Ceci n’est pas Une Batte

Ceçi n’est pas une batte by Chris Green

Not many people realise that the surrealist painter, René Magritte was a big fan of English cricket. He discovered cricket by accident in a newspaper article in the 1930s. Although he had a reasonable command of English, the unfamiliar language baffled him. Innings, runs, overs, wickets, stumps, and bails. There were no equivalents to these in his native Belgium. The game was not played here. He was amused too by the names of the fielding positions, short leg, silly mid-on, gulley, backward point, first and second slip, etc. And the rules of the game were not only complicated but surreal.

He learned that there were two sides of eleven men, one in and one out in the field. Each man on the in side went out to bat and the fielding side tried to get him out. When he was out, he came in. Then the next man went in until he was out. When he was out, he too came in. When they were all out, the side that was out came in and the side that had been in went out and tried to get those coming in out. In addition, there were many ways in which the fielding side could get the batsmen, namely bowled, caught, stumped, run out and leg before wicket, whatever this was. When both sides had been in and out twice, the game finished. The team with the most runs won, unless they had not had enough time to finish because of bad light or rain, in which case it was a draw. Runs were made by the two batsmen that were in running between two sets of stumps after the one on strike had hit the ball and the ones in the field had not stopped it. Games lasted for three or five days.

René felt he had to experience this theatre of the absurd first hand. It sounded a lot more interesting than hockey or volleyball. He took a trip to England to watch a local weekend game at a village on the Kent coast. Although he had a little difficulty understanding everything that was going on, he felt it was an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. He was hooked. He began to make regular trips across the Channel to watch Kent play County Cricket at Canterbury. With his dark suit and signature bowler hat, René fitted in easily with the well-to-do spectators in the Members’ Enclosure and the hospitality tents. As he chatted away to his fellow fans, most did not realise they were in the presence of a famous artist.

He gradually got to know the Kent cricketers. As luck should have it, Kent’s captain, Bryan Valentine was a keen amateur artist and knew who René Magritte was. Bryan was aware that new art movements were springing up in Europe and eager to keep up with developments. René became a regular guest in his quarters, where they discussed the connections between art and cricket long into the night.

As cricket looked so much fun, it was only natural for René to want to have a crack at it. He bought all the kit and arranged for a few sessions in the nets. With a little coaching from the Kent players, he mastered some of the batting strokes, the cover drive, the hook, the sweep and the late cut. They told him he was a natural. Encouraged by this, René persuaded Bryan to let him play in a Sunday charity match.

The only reservation René had was in the game’s presentation. If, as he hoped, cricket was ever going to take off in Belgium, this needed a little tweaking. It would need to drop some of its formality. To add a little humour, instead of the standard cricketing cap, he wore his trademark bowler hat for the charity match. Although this was greeted with puzzlement at first, the boozy Sunday crowd soon caught on. It would not be appropriate for regular county fixtures, but once in a while, it was good to break with tradition.

With her husband disappearing regularly, Georgette Magritte began to suspect he was having an affair. The explanation for his absences that he was watching cricket was an unconvincing one. She insisted the next time he went on his travels, he took her along. René tried to put her off. He explained that the shopping opportunities in Canterbury might fall short of her expectations. It was not exactly London. She would be better off going to the department stores in Brussels for her frocks. But this did nothing to convince Georgette. She was going with him and that was that.

René was right. Georgette did not enjoy their wet week in Kent in early September one bit. Canterbury was something of a backwater. It was completely lacking in culture and had no dress shops. The weather made it worse. The sight of twenty-two men sitting around in white trousers and sweaters waiting for the rain to stop seemed to be the ultimate pointless activity. The rain was clearly not going to stop. What could it possibly be about cricket that so fascinated René?​ When she put her mind to it, Georgette could become the incredible sulk. A model of passive aggressive manipulation. René had no defence against this. He capitulated. They returned home early.

September marked the end of the cricket season, so to keep his enthusiasm for the game alive over the winter months, René embarked on a series of surreal cricket paintings. He felt these would help to promote the game in Belgium and who knows, perhaps even France. He used all of his signature themes, cricketers in bowler hats, cricketers with green apple faces, cricketers with bowler hats and green apple faces. Cricketers with fluffy clouds as faces. A picture of a cricket bat with the title, Ceçi n’est pas Une Batte. Sadly, few of these paintings have survived. The ones that have are in a private collection belonging to the reclusive Sebastian Bose-Harrington at Harrington Hall, where the public cannot view them. These were originally a gift to the less reclusive Colin Bose-Harrington, a senior Kent Cricket Club board member in the days leading up to World War 2.

With the outbreak of war, cricket in England came to an abrupt halt. Even had it continued, the Nazi occupation of Belgium would have made it difficult for René to travel. His last cricket painting is believed to have been completed in early September 1939, just days before Belgium fell. The Nazi occupying force considered his work to be degenerate art and destroyed this one along with many others.

It is not clear why René did not resume his passion for cricket after the war, but artists are restless souls. Change for them is a driving force. This versatility, in turn, adds kudos to their work. If, for instance, Picasso had had just one period, he would surely not have stood the test of time. We would no longer be talking about him in such elevated terms today. Similarly, through Magritte’s ability to re-invent himself, his paintings have increased in value logarithmically over the years. His Le Principe du Plaisir recently sold for 27 million dollars in New York. Because of their rarity, the six surviving cricket paintings in the Bose-Harrington collection might expect a similar return should they ever come onto the market. In the meantime, be comforted that the great Belgian painter was once a big fan of English cricket.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

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