Thursday, December 11, 2008


Today I tackled another of the regular inquiries I receive about eighteenth-century paintings of children with cricket bats.

With his long hair and loose shirt, the English schoolboy Richard Heber (1773–1833), here portrayed in 1782 by the American expatriate John Singleton Copley, exhibits the informality and naturalness that was such a desirable quality in British portraiture of this period, while the paraphernalia of the great game of cricket allude to the manly sports in general.

Looking fearlessly toward the bowler’s end, leaning on his bat and holding the ball—which means that play cannot commence until he chooses—Heber strikes an easy but authoritative pose. The son of a well-to-do, intellectually minded clergyman, Heber was to become a passionate book collector, one of the leading bibliophiles of his generation.

In the early 1820s, Richard Heber’s close friendship with the nineteen year-old Charles Henry Hartshorne (1802–1865) led to rumors about a homosexual relationship between the two—Heber being twenty-nine years older. Hartshorne had composed Latin verses for Heber while still a schoolboy. When in 1825 Heber suddenly resigned his seat in Parliament, it was claimed that he fled abroad just before a warrant was issued for his arrest on a charge of sodomitical practices. The Tory
John Bull wrote:
Mr. Heber, the late Member for Oxford University, will not return to this country for some time—the backwardness of the season renders the Continent more congenial to some constitutions.
Heber’s friend Sir Walter Scott feared the rumors were true, but no evidence has been found of any outstanding warrant.

Richard Heber is not to be confused with his half-brother Reginald, who in later life became second Church of England Bishop of Calcutta and composed the famous hymns “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” and “God That Madest Earth and Heaven.” Bishop Heber died whilst taking a bath, half way through a pastoral visitation of South India.

In America cricket is obscure and mysterious, and this makes it possible for me to conceal my almost total ignorance of the game. I derive particular amusement from reinventing myself here as a cricket aficionado. For example, I can explain the tapering, rounded shape of the cricket bat that was standard in the mid- to late eighteenth century. I speak with authority about the gradual flattening of the bat, the squaring off in the front, back, sides and “shoulder” during the Regency period. On it goes. With luck I can explain that the boy in the painting is holding the bat absolutely correctly, as far as I can tell from having myself batted execrably as a child whilst being systematically brutalized at Melbourne Grammar School, that forlorn, crudely rusticated stone gulag in South Yarra. I have a dim recollection of being dismissed for a duck – L.B.W., moreover, a concept I simply did not understand.

This was especially humiliating because my great grandfather and his more famous brother both played test cricket for Australia between 1887/88 and 1903/04. Great Uncle Hugh’s celebrated hattricks in successive test matches in 1904 was an achievement that apparently stood for ninety years, until it was finally overtaken in 1994 by a fat person who likes to send obscene text messages to young women in provincial English bars and nightclubs who are not his wife.
O tempora, O mores.

On that occasion – I mean the eclipsing of that famous succession of hattricks – Great Uncle Hugh’s photograph appeared on the front page of
The Times newspaper in London. He has somehow found his way into the files of Getty Images also, though I cannot imagine how the international law of copyright allows them thus to own his portrait.

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