In a week in which Buckingham Palace is hi-jacking the game as part of the FA’s 150th anniversary, it was good to see the traditional image of football celebrated in Tate Britain’s L.S. Lowry exhibition.
If Game of the People was to appoint an “official artist”, it would have to be Lowry. Cloth-cap, working-class nostalgia is all the rage these days, and at the Tate, they take it to new levels – you can even purchase tweed caps in the gallery’s shop!
Lowry liked to paint football matches. Lowry loved football. Manchester City, to be precise, despite being born within a hefty goal-kick from where rivals United would set up home. Like all good City fans, he didn’t like United, but there was a good reason for this.
In 1905, a group of Manchester City players, including the legendary Billy Meredith, was involved in a match-fixing scandal. Meredith, the star of the day and a pivotal figure with City, was said to have attempted to bribe Aston Villa’s Alex Leake, asking him to “throw” a game. Although Meredith pleaded innocent, he was banned, along with other key City men Sandy Turnbull, Herbert Burgess and Jimmy Bannister.
While Meredith and co. were banned, neighbours Manchester United swooped to sign the players, considerably strengthening their team. Lowry did not like the actions of United and merely added that to a City fan’s natural contempt for the club’s local rivals.
A couple of years ago, a once forgotten Lowry depiction of the game, “The football match”, which was painted in 1949, came to light once more. It was sold for £ 5.6m, a record for a Lowry. The painting, which looks down on a pitch that sits before an industrial landscape, captures the essence of Lowry’s famous works. It’s very different from the more well-known Lowry football painting, “Going to the match”, a finely detailed image of the crowd tramping to Burnden Park, the former home of Bolton Wanderers – very much a case of “all roads lead to the match”. Most football grounds were embedded among the terraces and back-doubles – just recall Maine Road, Blackburn, Preston and Burnley.
“Going to the match” was bought by the Professional Footballers’ Association in 1999 for £ 1.9m. Gordon Taylor, then secretary of the PFA, described it as “the heart and soul of the game, the anticipation of fans on their way to the match”. It’s the first painting you see as you enter Tate Britain’s exhibition.
“Going to the match” characterizes the football condition from before and after the second world war. In a town like Bolton, for example, the working man flocked to every home game. This was the age of the five and a half-day week and when the factories and foundaries of Northern Britain knocked off at Saturday lunchtime, the destination was invariably pub and then football. This change in the working life of the nation started to take place in the late 19th century but gathered momentum at the start of the 20th. It really only applied to the industrial workforce, so the clerks and pen-pushers still had long and arduous working hours – you won’t see many bowler hats in the football crowd of the time, it was strictly flat cap territory. Football became the domain of the working class, a far cry from its public school and Corinthian origins. And despite all the pushing and shoving and the pure earthiness of the masses, football represented a relatively “clean” version of fun – in times past, recreational sport – cock-fighting, bear-bating, bare-knuckles at dawn and other pastimes – were often run by the criminal fraternity.
But times change and if Lowry was to paint his image of supporters heading, ant-like, to the big match today, it would be somewhat different. It would be out-of-town for a start and instead of legions of on-foot supporters magnetically drawn to the stadium, it would typically be cars and special [complimentary] buses heading to the retail park-cum football ground. The catchment area is probably wider today, but the crowds are not necessarily bigger. Let’s take Bolton as an example. When Lowry painted his iconic work that features Burnden Park, the club was benefitting from the post-WW2 boom in attendances. The Trotters averaged over 30,000 per game – in 1953, the year of Lowry’s work, it was 32,066. In 2013, Bolton’s average was just 18,034. The average Football League attendance in 1953 was 18,307, with the top division averaging 34,732. In 2013, the total average was 35,921 in the top [Premier] flight and 14,439 overall. So Lowry’s picture enshrines a time when Burnden Park was indeed the centre of the universe for a lot of people!
Like much of Lowry’s work, the Britain that he sketched and crafted has long gone. Football today bears little resemblance to his day, but it’s great to have a reminder of what made this very simple sport so popular with so many people across the planet. They’re classic pieces. To quote Brian and Michael’s 1970s hit: “Even the Mona Lisa takes a bow”.*
*Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs”.