As he puts together pieces of the puzzle, he gets entangled in a bizarre mystery which spans across a century in time encompassing subjects as varied as Victorian England, the last days of British Raj, Scientific influence on Art and the Internet.
This novella is available in the volume Bowled Over – Stories Between the Covers by Arunabha Sengupta.
Kumar and Sylvie exchanged glances. The mystery of their sudden interest in a long-dead cricketer was indeed baffling and whetted my curiosity no end.
“Where was this match played?” Sylvie asked.
“Harrogate,” I replied watching the reaction of my two companions. My answer seemed to settle whatever doubts they had.
Sylvie looked at me and closed her notebook decisively.
“Professor, have you heard of Paul Hackensmith?”
I racked my brains yet again. My mind’s eye went over the pages of Wisden. I drew a blank.
“Not that I recall. A cricketer?”
Sylvie shook her head and smiled a little.
“No, a cricket fan, but not a cricketer in the strict sense. He was a very progressive amateur artist during the first part of the century. I guess it’s difficult for you to associate cricket and art, the way we are switching from one to the other.”
I smiled. “Well, I must say I am as yet in the dark as to where Jessop comes into your research and what his relation with this Hackensmith is, but cricket and art are not incompatible.”
Well, I had my own argument that certain cricketers – from Victor Trumper to VVS Laxman, from Ray Lindwall to David Gower – have performed their daily jobs as cricketers with such sublime grace that they could be considered to be artists of the greatest calibre. However, the reasons that I offered were different.
“Earliest Test matches were captured for posterity more through sketches than photographs. Besides, there are other relationships between cricket and art. Arthur Mailey, the celebrated leg- spinner, was an artist who held exhibitions in London.”
I thought of recounting the famous Mailey quip to the Queen of England that he had to paint the sun from memory in the old country, but obviously Sylvie had other things on her mind. I allowed her to continue.
“That’s really interesting,” she offered politely. “However, Hackensmith, to my knowledge, hardly ever played serious cricket. He was born in affluence, was a passionate writer, artist, thinker and cricket enthusiast. And though he had his progressive ideas on painting, he did not come into limelight as a painter until after his death. He wrote and painted for pleasure.”
“Perhaps the best way to do it,” I said and waited for more.
“He was born in 1871 if I remember correctly,” Kumar said.
“Yes, that’s correct,” Sylvie continued. “And lived a very expensive but low-key life, pursuing his interests away from the eyes of all but his very near and dear ones. Most of the facts that we know about him are from a series of letters to his niece, Elizabeth Hackensmith, later Elizabeth Mead, someone for whom he had considerable affection … to the extent that many believe them to have had an incestuous relationship.”
The telephone on Kumar’s desk started ringing and he excused himself to answer. I took this opportunity to turn towards Sylvie.
“So, how long have you been in India?”
She stretched her long legs and somehow looked more like an athlete than an art expert.
“Three months now,” she replied. “I have been travelling in the North East. Dharamshala, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and other places"
“Hunting down mandalas?”
“Well, studying them in the monasteries,” she laughed. “And then I hunted Kumar Sahib down to find something that really fascinates me.”
“It’s starting to fascinate me too,” I said quite truthfully.
Kumar had finished talking and hung up. Now, he looked at us and asked, “So, where were we?”
“We had just reached Hackensmith’s relationship with his niece,” I replied.
“Oh yes,” Kumar winked. “Some spice there.”
Sylvie continued with a chuckle, “Well, yes, Elizabeth was the daughter of Paul’s much older brother George. Thirteen years younger than him. From 1895 to 1948, a span over half a century, Paul wrote her letters. About six years after Paul Hackensmith passed away in 1949, there was a sudden interest in his works, some of which displayed modernistic originality of surprising degree. It was long after this, in 1967, after the death of Elizabeth Hackensmith-Mead, that the letters were published in book form by Elizabeth’s millionaire step-son Charlie Mead. However, it was some sort of a vanity publication and very few copies were printed. And soon they were lost in obscurity. The book was not really marketed to the art community. Charlie Mead, eccentric and vain, got about a dozen copies printed, mostly for his own library and relatives. It was by pure chance that I got hold of one rare copy last year.”
She had almost conjured up a book in her right hand. It was an impeccable leather bound volume of considerable thickness. She turned the gold embossed cover towards me.
I read the title. Affectionately Artistic – Letters from Paul Hackensmith to Elizabeth Mead .
“While several of these had been made available earlier, this collection contains a number of letters which had never been seen before,” Sylvie continued. “And this includes several which bear strong hints of the actual relationship between the two of them. However, that is not what concerns us. We are now interested in three of his letters.”
Kumar got up from his chair once more. “Allow me to order lunch for you. This is going to take some time. Or would you prefer going down to some Park Street restaurant?”
I was too caught up in the enigma of the whole thing to have any preferences. Sylvie preferred lunch delivered. Kumar picked up the phone again and ordered food from Peter Cat.
Sylvie opened the book to a page near the beginning and held it out to me.
“That’s one of the earlier letters,” she explained.
I looked at the text.
29th day of July, 1897.
It has been but four days that I have seen you, but they fill me with apprehension. You grow like a blooming flower, and in recent times you have grown with a rapidity that makes me feel that if I catch forty winks I will miss the phenomenon of watching beauty spread its wings of youth. If it be possible, hold your transformation, and wait for my return.
I went to see WG Grace today, my sketchbook and pencils in tow. However, his stay at the wicket was nipped in the bud and the grandiose portrait of the bearded giant at the crease did not materialise. In any case, this sort of painting has been so oft repeated it has lost all charm for me.
However, I was treated to an innings of genius, an exhibition of stroke making that was almost sinful to behold for the sheer intoxication it produced. The moment Jessopus walked out to bat, I had the foreboding of being witness to epoch making history. And I sketched all the balls he faced, in quick sure strokes of pencil. I not yet know what I am going to form of these sketches. How I am going to merge them… but there is some idea which is germinating inside me. To bring out the savagery with which the vaunted bowling of Hirst, Wainwright, Jackson and others was put to sword, a mere reproduction of the Croucher is not enough. I want to create something that will speak in words of his greatness today…something which will give meaning to art as a true instrument of factual historical recording. Something extending the Geometry of Cezanne’s ‘Rocky Landscape at Aix’ to rendering of facts with artistic accuracy.
As I looked up, breathing heavily with excitement, I felt the eyes of Sylvie and Kumar on me.
“How does it feel, Professor?” Kumar asked.
I hesitated before answering. I was not too sure. Someone sketching each and every stroke of Jessop’s innings at Harrogate? And a genuine artist at that? It was something, in words of Paul Hackensmith, too intoxicating and almost sinful to expect.
“Is there any follow up to this?” I asked.
I had scanned the next few letters in a hurry. They were excellent in terms of the English and content, but did not say anything more about the Jessop sketches.
“There is, but much later. Almost seventeen years down the line, in 1914,” she took the book from me and turned the pages rapidly. “By this time, Paul was forty two, trying desperately to hold on to the fascination he had once created in the mind of the adolescent Elizabeth, who was a grown lady of twenty nine by now.”
She handed me the book opened to a particular letter and I started reading again.
27th January, 1914.
As days pass by and I look out at the white covered fields, I wonder if with the change of season, your affections, which have gathered frost along the way, will melt with the snow and sun will shine on my life once more.
In the previous letter, you had asked me to limit the subject of my notes to the works of art that I am producing at present. Alas, where does my work of art stand in relation to the supreme masterpiece produced by the Almighty’s own loving hand, although he left his creation out in the open far too long on wintry nights, and as such, it remains wanting in warmth.
About my work? Remember when you were changing from an alluring young nymph to a lady of non-pareil charm, I had once discussed an innings by Gilbert Jessop – oh, when will cricket be blessed with likes of that genius. It was in the summer of ’97 and I had sketched all the strokes of Jessop’s 101. It has been as well that I have let the idea grow inside me. With the new waves in the world of art, lots of ideas have blown over me. I have now started with what I consider to be an experiment in Geometric Abstract-Reality. I am not painting an object, but neither am I painting a representation of my feeling. I am painting something real that is not an object, but an incident. I am painting that innings by Jessop with Scientific precision, which nevertheless will contain the combination of colours that will make it a work of supreme art … art that is accurate and true and beautiful.
The Relativistic Physics of Einstein has brought so much novelty to the world of the artist. Has my lady seen Duchamp’s brilliant rendering of the Nude Descending a Staircase? The time element so masterfully captured by the artist?
Artists have conflicting opinions of the fourth dimension. Some say Time – the Einsteinean factor –is the fourth dimension and some project it as liberation from the conventions of linear perspective. The philosophers claim it to be a physical reality with limited access for mere mortals like us, whereas mathematicians feel it is abstract space. I like the concept of Colour as the fourth dimension as voiced by some of my artist brethren.
However, why do we not use all the definitions to our advantage? Time – Colour – Fourth dimension? Why not use shades of colour to represent passage of time? All this while I had been grappling with the way to represent the passage of time as I merged the Jessop sketches into one canvas, but now I am experimenting with colours. Geometrical accuracy, spatial and temporal representation in a painting about an event and not depicting an object. Is it art? Is it science? At the highest level, is there any difference?
This novella is available at John McKenzie Cricket Bookshop
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)