Cricketers painting sale to US blocked because of its ‘cultural importance’

The Cricketers by Benjamin West - Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Cricketers by Benjamin West - Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The sport conjures images of good-natured games on bucolic village greens, but the essential Englishness of cricket is now at the heart of a less tranquil contest

Cricket has become the centre of an arts row, as government experts argue the cultural importance of the game to the UK means a £1 million painting of some players should not be allowed to leave the country

The 1763 work The Cricketers by Benjamin West was due to be sent abroad, but ministers barred the sale after art advisers deemed it nationally significant as “one of the most important paintings” on cricket.

However, the owner of the artwork is fighting the decision, arguing that the painting’s connection to cricket is not a strong enough reason to keep it in Britain.

It is understood the fate of the 260-year-old canvas, which shows wealthy friends chatting while one leans on a cricket bat, will be decided in 2023, with the US a possible destination if it is allowed to leave.

Arts minister Stuart Andrew imposed a temporary export bar after an advisory committee deemed it “one of the most important paintings pertaining to early cricket, painted at a critical period in the development of the game”.

Artworks have been blocked from export before because of their depictions of British life and history, including a 16th-century painting of English ships tackling the Spanish Armada, but this is the first time the subject of cricket has stumped an international sale.

The Cricketers was created by American-born artist West, better known for depicting the deaths of British heroes General Wolfe and Admiral Lord Nelson, and shows five wealthy young men with cricket bats chatting, possibly after a match.

It was commissioned by William Allen, a wealthy figure in colonial Pennsylvania, who opposed the American revolution. The young men depicted are his sons and their friends during their education in the “mother country”.

It is understood the painting may be owned by a descendent of the loyalist Allen family, now based in the UK, who arranged to sell the work in 2021 to an international buyer.

Experts on a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport reviewing committee which advises on art exports said the work was an early portrayal of cricket as a “noble sport” carrying “notions of gentility”, making it an important depiction of the development “from a rustic sport” to one “taken up in earnest by aristocratic patrons”.

The Death of Nelson by Benjamin West - Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Art Collection
The Death of Nelson by Benjamin West - Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Art Collection

It argued that its subject matter made the work important to British art and culture, and that it should therefore remain in the UK, but the owner trying to sell the work has claimed that it has much more cultural significance for Americans.

Documents submitted to the committee to push for the sale argued that The Cricketers “is by an American artist, depicts American subjects, and was commissioned by an American for display in Pennsylvania”.

The submission claimed that its “significance to the history and national life of the UK” is confined to the fact it was painted in Britain, and depicts “equipment associated with cricket”.

The importance of this gear was downplayed, with the submission arguing that the cricket bats in the painting are merely artistic “props” that were meant to show off the “cosmopolitan traits of American boys” at school in the UK, rather than a genuine sporting scenario.

Major roles in US society

It was further argued that the young men in the painting went on to play major roles in US society rather than British, with one, Arthur Middleton, even signing the Declaration of Independence.

However, the reviewing committee maintained that the sporting connection was significant, finding that “even if the cricket equipment was included as props, rather than as a painting of a game, their presence was intentional as symbolic of status and British nationalism”.

It was also deemed to be important as a record of Anglo-American relations before the revolution and a temporary bar has been placed on the painting, but the sale will be pushed through in April 2023 if no alternative buyer in the UK can be found.