Boxing & Art: A Conversation with Kevin Sinnott & Nicky Piper
Artist Kevin Sinnott and retired Welsh boxer and former Commonwealth Champion, Nicky Piper MBE chat with Ben Rogers Jones about a monumental boxing painting, boxing history and art!
Ben Rogers Jones: So, welcome Kevin and Nicky to the Cardiff auction room. Starting with you Kevin, what is your earliest memory of boxing?
Kevin Sinnott: Well, before my time, but I do remember the legends of Cyril ‘’Bunny’’ Eddington… he was a miner and a rugby player and he boxed with the great Tommy Farr two times in the 1930s. Tommy Farr, in a recorded interview to a boxing magazine, not long after his exploits in America, that the hardest man he ever fought was Bunny Eddington, because he knew that on the two occasions he fought him Bunny had earlier that day spent a shift at the colliery in Pontycymer!
Ben Rogers Jones: The painting here is of a boxing bout in Pontycymer? Was it only illegal boxing up there in this field, then?
Kevin Sinnott: in the 19th Century when they cut this section of land to make a boxing ring, it was definitely illegal bare knuckle, but as you can see in the picture they are wearing gloves. So by the time of this bout bare knuckle is illegal, however the fight in the painting would have been unregistered and they would have these matches high up above the towns, where they could look out for the police coming.
Nicky Piper: the British Boxing Board of Control came into force ’29 and certainly from then on gloves were used, and gloves would always be used today of course but having said that bare knuckle boxing does go on, which is unregulated and not safe and not medically controlled and that’s why the British Boxing Board of Control dislikes it so much of course, because it’s not done in the same sort of medical conditions but, the picture certainly captures the atmosphere of an illegal boxing bout. So, Kevin, in your mind was this an arranged official fight?
Kevin Sinnott: I don’t know, they would have had some adjudicators, some refereeing going on, but whether or not they would have had a ring in reality…I don’t think so.
Ben Rogers Jones: Would they just have had the one boxing match, or would there have been several of them on the same occasion?
Kevin Sinnott: Oh, interesting….I think they would have had a few at one time I think, there would be competitions and rivalries and they would have used a meeting to organise a few matches. As you can see the chap here in the foreground of the picture…he looks like another boxer waiting to get into the ring.
Nicky Piper: the boxing-booths were very popular then, there’ll be a champion fighter that would go with five or six, maybe ten, twenty boxers that would step into the ring with him, to see if they could do two or three rounds.
Ben Rogers Jones: Like in a circus or something, or a travelling show?
Nicky Piper: Yes…this is how Tommy Farr picked up his incredible record
Kevin Sinnott: Many of the local Welsh boxers used the booths and they used to regard it as a bit of extra income….life was hard and it was popular in the Valleys…for a bit of extra money, for the food on the table.
Ben Rogers Jones: would they be permanent boxing booths or did they travel around?
Nicky Piper: they travelled around and usually in a marquee or tent but certainly this sort of outdoor occasion in Kevin’s painting would have happened too on a regular basis. And it would have been in a well-known boxing venue such as here in Pontycymer. The land was cut specifically into the landscape as a platform where a boxing ring could put in.
Ben Rogers Jones: The above-board boxers, who boxed in regulated boxing, would they have done some illegal moonlighting in such places like in the painting?
Nicky Piper: Yes, I’m almost sure that would have happened in the early part of the 1900’s and the late 1800’s. Because they fought so often in those days, you know, fighters were having twenty, thirty, forty fights a year sort of thing, on a regular basis, and some of them would just be three round fights. They needed to supplement their income.
Ben Rogers Jones: And one assumes local miners, a lot of them?
Kevin Sinnott: I would think so, I don’t know how Tommy Far worked in the mines or for how long, because I think he was making quite a lot of money from his boxing in booths and then he was known for his fight against Joe Louis at Madison Square Garden..
Nicky Piper: In 1937
Ben Rogers Jones: So, what are your thought on the painting Nicky?
Nicky Piper: I think it’s great, I think it’s so atmospheric, it being so big of course, it’s like being in the cinema, we’re immersed in the atmosphere!
Kevin Sinnott: Which is the whole idea. You can get close to a big painting, you know, it also is interesting, depending on how its hung, to see it from a long way off, but you can get close to a painting because you can go ‘in it’ as you say.
Nicky Piper: You can really immerse yourself in a big painting, I think certainly landscapes are better accepted from a distance, but I think this one, I think this one, you step into it and you’re right in with the crowd watching the fight!
Ben Rogers Jones: As you say Nicky, it’s like being in a cinema. Which I guess is how you would watch boxing in the pre-Sky television days.
Nicky Piper: Yes, you’d go to the cinema. It was always pay per view in that sense! In the 1970’s I remember people going to the Cardiff cinemas to watch Muhammad Ali.
Ben Rogers Jones: Is that something you did?
Nicky Piper: I remember going to watch the early Mike Tyson fights in the Starlight Cinema in Splott, in the early hours of a Sunday morning to watch it live from Las Vegas….before Sky came on board.
Ben Rogers Jones: Have you ever been to a boxing match, Kevin?
Kevin Sinnott: Sophia Gardens before the last Olympics, and there was a sort of, I don’t know what it was…
Nicky Piper: Pre-Olympic qualifier?
Kevin Sinnott: Yes, you had some girls there, boxing, who went on to, I think.. they might have represented Wales in the Olympics did they?
Ben Rogers Jones: Did you ever box, Kevin?
Kevin Sinnott: I had a couple of competitions when I was in the Sea Cadets. I remember going to a well-run boxing gym which, I can’t remember the name…. in Barry?
Nicky Piper: The Barry East end or the Barry Boxing Club it would have been
Kevin Sinnott: Right. And there would be, the leader of the Sporting Sea Cadets….this is just an ordinary Sea Cadets in Aberkenfig and there was a boxing trainer and he was quite dedicated, this chap who we did some training with, which is as near as I got to a boxing match, I can remember it clearly because I was a bit intimidated by it.
Nicky Piper: Well boxing certainly is, it is a tough sport, I did it from the age of seven and I don’t think I would have probably taken it as a sport myself, I don’t think I was ever really truly in love with boxing ever as a sport, I love the sport, certainly now, but as a seven-year-old it wouldn’t have suited me.
Ben Rogers Jones: How come you stuck at it then?
Nicky Piper: Well, my brother started when he was seven. He was five years older than me, he was Welsh Champion all the way through the young years, so I just naturally followed into it and got good and I started wining Welsh titles, British titles, and then you sort of think, well….actually… I want to go further and see how far you can go. I had a great life boxing, I loved it but it’s certainly an intimidating atmosphere. When you’re ringside you hear the punches going and you think, why am I doing this? Sometimes you know, because the spray of the sweat, and the force of the punch and the thud of the leather….
Ben Rogers Jones: Good God, yeah!
Nicky Piper: And genuinely, this atmosphere created in this picture… it is reflected quite accurately I think….the atmosphere of a boxing match, that is
Ben Rogers Jones: There’s all kinds of things going on in the crowd in the painting, isn’t there?
Nicky Piper: Yes and like any other sporting venue, you’ve got people that are interested, people that are watching, some are there for the joy of it, and some are there for just the atmosphere, some are there for a chat, and in all sporting venues, but it’s like any boxing there’s people who go because they’ve been taken along.
Kevin Sinnott: That gives a sort of casual openness in the crowd gives me the opportunity to weave in narratives within the painting, for instance the contrast in meekness of the farmer with his new-born lamb and the brutality perhaps of the boxing match, and the flirtatious stuff that’s going on with the ladies in the foreground…. and the mother protecting her child
Ben Rogers Jones: Sheltering the baby from a violent world?
Kevin Sinnott: Yes, I can weave all this in, the crowd is the narrative of the painting rather than the boxing match itself
Nicky Piper: the mother in the picture reminds me of my Mum…when I boxed from the age of seven, eight, nine, ten, she used to run to the toilet to put a scarf over her ears, she wouldn’t watch or listen to anything, she hated it!
Ben Rogers Jones: So, who got you into boxing, was it your brother or a family thing?
Nicky Piper: It wasn’t a family thing, my father was a football player, but he knew the local boxing coach at the local drinking club and so thought my brother needed toughening up, so took my brother at the age of seven to the boxing club, and I from the age of two then was going along to pick him up and just to sit and watch the boxing and at weekends. Then when I was seven, I naturally started, and got good at it, and there was a natural ability there, so just carried on with it.
Kevin Sinnott: Where was that again, Nicky?
Nicky Piper: My first boxing club was the Victoria Park Boxing Club in Canton in Cardiff, then from the age of 18 I went to Penarth boxing club and that’s where I had most of my success, in the old Arcot Street, St Luke’s church. So I boxed for 25 years in the end, and commentated on all these matches too with Sky for 25 years too.
Ben Rogers Jones: Without making too many puns about you both leaving all you have on the canvas, what inspired you in this particular canvas Kevin?
Kevin Sinnott: Well, I went to The Royal Art College, and when I came back to Wales in ‘93, ‘95, I actually moved into the Gower Valley, and that’s when lots of my themes of paintings were related to the life and the people of Welsh Valleys, mining Valley, and inevitably you get to hear about things like this. One of the local legends was Bunny Eddington, who fought Tommy Farr, and there’s very little written about Bunny, but he’s so much in the local imaginations.And so I did this series of very large history paintings… of the valleys, it’s a sort of genre you don’t hear much of now because you’ve got histories in photographs. So, I started this bizarre series of large paintings and two of them at least were of the boxing fields. And the boxing field in the painting…above Pontycymer…..you can still walk up there and know exactly where it was. So that’s why I started this boxing theme. It is trying to bring alive the very much oral history of a local community.
Nicky Piper: I think boxing is a sport that goes very much with a working-class community, certainly the mining community, certainly of the last century and there are as you say, incredible local heroes such as Bunny Eddington and of course Tommy Farr.
Kevin Sinnott: I don’t think Bunny’s career lasted forever, he fought only in his prime….there are many stories about Bunny I have heard over the years, There was a bar fight with some GIs and an American was hit right across the bar and all Hell broke loose.
Ben Rogers Jones: All these stories that aren’t documented, they’re passed down by legend aren’t they? It is why paintings such as these are so important.
Kevin Sinnott: ..yes and of course these stories get embellished!
Nicky Piper: Not many people know about Rocky and Jack Matthews the Welsh rugby player
Ben Rogers Jones: Rocky Marciano? I know this one...didn’t Jack fight him in St Athan when Rocky was serving in the US forces? It was a draw wasn’t it?
Nicky Piper: A draw….they gave! Yeah
Kevin Sinnott: Fantastic
Nicky Piper: Jack Matthews was a great rugby player, and there were a few other Welsh rugby players who crossed over to boxing and played for Wales.
Ben Rogers Jones: It’s interesting the art-boxing cross over because of course you’re quite involved in art as well aren’t you, Nicky?
Nicky Piper: Yes, yes. City Hospice who I work for is the only provider of specialist palliative care to those suffering from life threatening illness in Cardiff. We care for people in their own homes and look after the whole family too, and we’ve had an art auction for the last 10 years! It has become a very successful enterprise, and now we hold an auction every year (which Rogers Jones have kindly organised for us the last couple of years). So I’m quite familiar with Welsh art and it has become another passion. We have got quite a bit of a collection at home..but my wife Juliet doesn’t want anymore! But we raised £12,500 last year which is quite fantastic.
Ben Rogers Jones: I am looking forward to the next City Hospice charity auction later this year.
Ben Rogers Jones: Thank you so much to both of you. That was a really fascinating chat!