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

The Spirited Mr Rowlandson

November 20, 2015

A bloggers’ preview last week of not one but two new exhibitions at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.  A bijou selection of high-quality genre paintings from the Golden Age of Dutch art more than competed for attention with one of the most brilliant draughtsmen and printmakers England has ever produced: Thomas Rowlandson (1757 – 1827).

The display of around 100 prints and drawings explores the life and art of one of this country’s most popular caricaturists. Social satires were his staple, but often the political intrigues of Parliament and the Court attracted the scrutiny of his quick-fire wit and flashing, free-spirited pen.

Rowlandson was a roving gun for hire, happy to direct his ridicule in whatever direction his patron or publisher of the time required – always with that arresting combination of invention and artistic flair. The exhibition includes satires against William Pitt and the Tories as well as against Pitt’s great rival Charles James Fox and his Whig acolytes.

It is perhaps surprising thIMG_2064at Rowlandson’s output was so popular with both George III and George IV, father and particularly son so often the butt of the joke. Queen Victoria apparently acquired more of his prints than either of her Hanoverian predecessors.

And pictorial satires of the Georgian and Victorian periods remain highly collectable to this day.  The market has been rejuvenated by a recent upsurge in scholarly research into this intriguingly fluid, hybrid medium that seems to straddle simultaneously the worlds of art, journalism, literature and politics.

Commanding the centre of the largest gallery is this c. 1806 four leaf screen (left), pasted with carefully arranged figures and scenes cut from satirical prints (the work of various artists, French and British).

This is a rare survival, the sort of thing I would love on my stand at a fair – think of the visitors it would attract.  These screens were popular adornments to the fashionable parlours of the Georgian and Regency periods, the ultimate statement of a trend for pasting prints onto everything from tea caddies to tables to the walls of billiard rooms (see my earlier post on this theme: Furniture Prints).

Printsellers’ catalogues and trade cards of the time offered selections of their wares intended for this very purpose.  Publishers too got in on the act – Isaac Cruikshank’s set of ‘Caricature Ornaments for screens’ was advertised in 1800.
Such screens could also be purchased ready-made.
Either way, they make for wonderful after-dinner conversation.

High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson showing at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace with Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer13th November 2015 – 14th February 2016.

Printed on the Ice

February 6, 2014

In the days before photo-journalism, the prints I encounter often served as a visual report of an event – and now of course serve as valuable records for the modern historian.

But what people like me really love is handling prints with a direct and (literally) tangible connection to a particular occasion, or historical personality.

And personally, I would love to uncover a souvenir of one of the Thames ‘Frost Fairs’. They are such an evocative echo of a lost London.


The dear old River Thames froze over 16 times between 1683 and 1814. The spontaneous community celebrations held on the ice when temperatures plummeted provided a great escape from the drudgery of London’s coldest winters.

Many fair-goers bought souvenirs from printers who temporarily set up presses in tents on the ice to commemorate the occasion. These often consisted of fairly crude woodcuts or engraved designs personalised with the customer’s letterpress name (and sometimes age); crucially for historians they were usually dated.

Those few that survive, with their charmingly naïve, folk-arty depictions of crowds, booths and games – often featuring a famous London landmark – deserve to be more widely appreciated.

So I am pleased to note there is a Frost Fair exhibition at the Museum in Docklands running until 30th March. A good introduction to the subject is provided by the British Library’s Untold lives blog.

As you can imagine, Frost Fair souvenirs are highly collectable – those four little words ‘Printed on the Ice’ command a hefty premium. Financial considerations aside, I am transported instantly to the crisp, chill air and smell of hot spiced gingerbread.

Propaganda in Print

October 21, 2013

Last week I popped along to Room 16 of the National Portrait Gallery to take a look at the ‘Treason, Plots and Murder‘ display of 17th century British political prints. The contemporary engraving of the shifty-looking Gunpowder Plot conspirators (below) in earnest conversation by Crispijn de Passe is an arresting image, familiar from my school history textbooks.

But my eye was instantly drawn to the adjacent wall and a complete set of pictorial playing cards depicting the Popish Plot of 1678. They were designed by Francis Barlow, who apart from high quality book illustrations and sets of prints of birds and animals which were etched by Wenceslaus Hollar, Richard Gaywood and others, produced propaganda prints on behalf of the Whig faction during this turbulent period of our nation’s history.


In fact the Popish Plot was not in reality a ‘plot’ at all but a total fabrication by the notorious perjurer Titus Oates, with the consequence that dozens of innocent people were brutally executed. The episode was perhaps the ultimate manifestation of the febrile atmosphere surrounding religious politics in 17th century England.

Each chronologically-sequential image, with its caption beneath, narrates a highly biased interpretation of the inglorious affair for the amusement and ‘education’ of the card player, almost in the style of a strip cartoon. What more effective, flexible or popular medium than the playing card – perhaps the equivalent of today’s TV (or internet) advertising – to promote a version of events that were the talk of every tavern and parlour in the land?

The exhibition is a potent reminder that power, print and propaganda have been irrevocably linked since the first presses went into production.
It runs until February 16th 2014.