Dave Trott: How the mind sees what it sees

For most of us this famous picture represents the two sides of Britain.

Toffs and toughs?
Toffs and toughs?

On the one side, inherited wealth, enormous privilege, and smugness.

On the other side, the rest of us: a mixture of curiosity and envy.

But the interesting thing is, none of that is actually in the picture.

That’s all in our minds.

For people in the communication business, this is an example of the image-maker manipulating the viewer’s subjectivity.

The picture was taken outside Lord’s Cricket Ground in 1937.

Once a year, Eton and Harrow played a cricket match.

It was compulsory for the boys to attend and to wear formal dress.

After the match they could go home.

That’s what the two boys on the left were doing, waiting for their parents to pick them up.

The three local boys on the right had bunked off school.

Whenever there was a match at Lord’s they could make some money.

Spectators hired cushions and had to leave a three pence deposit.

If they forgot to return the cushions, the boys collected them up, and got the money.

One of the boys said "We made about two shillings that day".

The local boys weren’t particularly interested in the boys from Harrow until a photographer called them over.

He said: "You lads, come over and stand here looking at these boys, now get a bit closer." – click.

That was the end of it.

Then it appeared in the paper under the headline "Toffs and Toughs", just a humorous shot.

But over the years it’s assumed a lot more meaning than that, it’s come to represent the arrogant superiority of the "ruling classes". 

And yet it wasn’t really that at all.

The sister of the boy on the far left said: "When we saw the picture in the paper we laughed because they both looked so fed up. But now it’s become known for all the wrong reasons."

The interesting thing from our point of view is that we’re never truly looking at an image, we’re looking at what’s in our mind.

And how the artist/designer/photographer chooses to dictate that.

We’re only ever looking at that interpretation.

For instance, here’s what happened to the people in that picture.

The three boys on the right went on to live long and happy lives as a warehouseman, a civil servant, and a window-cleaner.

The boy on the far left grew up suffering from mental problems, and eventually died in an asylum.

The tallest boy, in the middle, died from diphtheria a year after the picture was taken, in India, age 16.

Now you have that information, look at the picture again.

It doesn’t look the same, does it?

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