The first thing that Jack Russell wants you to notice when you enter his art gallery in Bristol’s Chipping Sodbury is that there’s so much more to his canvas life than just cricket. Russell, who turns 55 next month, spent his time in international cricket between 1988 and 1998 as a fantastic wicketkeeper for England, playing 54 Tests and 40 ODIs. For six years hence, he stretched his List A career for Gloucestershire with a bit of batting reinvention and played on till 2004. Simultaneously though, his career in art was progressing in full swing.
Russell’s gallery has a wide array of work on display – a breathtaking landscape of Cotswold County, a district in Gloucestershire; cottages in the village of Rodbourne, North Wiltshire; a busy scene from the Cenotaph – a war memorial in London, and even the High Street in Chipping Sodbury where his gallery has been for the last 25 years.
“I’d always been interested. Never did art at school, but liked looking at paintings by Rembrandt, John Constable, James Whistler, J.M.W. Turner, David Shepherd (wildlife artist, who campaigned to save the Tiger amongst other endangered species), Trevor Chamberlain, John Singer Sargent,” Russell tells Cricbuzz, as he recollects his first tryst with art. He’d spent hours admiring the works of some of the greats from a bygone era, but the urge to pick up the brush didn’t come to him till he was a professional English cricketer.
And it came, it did out of frustration. The usual game of cards or a little bit of indulgence in literature didn’t catch Russell’s fancy as the best ways to pass time when rain would often interrupt cricket matches in this part of the world. “Fed up” by one such rain break in a three-day game, he decided to teach himself to paint.
Russell’s first-ever sketch at that time was a two-by-two sketch of a man under a tree reading his newspaper on the river Severn at the back of the County Ground in Worcester. Even after all these years, Russell has kept hold of the painting, that is symbolic of the start of something truly special in his life. At this point he knew he could paint, but was still not comfortable showing off a secondary skillset to complement his first one – being one of the best wicketkeepers in the world during his time.
But a tour of Pakistan in 1987 changed that attitude. “I loved India and Pakistan, the people were great and the material for an artist is endless. I loved Peshawar, had a great time there in 1987 and the 1996 World Cup,” he says. “The tour to Pakistan 1987 gave me plenty of material for my first exhibition of sketches in the summer of 1988. Forty sketches sold out in two days. Then a couple of years later an exhibition of 30 oil paintings sold out as well. That’s where everything started.”
“When those two exhibitions sold out so quickly I knew I had a chance, but then the hard work began to make it happen and I’m still selling paintings 30 years later,” he adds.
At the start of Russell’s fascination and obsession with art, the England team management did not have have a whiff of all the excess baggage he lugged around on tours. “I had to have an extra bag because of my keeping and batting gear, but that was my excuse. The truth is the extra bag was filled with paints brushes and canvas,” Russell says. His teammates, who initially poked fun at his hobby, soon realised that it was going to become his serious second vocation, and cut out the humour. There was even a coach who was far less supportive. “One coach actually told me to give it up as a waste of time. Good job I didn’t listen,” Russell exclaims.
It wasn’t just marketplaces and cityscapes that had Russell’s attention on tours. As a self-confessed ‘military nut’, Russell also had a keen eye for bringing their world on his canvas. On the tour of West Indies in 1990, Russell decided to sketch ‘Rusty B’, the sixth HMS Bulwark of the Royal Navy [a light fleet aircraft carrier used by the Royal Navy] which was launched in 1948. He did it from the confines of his hotel room in Guyana, where it had rained for weeks, leading to the abandonment of the Test.
A painting of the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ is still at the Royal Marine Barracks in Kent which depicted British commandos in canoes before the start of a mission at a German-occupied French port of Bordeux in the second World War. “I’ve always been interested in military history. It was an experience to meet the veterans, that was the most enjoyable bit although [it is] difficult to get them to admit to being real heroes,” Russell says. “I managed to paint some of the last surviving veterans of World War One including Harry Patch, who was the last survivor in England from that war.”
As far as portraits of famous personalities were concerned, Russell’s collection was as diverse as they come. From Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, to the legendary late comic actor Norman Wisdom and England’s World Cup winner Bobby Charlton, everyone’s got a Russell’s canvas version of themselves. As did that Surrey-born musician, often dubbed as the most influential guitarist of all time. “I was the first person to paint Eric Clapton live in the flesh. He said I could. It was great, he’s very shy so I painted him looking out of the window. Nice guy,” Russell says.
And then there was wildlife in Africa that would drag Russell out of the confines of the hotel rooms and into the open. “South Africa was magic because of all the battlefields. Had a wonderful time on and off the field. In between matches I would go out into the country and paint, including the wildlife,” he says. During England’s tour of Zimbabwe in 1996, he painted the magnificent creatures of the wild – the rhinos – by a river.
Russell would also frequent sports venues for the thrill of capturing events live. There’s a fantastic story about him at the Snooker championship final of 2006 in Sheffield. The BBC were filming him throughout the course of his painting and wanted him to complete the scene by 8 PM that day and had an outrageous demand to go. They wanted Russell to also paint the winner at the table, in action, with the losing finalist in his seat. Early into the game, Russell had to go with his instinct and guess the winner in order finish within the stipulated time, a punt that he somehow pulled off successfully.
There’s also a well-timed capture of a lineout – Rugby’s version of a throw-in involving a bit more drama – in a game between his home side Gloucester and Newcastle, and one from Goodison Park, the football stadium in Liverpool – where he got the perfect view from one of the player’s boxes, low down and close to the halfway line.
But his artistic peak somehow seemed reserved for cricket. His website even vouches for this: “Jack’s experience as an International Cricketer gives him an unrivalled knowledge for detail when creating a cricketing landscape. Who else in the world is better qualified!”
Seven years after he retired from international cricket, England played out a blinder-of-an-Ashes-series at home, and he found a place beyond the boundary to reconstruct piece of history. “I painted several of the Test matches in 2005 live on the spot. At Old Trafford, it was an experience – 5000 people sat behind me, all of them telling me how to paint.
“It was a long way [for me, to come] from the man under the tree reading his newspaper where nobody was watching me because I was too frightened to let anyone watch.
During the Trent Bridge Test in that series, Russell was beyond the third man boundary from where he caught an iconic moment – Andrew Strauss flying from second-slip to complete a phenomenal one-handed take of Adam Gilchrist – and recreated it. In the emotional frenzy of the Edgbaston Test, Russell picked the most poignant moment [that comes with several alternate theories] – Freddie Flintoff consoling Brett Lee.
To juggle two full-time professions is no mean feat. He’d very quickly reached a juncture of his professional life, where neither of the two jobs could take a backseat. Thoughts of giving up the brush kept coming to him, but he pushed past them. “The painting was a struggle at first, but I kept learning from my mistakes. I was going to give up on several occasions but determination stopped me, probably because I don’t like being defeated. I had to work at the keeping as well. To make it look easy you have to work hard physically and mentally. But I loved both! If you’re in love with what you are doing it’s worth the effort,” he says.
It must’ve also helped that he spent the last five years of his cricketing career between 1993 and 1998 under the captaincy of Michael Atherton, who would make special allowances for Russell when the team was on tours. “Mike Atherton was great on tour. When he could see I was getting tired he told me to miss the next practice session and go off painting. It helped recharge my batteries. It helped my cricket a lot.”
No wonder then that Russell, an artist with hundreds of paintings in his possession, holds the portrayal of his marathon partnership with his captain in the 1995 drawn Test in Johannesburg as his most cherished. Russell calls it the ‘Great Escape’ as he and Atherton batted together for more than four-and-a-half hours in an unbeaten sixth-wicket stand worth 119 runs, of which he scored just 29 off 235 balls, to secure a draw.
There have been times when Russell has even felt overburdened by all the multitasking he had to do, but it still has worked out fine somehow. “At the start yes [felt overburdened], because I would field all day for Gloucestershire, then go home on an evening and deal with all the orders. But I eventually found an agent and a secretary and we set up the Gallery in Chipping Sodbury South Gloucestershire, where we have been there 25 years.”
Russell played his final international game in October 1998. For two decades since, he has invested all his time in being a fabulous professional painter, and even today tries to find time to paint something every single day. “If I’m painting, I’m at my happiest,” he says, showing that the love for the brush hasn’t dimmed one bit.
So, after all these years, what keeps the fire within him still alight? “To paint the perfect picture. But I hope I never get there so I can keep on painting. Painting is like cricket, you never ever stop learning and you never crack it! There is always something to improve on.”
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