The Wonder of Wisdens

May 25, 2016

It is rather remarkable when you think about it that the 153rd edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack was published last month by Bloomsbury.


The ‘cricketer’s bible’ started life as an 116-page pamphlet produced by retired bowler John Wisden (known as ‘The Little Wonder’ due to his short stature), to promote his sporting goods and tobacco business. (The link between sports, advertising and the wicked weed goes back a long time.)  If he knew that the little yellow book bearing his name was still being published – in basically the same format, though rather chunkier –  a century and a half later he’d be bowled over.

And what would he make of an auction price of £8,400 achieved in recent years for one of those first 1864 Wisdens (cover price: one shilling)?

Most ventures into sporting annuals last a few editions and die – the periodical published by Wisden’s principal commercial rivals, the Lillywhite family, did not make it beyond 1900.


An 1864 First Edition,  from

Wisden has overseen the boom times and the lean years for the summer game with an independent eye. The fluctuating number of pages reflect the fluctuating appetites of the sporting public, the national mood and economic fortunes.

The suspension of First Class cricket during the years of World War I meant that the Almanack for 1916 could report only on school cricket – but crucially Wisden stayed alive.  At 229 pages it is the slimmest edition since 1882 (the 2016 Wisden comes in at 1,552 pages).

Many of them are given over to reporting death.  Greats of the game W.G. Grace, A.E. Stoddart and the Australian batsman Victor Trumper were not killed in the service of their King and Country. But a long alphabetical list of young men that follows, schoolboy and university cricketers, bears tragic witness to the first full year of conflict in 1915.


A 1916 Wisden (53rd Edition)

One name that leaps from the page is Sub-Lieutenant Rupert C. Brooke (Royal Naval Division).  His six-line notice records a leading bowling average of 14.05 for the Rugby School XI and concludes with the famously pithy sentence: “He had gained considerable reputation as a poet”.

The precise intentions of the Editor, Sydney H. Pardon, are debated by Wisden historians.

My listing of Cricketana – including a very rare 1916 Wisden – can be viewed here:  Cricket 2016

Australasian Odyssey

January 17, 2014

Please forgive the extended break between posts dear reader, I have been travelling in the Antipodes over the festive season. The dual purpose was a family wedding in Sydney and to lend my support to England’s cricketers; the less said about the exploits of our flannelled fools on the field the better.

Naturally I found some consolation in the company of a few select antiquarian printsellers.

A four day stop-over in Singapore yielded ample opportunity to visit that island nation’s sole ABA representative: Antiques of the Orient, in Tanglin Shopping Centre. Owner Ms. Julie Yeo was on hand to introduce me to an impressive stock of early views of the former British East India company trading post. Her company has published a number of scholarly reference works which have become indispensable collector’s guides to historical images of South East Asia.

No visit to Sydney would be complete for the bibliophile without a trip to Hordern House. Their impressive and wholly-suitable 19th century townhouse premises on Victoria Street was undergoing redecoration when I rang the doorbell on spec, and, though closed, Derek McDonnell kindly allowed me a peek at the main showrooms. Highlights in a high-calibre stock included an aquatint of Sydney Cove published a few years after the then British penal colony on the edge of the world was founded.

My eye was drawn to a cricket print I’d almost kill to own, hanging in a stairwell: a lithograph of the second-ever (more successful) English touring side playing on the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground, published in 1864 in Melbourne by Charles Troedel.

In the suburb of Kensington, to the south of the Sydney Cricket Ground, is situated the large and airy showroom of Josef Lebovic. His eclectic stock showcases a range of printmaking, both European and Australian, and encompases caricatures, Victorian genre, twentieth century etchings, elegant inter-war travel posters, and early photographs of Australian Aborigines and settlers.

On my way home to Blightly I stopped at Hong Kong. I simply had to potter down Hollywood Road, past dozens of antique shops, to the emporium of Jonathan Wattis. Over a coffee Jonathan and his charming wife showed me their fascinating display of early photographs of this one-time British outpost in Asia.

“They might as well be photographs of the moon”, quipped Jonathan. And he’s right. The sepia images I inspected, landscapes of lush vegetation dotted with pleasant-looking European-style villas, bore no resemblance to the overcrowded high-rise ‘entrepôt’ that confronts the modern visitor.

All four of the businesses featured have over a period of many years established reputations of integrity and expertise among the more enquiring minds within their respective communities. At a time of rapid development and change in all their territories, when a sense of place and identity are arguably more important than ever, let us hope that they – and others striving to engage people with their heritage – continue to thrive.

May I wish all my loyal subscribers a very happy and prosperous 2014.

Before The Ashes

August 21, 2013

Talking of photographs (see previous post ‘The photographer’s art’), a print to truly capture the imagination was offered at T. Vennett-Smith’s cricket memorabilia auction on Wednesday 14th August.

Lot 962 was a sepia team photograph from the 1868 Australian Aboriginal cricket tour to Britain. Ten Aborigines and two white men (one of whom clearly not dressed for action) are posed in front of an anonymous marquee.


According to a source quoted in the only book that I know of to comprehensively describe this remarkable tour (first published in Melbourne in 1967), the players are about to take the field at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, in August 1868. The European standing at the centre is the Englishman Charles Lawrence, a fine all-round cricketer who had been coaching the Aborigines back in Australia, and who regularly turned out for the team during the tour. His teammates have been identified also.

Inscribed simply ‘Australian Eleven 1868’ to the mount below, the auctioneer’s estimate of £250 – 350 on such a desirable lot was always going to be left far behind. The successful bid it turned out was £1,650.

In the midst of the Fifth Ashes Test at The Oval, many cricket fans who have grown up with the historic rivalry between England and her Antipodean cousins are still unaware that the first cricket team from Australia to tour these islands was composed not of white Europeans (that happened a decade later), but of men from western Victoria who could claim an ancestry on that far away continent of thousands of years.

As for the cricket itself, in an intensive – not to say punitive – schedule, what was effectively a thirteen-man playing squad contested 47 matches in four-and-a-half months across the length and breadth of the land. The Aborigines won 14 and lost 14. British crowds flocked to see the “black cricketers from Australia”, and paid good money to do so, but the human cost was high. Incidents of illness among the Aboriginal cricketers in this alien environment, both mental and physical, were a constant concern, and one player, known as King Cole, would never return to Australia. He died from a lung problem in Guy’s Hospital.

Contemporary images of this tour hardly ever come onto the market, and as one might imagine, the appeal of this evocative photograph far exceeds the boundary of the cricket field. Not only collectors of cricketana and sports historians, but buyers interested in Australian Aboriginal history, and indeed ethnologists around the world, must surely desire this souvenir of one of the more remarkable cross-cultural exchanges in the history of two nations.

A minor miracle in suburbia

February 19, 2012

On Thursday I fulfilled a personal ambition when I opened the door of J. W. McKenzie, “the only shop premises specialising solely in second-hand and rare cricket books and memorabilia”.

For nearly forty years, Mr. McKenzie has welcomed visitors to this cricket enthusiast’s Mecca, a little gem in a somewhat unlikely looking parade of shops in an otherwise unremarkable Surrey street.

His informative but concise catalogues (number 171 out now) have documented and informed this corner of the sporting memorabilia market through the lean years and the boom times, and have set standards of accuracy and integrity that have influenced anyone who is anyone trading in cricket’s peculiarly rich literary heritage.

Perhaps never before have independent booksellers been under greater threat. So how has this book dealer, a highly specialised one at that, been able to thrive for so long in an apparently hostile climate?

The answer is simple, yet difficult to achieve: he is very good at what he does. McKenzie runs a smooth operation (at least from the outside!), ably assisted by loyal and long-serving staff. Internet and telephone orders are efficiently processed and dispatched; the stock is organised simply (by author) and accessibly. I enquired about two specific titles as I browsed the heaving shelves and the proprietor was able to find both within seconds. Simple. Service is friendly and courteous, every visitor afforded personal attention. He seems happy to share expertise and patiently answer the most trivial query.

Perhaps this high standard of professionalism is what customers should expect from all shopkeepers. But we don’t get it very often, in my experience.

Informed fans know where to go to own a piece of cricket history – someone will refer them to McKenzie. I remember seeing one of those modestly-presented catalogues on a friend’s coffee table years ago, long before I got seriously interested in collecting cricketana. With the best and most trusted book dealers, word spreads like ripples on a pond. McKenzie will find that scarce title – and won’t overcharge for it.

A Happy New Year?

January 6, 2011

So what are the prospects for the antique print trade in 2011? On the face of it not too bright, given the economic uncertainties of the last couple of years largely remain, and buyer confidence in all but the very best material remains low.

The UK VAT rise to 20% doesn’t help; it’s an additional cost dealers will in the end have to pass on to their customers.

Positives? There’s still value for money to be had for the collector of good quality printed material. The cricket memorabilia market showed signs of ruder health in 2010 and one hopes this year will see it continue to emerge from the trough of the last four years or so. Football has received a boost with the high profile lots that went under the hammer in the second half of last year, though golfiana still struggles for the most part.

I still happen to believe that there is an as yet untapped pool of potential buyers out there – perhaps mainly young and fresh to the art and antiques market – who could be attracted to the idea of old prints and books as an accessible and under-exploited collecting field. Modern and contemporary British prints continue to perform well; am I naive to hope that collectors might start to cast their eyes back to previous centuries?

I’ll keep trying to raise awareness in my own small way, and keep hoping. May I wish all my loyal readers (I know there are thousands of you out there) a happy, healthy and prosperous 2011.

This Sporting Life

March 22, 2010

As an armchair sports fan of many years standing, I have always had an interest in the art, literature and bygones associated with the games that developed into the multi-million pound industries followed by legions of fans around the world that we know today. In the last year or so I have been actively seeking out sporting memorabilia, primarily prints and books, in the salerooms and at the fairs. Such material now forms a significant part of my stock, and is the subject of my blogs for collectors on the All Out Cricket and Golf Monthly magazine websites.

I have come to the market at a ‘difficult’ time. Perhaps more than most collectable areas, sporting sales in 2009 suffered from those twin foes: a lack of buyer confidence and a shortage of rare and exciting consignments. Perhaps as recession bit, so under-pressure executives felt less inclined to participate in or watch sport – which can let’s face it be an expensive as well as time-consuming business. My hypothesis is that this reduced involvement in sporting activity might have in turn lessened interest in the associated by-products, i.e. collectables.

I have encountered the alternative, perhaps counter-intuitive theory: that in an uncertain economic climate, when they are anxious or “depressed”, people tend to spend more money on the things that cheer them up –like sport. That may be true to an extent with commodities such as lipstick and perfume (as some have suggested), but all the evidence I have heard suggests that the idea has not translated into sales by sporting dealers. (Perhaps that says something about the different mentalities of the two sexes, sports being a male-dominated collecting field, but that’s a discussion for an altogether different blog!)

On an upbeat note, I believe I do detect some signs of the green shoots of a recovery in 2010. I have noticed that auction prices have picked up for realistically estimated material that might be considered anywhere above run-of-the-mill (but nevertheless unspectacular). It has been a struggle to find sales to really get one’s teeth into so far this year but there are one or two lots to merit a second glance from the sport’s enthusiast in April.

See my latest blog for a sample of the upcoming cricket and sporting lots that have caught my eye: