The Noble Game of CricketMartin Chandler |
Author: Colman, Sir Jeremiah
Rating: 4 stars
It is now almost half a century since the last edition of Rowland Bowen’s Cricket Quarterly was published yet still, almost alone amongst periodicals on the game, its reputation and the demand for back copies remains undiminished. Most of the articles in CQ are well outside the mainstream of cricket writing, and the book reviews are no different. There is none of the benevolence to be found on CW. Bowen was a difficult man to please, and was not afraid to voice the most trenchant of opinions. If he saw little of value in a book then he said so in no uncertain terms. Praise was hard earned, and doubtless treasured by those who did impress him.
Very occasionally however Bowen would dust off the superlatives and lavish praise on a book. His view of The Noble Game of Cricket was eye catching in its positivity; It is the cricketana collector’s book par excellence: magnificent in appearance and in content……….. delight in it as quite easily the most marvellous book on the game that has ever been produced, or perhaps, ever will be.
Bowen was describing a book that is a luxury item on any definition, the more so because it appeared in wartime. The cost of each of the one hundred copies that were available for purchase was five guineas. That is equivalent to £270 today, and even then the cost was said to have been subsidised by Sir Jeremiah Colman, whose collection of cricketing art the book showcased. Colman retained a further fifty copies for himself.
So who was Colman? He wasn’t a cricketer, at least not at First Class level, although he was a decent enough club cricketer and was President of Surrey between 1916 and 1923. His main claim to fame was in building the family firm of J and J Colman, known primarily for its mustard business, into a large and extremely profitable concern. With some of those profits he amassed a formidable art collection that was housed at the family’s country estate at Gatton Park in Surrey. The germ of the idea for The Noble Game of Cricket was the result of a fire at the property. The cricket collection was unharmed, but nonetheless Sir Jeremiah was moved to produce this monument in print to his pride and joy.
The book is a substantial quarto. There are 434 pages, the first fourteen of which are an introduction written by Clifford Bax. A professional writer Bax was, like Colman, a great cricket enthusiast. He was not a prolific cricket writer, and indeed his contribution to The Noble Game of Cricket was his first substantial piece of cricket writing. A decade later he wrote a biography of WG Grace.
The introduction sets the scene for the book’s raison d’etre, the display of 104 plates, 33 of which are in full colour. All are at least a full page, and a significant number extend over two pages. There is also a brief description and, in some cases, a few notes to accompany the plates.
Sir Jeremiah was 82 when The Noble Game of Cricket finally appeared, and within a year he was dead. In due course his magnificent collection passed into the hands of the MCC where, eventually, it came under the watchful eye of an art historian, Robin Simon. In 1983 the collection was carefully examined and, in a twist worthy of a new edition of the book, it was discovered that up to half of the items were fakes. These included some of the earliest items as well as later ones. To add to the intrigue despite the significant number of vendors for Colman’s purchases the fakes were, in the main, created by the same individual.
Interesting digression that the results of Simon’s examination provide they are, if truth be told, of little relevance on many levels. It is a little like the issue that some raise as to whether or not William Shakespeare’s work was actually written by Shakespeare. The one certainty that the Colman collection and the Bard’s oeuvre share is that they do exist, and lose nothing in terms of quality by virtue of the fact that their creators may not necessarily be the same actual individual they have always been assumed to be.
The issue therefore is how Bowen’s verdict on The Noble Game of Cricket, itself reached two decades after publication, looks after another half century. The starting point for that must depend on whether the reader enjoys the art of the game. If that is an interest then the book is still as comprehensive a survey of the subject as it was in 1941, and everything Bowen says is as relevant now as it was when he wrote his words. Even those of us for whom art is not our favoured aspect of cricketana the quality of what is illustrated can still be readily appreciated.
On a different level however is the quality of the product itself. There are some amazing limited editions produced in the 21st century. Sophisticated leather bindings, high quality paper and ornate slip cases all put in regular appearances, and limited editions these days are normally numbered individually and signed by as many interesting and relevant people as a publisher can pull in. The Noble Game of Cricket is very nicely bound, but in cloth. Individual copies are not numbered and neither Colman, Bax nor anyone else signed the books before they left the publisher. There is no slip case nor is the dust jacket, in the manner of the times, anything in the least spectacular. On the other hand the top edge of the text block has been finished in gilt, a nice touch not so often seen today.
The single most striking feature of The Noble Game of Cricket however is the paper on which it is printed. The use of high quality paper in modern books is by no means unknown, but it is never now quite like this. I am given to understand that hand made paper, never cheap, is now prohibitively expensive so I suspect that may be the answer. In any event the pages of the book have a wonderful thickness and feel to them, and whilst inevitably there is a slight amount of foxing present that is, in my opinion anyway, at a level and of a type where it actually enhances a book’s appearance rather than detracts from it. So I am delighted that I finally listened to the advice of Mike Down of Boundary Books and invested in this one. Inevitably it is not inexpensive, but Mike has a handful of copies available at varying prices dependent on condition, so if you start 2018 with a few pounds lying around it is a recommended investment.