Reconstituting Hobbs

Jack Hobbs batting at the Oval cricket ground in 1914

Recently I purchased a copy of A.C. MacLaren’s The Perfect Batsman: J.B. Hobbs in Action (1926). The book is an instructional guide for playing cricket, using the legendary Surrey batsman Jack Hobbs as its example. The text is written by Archie MacLaren, another of the greats from cricket’s golden era. What makes The Perfect Batsman of interest here is that it is illustrated by frames of film taken of Hobbs in 1914.

MacLaren tells us that the films were taken eleven years before his book was published, the filmmakers being Cherry Kearton Ltd., and he indicates that the films were made on his behalf. Certainly there seems to be no commercially released film of Hobbs in 1914 made by Kearton, so presumably the sequences were specially commissioned. Why it took eleven years to publish them is not explained. There are ten plates, each with sequences of between eight and twelve frames. Hobbs was in his prime in the 1910s but hardly any film from this period exists of him (plenty exists of him in the 1920s) – indeed there is very little surviving film at all of cricket in the 1910s.

Plate VIII from The Perfect Batsman, with Hobbs demonstrating ‘A High Straight Drive’

What one can do with such filmstrip is reanimate it, which is what I have done with three of the plates (2, 8 and 10). They now make up the video above. Because the longest sequence is just twelve frames, I have repeated the sequences several times and have them running at a frame rate a little slower than real time. Anyway, brief as they are, they bring back to a sort of life one of English cricket’s greats, and capture him in swashbuckling mode as well. MacLaren writes of the films:

It is a great pleasure to me to have kept these action photographs of Hobbs, which I present in this book in the hope that all our schoolboys and young cricketers generally will benefit their play by a careful perusal of them, not failing to notice his footwork, the grace of his style, and his perfect balance in all his strokes, to say nothing of his delightful follow through at the very end of his strokes.

Anyone who follows cricket would have to agree. The high straight drive in particular demonstrates the comment made in Wisden’s obituary for Hobbs, “Before the war of 1914-1918 he was Trumperesque, quick to the attack on springing feet, strokes all over the field, killing but never brutal, all executed at the wrists.”

There were a number of sports instruction books with film sequences published in the silent era. I have seen examples for cricket, tennis, boxing and ju-jitsu, and doubtless there were others. Usually the films were shot especially for the book, so that they represent unique records of their subjects. Such encouragement to study closely the individual frame echoes the ambition of some of the pre-cinema sequence photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey, Georges Demeny and Ernst Kohlrausch, who saw their proto-films of the 1880s and 90s as means to analyse movement, particularly sporting movement.

Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘Cricket, batting, drive’ from The Human Figure in Motion (1887). His unnamed naked model was ‘the best all-round cricketer in the University of Pennsylvania.

Reconstituting films from non-film sources has also been done for flick card devices such as Kinoras and Filoscopes. One of the few films that survives of the greatest of all English cricketers, W.G. Grace, only exists as a Filoscope which the BFI was able to rephotograph and convert back to film, despite heavy half-tones impairing the image. One would always rather have the film, of course, but movement is movement and somehow the very fragmentary nature of such records makes the brief glimpse of life that they capture seem all the more precious.