photos and stories from the Powerhouse Museum
This is a photograph of Frank Burge on the training field at Harrogate in Yorkshire during the 1921 Kangaroo tour.
Playing football was not the only thing that the Australian rugby league team did during their stay in England. On their days off they acted like the tourists they were. They played golf, went to the theatre, visited Scotland and made a pilgrimage to the George Hotel in Huddersfield, Rugby League’s most sacred site, where in 1895 England’s northern Rugby clubs invented the game by voting to secede from the Union and form their own independent and professional League. At one point some members of the touring party (though not Frank), even went to visit a former First World War battlefield in Belgium, the site of the grave of Paddy Bugden, an Australian soldier, posthumous Victoria Cross winner and prominent rugby league player who was killed there in 1917.
Somewhere, there are some digitised copies of photographs from the battlefield visit, so I Googled them because I thought I might be able to reference them here. However, the result of my first search (with prompts like ‘1921’ and ‘Kangaroos’) was both unexpected and uncomfortable. Because the first image to appear was actually a picture of me, holding Frank’s tour photo album up to the camera, open for all to see. This shouldn’t have been so surprising, it was the companion image from the first post in this series, but the experience was a little uncanny, like suddenly being in hall of mirrors: I hadn’t expected a mouse click to reflect myself back at me. And to complete this circle, the album image from that first post, of Frank and the rest of the team on the training field in Harrogate, also came up, as if to mimic this single image of Frank posing in the very same place.
This set me thinking about the whole question of exposure. Would Frank really want this picture of himself — daringly, wantonly exposed as he is given the generally straight-laced climate of the 1920s — to be placed in a forum that would allow him to be seen by anyone, at any time, anywhere in the world? And that’s a question I can’t answer. Except to note that, even though this photograph was not made for this kind of public display, Frank was clearly something of an exhibitionist. What, after all, is the professional footballer if not a professional exhibitionist?
Reading this image now, at a time when hysterically overexposed depictions of the human body surround us throughout all our waking hours, there appears nothing awkward about the object on display here: an unclothed man flexing his muscles. If anything, the most notable fact is a purely technical one: once again, this body is substantially different from that possessed by the average contemporary rugby league player; in his day, Frank, known by the moniker ‘Chunky’, was one of the biggest and strongest footballers going around, yet by current standards he appears quite lean. And one reason I know this is because pictures of semi-naked rugby league players are freely available from all sorts of sources now, even as officially endorsed calendar images. But this was hardly the case in 1921. Frank’s exposure here, to both the camera and the elements (it was after all northern England at the beginning of winter), was by contrast a purely private act undertaken for his private photo album.
It was only for himself and for his own satisfaction that Frank captioned the photo simply ‘Cold’, a marker to remind him in future years how tough and durable he was at this point in his life. But now this photograph has been positioned in a context that would have been quite unimaginable to Frank in 1921. Increasingly though, the journey which this picture has undertaken, from private aide memoire to public document, is becoming the fate of the personal and private image in general. At the moment, our insatiable hunger for an ever-expanding public display of the proof of our existence shows no sign of being satisfied.
Guest Post by Lindsay Barrett, Writer and Cultural historian.
This project is supported by the Tom Brock bequest.