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Book Review: Immortals of British Sport

Sport-based sculptures have recently become a focal point in understanding sport heritage.  Part of this has been recording and mapping various sport statues – as we all know, many statues and memorials of all sorts tend to be forgotten in the years following their dedication, with only a rare few having an ongoing power and potency – though, in terms of academic work, the “From Pitch to Plinth” group out of the University of Sheffield goes a step further by examining the meanings and representations of the statues as well (which, as you can imagine, can change over time).  

However, there is also a beauty and art to the statues – as well as the stories and histories behind them.  That’s where a book like Immortals of British Sport: A celebration of Britain’s sporting history through sculpture by Ian Hewitt and Sampson Lloyd, shines through.  To call it a coffee table book does it a disservice – though, certainly it’s handsome production makes it wonderful for display – nor would it be right to say it is a mere reference book.  Rather, it is best described as an illustrated history; a chronological look at Britain’s sport history through the public representation of sculpture.  Though not an academic history, it is well-written, beautifully photographed and, even for someone like myself who did not grow up in Britain and has only followed British sport for a short period of time, very accessible.  It also provides a handy reference of the artists, sports, and the locations of the statues, should your interest be more artistic and/or touristic.

There were a few things that struck me about the statues featured in the book.  I guess the first was the number of animal sculptures there are in Britain, particularly those of racehorses.  It makes sense, of course, that so many famous horses or dogs would be immortalized in sculpture, particularly given the sporting culture of the UK, but the number of statues surprised me.  

The second was that, seemingly, there isn’t that diverse a representation of sporting sculptures in Britain, particularly in terms of race.  This is, of course, not the fault of the authors – they are working with the inventory that exists, after all – but it is surprising that, as much as the British population has changed, as well as how the British public understands and represents their heritage now, that this hasn’t seemed to translate to sporting sculptures to any great degree (of course, it was heartening to see some diversity of sports, including some winter sports – though, it makes sense that the vast majority of the sculptures would be football-based).  

There also wasn’t the sense of public performance or public interaction with the statue – with the exceptions being those sculptures that are recognizing tragedy and memorializing loss, such as that of the Hillsborough memorial.  Of course, it is beyond the scope of the book to necessarily examine public performance, but it would be fascinating to know to what extent these sculptures are point of interest or reference, meeting places, or are they barely discernible from the rest of the landscape and are simply ignored.

Finally, in many ways, I think the book inspires a desire to travel – and, certainly, to seek out some of these statues.  I have no idea how I missed the statue of W.G. Grace at Lord’s when I was there recently, but I feel I must go back to see it.  Similarly, I must find Eric Liddell’s statue the next time I’m in Edinburgh.  If getting the reader to not only know about these statues but to also go and experience and appreciate them as well was part of the authors’ goals, then they succeeded wildly at this objective. 

The price of the book is very reasonable – £20.00 (or about $33.00 US) – and it is a steal at twice the price.  

For more information about the book and authors, please visit their website at

Book Review: “Representing the Sporting Past in Museums and Halls of Fame” edited by Murray G. Phillips

Sport heritage is attracting some academic attention as of late, which has resulted in a few new book titles being released over the last couple of years.  One of the best of the new sport heritage texts is Representing the Sporting Past in Museums and Halls of Fame edited by Murray G. Phillips.

Full disclosure: I reviewed this text for Annals of Leisure Research – the full review is available here. However, in year or so since that review was published, I have found that this text to be an invaluable resource – one which I return to time and time again.  Simply put, Phillips’ brings a historian’s viewpoint to sport heritage without seeing heritage as some lesser form of history.  Rather, he (and many of his authors) see heritage as something different, in particular noting that the purpose and outcomes of sport heritage are different than sport history – though the two often overlap.  Phillips’ introduction and conclusion are particularly impressive, as they push the boundaries of what a sport museum is, what it looks like, and how it might present the sporting past.  Indeed, there is still something about the team/corporate/traditional sports museums, but Phillips considers a broader interpretation of the word “museum” and “sport” and, as a result, helps we sport heritage researchers to think differently about our area of interest.

Forgive, but I shall borrow from my original review to highlight some of the chapters I found to be particularly interesting:

The chapters in this text are, by and large, interesting and engaging, though a few notable contributions stand out from the rest. Mark O’Neill and Gary Osmond’s chapter about the changing use of Phar Lap, the champion Australian racehorse, seamlessly fuses the work of the historian with that of the heritage manager, understanding that museum artefacts have their own history and are interpreted differently depending on the needs and values of the present in which they exist.  Douglas A. Brown’s chapter about the Whyte Museum in Banff, Canada reveals that, though the museum rarely explicitly exhibits sport history, its existence is largely the result of the Canadian Rockies having a sport tourism heritage through mountaineering, skiing, and outdoor recreation.  Wray Vamplew’s examination of four London-based sports museums notes the evolution of some sports exhibits to be more diverse and critical in terms of topics, though not all sports museums fully embrace a broader and more challenging interpretation of the sporting past.  Finally, both Douglas Booth’s examination of Bondi Park and Australian beach culture, and Jaime Schultz’s discussion of commemoration and memorialization of segregation-era sport and recreation pasts, challenges our understanding of what constitutes a sports museum and sport heritage.

There were a couple of quibbles I had, mainly over the sometimes dismissive tone some authors took over touristic consumption of sport heritage, but all-in-all this is an excellent text for those working in or researching sport heritage, or those who simply have an interest in the topic.  I expect that the text is still somewhat expensive, so it is suggested that you may wish to consult your university’s library for a copy.