Last Word: Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, and a copybook defensive stroke

There’s one picture that has held a particular fascination. This is of the artist Vanessa Bell in full gear (not cricketing, but what looks like a never-ending skirt) playing a forward defensive stroke. She is some 15 years old. Standing close by (far closer than an umpire would allow) is her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf who appears to have other things on her mind — perhaps the plot of Orlando or To the Lighthouse.

Vanessa Bell plays a forward defensive stroke. Virginia Woolf is standing next to her. The picture was probably taken in 1894.

Vanessa Bell plays a forward defensive stroke. Virginia Woolf is standing next to her. The picture was probably taken in 1894. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

There’s one picture that has held a particular fascination. This is of the artist Vanessa Bell in full gear (not cricketing, but what looks like a never-ending skirt) playing a forward defensive stroke. She is some 15 years old. Standing close by (far closer than an umpire would allow) is her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf who appears to have other things on her mind — perhaps the plot of Orlando or To the Lighthouse.

If anyone asks me which my favourite cricket photograph is, I usually answer without thinking: It is one of Victor Trumper stepping out to drive by George Beldam, Walter Hammond playing the cover drive with the wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield beautifully poised (Herbert Fishwick), Bishan Bedi’s bowling action by Ken Kelly, the run out of Ian Meckiff and the dramatic end of the first tied Test in Brisbane (Ron Lovitt), Jonty Rhodes running out Inzamam-ul Haq (V. V. Krishnan).

In later years, the back stories of some of these photographs were revealed by writers like Gideon Haigh, Ronald Mason and Scyld Berry. Some of the analysis too is as fascinating as the pictures themselves.

Then there are works by Patrick Eagar which deserve volumes to themselves (one such is called An Eye for Cricket and is co-authored with John Arlott). Gary Sobers batting, bowling, walking or just standing still. Jeff Thomson in his delivery stride. Roger Tolchard being dropped by Kirmani off Chandrasekhar (balletic in its spontaneous action).

But there’s one picture that has held a particular fascination. This is of the artist Vanessa Bell in full gear (not cricketing, but what looks like a never-ending skirt) playing a forward defensive stroke. She is some 15 years old. Standing close by (far closer than an umpire would allow) is her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf who appears to have other things on her mind — perhaps the plot of Orlando or To the Lighthouse. Of course we over-analyse. Virginia was 12 when the picture was taken. Maybe this too is a posed photograph like Trumper’s, above.

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There is, however, something mesmerising about Vanessa’s top hand grip; it is straight out of the textbook. The great Don Bradman recommends just such a grip in The Art of Cricket where he says, “the left hand, wrist and forearm control the movement. No power is required.” I am not sure who took the Vanessa photograph, but it was probably taken in 1894, some six decades before Bradman’s book.

“Vanessa and I were what we call tomboys,” wrote Virginia, “we played cricket, scrambled over rocks, climbed trees, were said not to care for clothes and so on.” This photograph captures that including the bit about the clothes.

In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia writes, “But cricket was no mere game. Cricket was important. He could never help reading about cricket. He read the scores in the stop press first, then how it was a hot day; then about a murder case.” Apparently the sisters were among the first to possess transportable cameras, hand-held domestic ones. “From the age of 15, photographs framed Virginia Woolf’s world,” wrote Maggie Humm who published a book on the sisters’ works.

Such devoted — and frequent — recordings probably helped to boost the public awareness of the Bloomsbury group, comprising intellectuals and artistes like the sisters, who set the tone and texture of their times.

Vanessa Bell didn’t score any first-class runs; but then Trumper did not paint a modernist canvas either.

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