Mixed media | Round ball, flat art

The second sketch, “The Man of the People, the Foot-ball of the People,” employs the identical gag in 1784. Whig politician Charles James Fox, supporter of American independence and anti-slavery activist, is booted skyward by backers of William Pitt the Younger, who had secured a House of Commons majority. “He flyes like a Wild Goose,” says an onlooker. Writes Hunter Davies in Boots, Balls and Haircuts: An Illustrated History of Football from Then to Now (Cassell, 2003):

The use of a football, being kicked about, as a political or metaphorical image, in art and language, predates organised football, showing just how old football is in our culture. Parliamentarians and political writers used the term “political football” to describe someone or some idea being knocked about from as early as the eighteenth century. (225)

We come closer to the modern era with two en plein air creations by World War II–period artists. The two painters, the expatriate New Zealander James Boswell and German-born Erwin Fabian, fill their wartime sketchbooks with everyday facets of military camp life, although from different perspectives. Boswell, branded the “unofficial war artist” due to his Communist Party membership and anti-establishment drawings of British leaders, penned wartime art in an “unpretentious, unheroic, unsmarmy style” (William Feaver, “Land of Dead Ends,” Guardian, 16 Dec 06).

Called up in January 1941 and enrolled in the [Royal Army Medical Corps], he went through radiography training at the military hospital on Millbank and was transferred later in the year to Peebles [Scotland]. Undeterred, he drew where he could—as did many others, similarly uprooted. Pencil and wash studies of barrack room activities before lights out became a regular genre for browned-off conscripts with Penguin New Writing in their knapsacks. … In Scotland there were Nissen huts under dripping trees, medical inspections, lumberjack chores, weekend excursions to mean village streets, shops closed, rain, rain, rain.

Darkness and tedium pervade the 1941 ink and watercolor sketch, “Army Football,” from Peebles of three conscripts kicking the ball about, corrugated-steel huts and military vehicles arrayed in back. After time in Scotland, Boswell was posted to Egypt, then Iraq, a potential conflict zone that became less important after German defeats in North Africa. Boswell’s Iraq series from Camp 17 records what the artist, in journal entries, describes as a “guerrilla war against … ennui.” “Here in the middle of nowhere with barbed wire perimeters and ruler-straight roads leading to vanishing points in featureless horizons,” writes Feaver in James Boswell: Unofficial War Artist (Muswell, 2007), “he drew the constant unloading and loading, the business of cookhouse and latrine, tents pitched during storms, swill sloshed into oil drums and the sun threatening to melt corrugated iron roofs.”

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