They say possession is nine-tenths of the law . . . and so it is with the portrait of ‘Old Ben,’ or more precisely Ben James, the Carlton Football Club’s inaugural secretary (CEO) and one of the founding fathers of Carlton itself.
The 19th century art nouveau portrait, which is believed to have once graced the walls of the dressing room at Princes Park, was apparently rescued by one of the club’s former marketing executives after it and other artifacts, including a photograph of the 1904 Carlton team to tour Adelaide, were dumped in an apparent spring clean of the facility around 30 years ago.
For more than three decades the items have remained with the late executive’s family - until recently when the team photograph was sold to a Carlton collector for more than $350 on eBay and the James portrait was moved on to a club member and collector Brad Clabby, who parted with $500 of his hard-earned.
“This is the earliest Carlton piece I’ve been able to find. I am interested in pre-World War I items, but I’ve never before seen anything like this,” Clabby said.
“If it had gone to auction I doubt that I could have afforded it.”
Ben James, who died in 1913 at the age of 68, was truly a Carlton pioneer. As an on-field representative (and later secretary) of the Carlton Cricket Club, he was amongst those good men of the area (Tom Power, Andy McHarg and Robert McFarland included) who convened the football club’s inaugural annual general meeting in the salubrious surrounds of Lygon Street’s University Hotel in 1865.
It is to Carlton’s eternal fortune that Clabby, a long-serving member, has the club’s best interests at heart.
Mindful that Carlton’s sesquicentenary is fast approaching, Clabby is of the view that the portrait of James is best served as a Visy Park display.
After 30 years, perhaps ‘Old Ben’ will find his way home again.
Follow Tony De Bolfo on Twitter: @CFC_debolfo