to his office we passed the Sir Viv Richards Stadium!

On the way into the building we passed some guy wearing shades who asked 'are you Brendan?' I had no idea who he was. I thought he was just some assistant of the man himself, but it turned out to be him - it was Viv!

What were your first impressions?

We chatted for maybe an hour. He was really nice, really polite and obviously very cool. He had amazing charisma, but I think he was a little bit nervous, as I had to take photographs of him at quite close quarters. There was a slight shyness about him. He kept waving his hands about as if he were hitting a cricket ball, practising his swing. He was doing it constantly throughout our conversation, probably completely unconsciously.

Despite only having an hour to get to know your subject you managed to capture not only a true likeness but also a sense of who Richards is as a person and a professional.

When doing portraits you've got to get a sense of what someone feels like, like capturing their aura -looking at the detail doesn't matter. It was quiet useful for me that I didn't know who he was or how famous he was.

I wanted the painting to be about my experience of meeting him as if he was a normal bloke. Having met him I was able to draw on that experience in the painting as a prime source of inspiration. I took some photos of Viv outside his office with a high-res camera.

I then purposefully blurred the image back in my studio to help me to see the structure of his face better. I actually took out a Jot of the detail. The detail you see in the portrait is my way of capturing his energy as cricketer.

What I'm really interested in when painting is light. It's a theme that goes through all my paintings. So the problem for me was not the composition, but how to get a sense of light in the picture.

What was brilliant about the photos I took was the strong light in Antigua. I managed to capture the reflection of the sky in his face and a warmish orange light bounced from the buildings we were standing next to.

How did you gain a sense of who Viv was professionally?

I felt that I could not paint his portrait until I knew who he really was as a cricketer. I heard he was called 'the Master Blaster' and stuff like that. I wanted to make the style of the picture appropriate to the subject matter. I knew little about him, but knew he was a powerful batsman able to hit 90 mph balls, so I wanted to capture the sound of the crack as he hit the ball against the bat.

How did you go about painting that crack, the explosion?

I thought of different ways of painting the picture to look like an explosion. I thought of suspending plastic bags of paint above the canvas and then dropping them onto the canvas so that the paint would splatter. I tested this idea, but it didn't really work. I also tried recreating that crack by throwing balls covered in paint at the canvas.

That's funny. Michael Vaughan did a similar thing by dipping balls in paint and hitting them against the canvas to create some very abstract paintings.

Yes, it's a good way to try to mimic that speed and connection between the bat and ball, but there is a great deal of inaccuracy in that technique. I experimented a bit like I was Heston Blumenthal, but instead of doing experiments with food I used paint as my medium. I found that if l shoved a paintbrush loaded with paint in a hand-drill it got me two things- it got me the explosion, but the spinning drill tip also got me the accuracy.

Your painting has an Abstract Expressionist quality to it. The way you have applied the paint seems spontaneous in the sweeping, gestural marks. It reminds me of work produced by the so called 'action painters' in New York in the 1950s.

The picture may look spontaneous, but I actually really carefully worked out every mark. I also used a Jot of masking in order to gain accuracy on certain bits. So if I painted a really good bit, I would cover it with cling film to protect it from splashes. I'm giving away all my secrets here- I can't believe it!

The painting provoked many different reactions from viewers. Viv's incredible, focused stare may be intimidating for his opponents, but your coupling of it with a slight jokey smile reveals something about the person as well as the professional.

I heard that the picture had a strong effect. I knew before I painted it that it would be hung in the Long Room and I thought 'wow, what a good opportunity to paint this player looking all-powerful: I thought the focus in the eyes might help psyche-up players as
they went out onto the pitch - put them in a fighting mood. It was an amazing opportunity, a real honour to have my picture hanging there and I wanted it to actually do something, to have an effect.

What artists inspire you?

At school my art master was artist Lawrence Toynbee who knew how to play the cricket and was an MCC Member.

He always did these pictures of cricketers which seemed a bit fuzzy, but he always placed the ball at the right point in the composition. He inspired me as a kid.

I was also inspired by Jackson Pollock who made accidents in paint - his work doesn't actually represent anything, his work is abstract.

For my work, I like to plan accidents.

This article originally appeared in the MCC Magazine.

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