photos and stories from the Powerhouse Museum
This photo from Frank Burge’s Kangaroo tour collection was taken in early September 1921, when Australia’s rugby league team crossed paths with the Australian cricket team at Scarborough on the North Yorkshire coast. Frank, so clearly happy to be there, shares the focus of attention with the dynamic batsman Charlie Macartney, who a couple of months earlier had scored 345 against Nottinghamshire in a single day. Structurally though, the photograph is built around the bulk of Warwick Armstrong, Australia’s cricket Captain. Armstrong weighed around 130 kilos. He was tall as well; in his younger, leaner days he’d been a VFL footballer. And he was one of Australia’s most successful captains. In the summer of 1920-21 his team defeated the English side that toured Australia 5 tests to 0. Later in 1921 he led the Australian team to England with the aim of retaining the Ashes and repeating the result against an English side that, like Australia, had lost a lot of its talent to the Great War. They came fairly close: Australia won the first three tests and drew the last two. After he retired from cricket, Armstrong became an agent for Dawson’s Scotch Whiskey and wrote a book called The Art of Cricket.
Scarborough was the second last stop in what had been a long campaign for the Australian cricketers, and the match they played there against an English 11 was one of only two losses on the tour. The Kangaroos meanwhile had only just arrived in England, and you can see on their faces a confidence born of being part of the winner’s circle. Melancholy Scarborough was one of England’s most significant seaside resorts, and the monkey on Armstrong’s back, literally if not metaphorically, was probably a captive of a local amusement park.
In April 1921 the Sydney Morning Herald called Warwick Armstrong ‘a combination of Nestor and Achilles’. I’m assuming the reference was to the fact that Armstrong could demonstrate both dash and aggression, like Achilles, but also caution and hesitancy, like the old Argonaut Nestor. But, as with the explanation for the monkey in the picture, I’m only guessing that this was the meaning of the statement. But one thing I am certain of is that no contemporary Australian newspaper would casually refer to Ricky Ponting or Michael Clarke in terms of Classical figures, and expect its readership to understand the reference. This is interesting, because in terms of the visual cues we look at the picture and we recognize all the elements in a way that allows us to place it reasonably effortlessly in time and space. Men don’t wear hats much anymore but in a way suit styles haven’t changed that extensively, apart from the disappearance of the waistcoat. And we easily recognise in the cricketer’s outfits the much-trumpeted traditions embodied in the current test uniform: the whites, the pads, and especially the baggy greens. Visually all this makes sense to us. And yet, the culture in which this image is grounded, one that provided a frame of reference drawn from the old European traditions of Greece and Rome, and caused its commentators to speak so casually of the heroes of Antiquity, has completely disappeared. The art of cricket may have survived, but the language the Kangaroos and the Cricketers spoke to each other when they met up that day in Scarborough would sound foreign to us now.
Guest Post by Lindsay Barrett, Writer and Cultural historian.
This project is supported by the Tom Brock bequest.