Laurie's Game: L.S. Lowry and Manchester City

By Chris in London, Wed 09 May 2012 13:43


 Laurie's Game: L.S. Lowry and Manchester City

Something a bit different on the blog today, blues.

In 1999 the Professional Footballers Association paid £1.9m for a Lowry painting called Going to the Match. Painted in 1953 as an entry for a competition called 'Football and the Fine Arts' the picture shows a crowd approaching Burnden Park prior to kick off. Speaking at the time of the purchase, PFA Chairman Gordon Taylor said the picture captured "the heart and soul of the game and the anticipation of fans on their way to a match. It is the football picture, it captures all the atmosphere of the game.” He then added “I would have liked it for a lot less than that.”

Because this, one of Lowry's most famous paintings, shows Burnden Park, many art critics and commentators have wrongly concluded that Lowry was a Bolton fan. In fact, there is significant evidence which shows him to have been a Blue. In an attempt - probably unsuccessful - to take your minds off Sunday for a brief time, this blog sketches out some features of Lowry’s career which may be of interest to fellow Blues. (Yes, ‘sketches’ out - I'll get my coat.)

Laurence Steven Lowry - Laurie - was born in 1887 and died in 1976. True to form, City won the league cup that year only six days after Lowry had died in a Glossop hospital founded by one of the ancestors of the current Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Woods. 1976 was the start of a long period of mourning for more than one reason.

Although he painted for almost all of his life, going to art college as a young man and painting as long as his health allowed, a huge number of Lowry’s pictures, whether painted then or at a later date, are images from the inter war years 1918-39. Lowry was once asked why he put so many of his scenes in the depression years: 'because' he replied 'I was happiest then, and because I like the look of ill-fitting clothes, big bowlers, and clumsy bodies. They are comical.'

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self portrait

There is credible evidence that like many working men in the inter war years Lowry was a regular at City. Of all the times in our club's history, that time could justifiably claim to be the most typical of all the 'Typical City' periods. The club's ground at Hyde Road was the first provincial ground to be visited by the King in 1920, the same year that the main stand burned down (prompting the move to Maine Road three years later). In 1926 Lowry would have enjoyed that seminal City experience - a 6-1 thrashing of the rags – only to see City being relegated at the end of the season. A cup final defeat in 1933 was followed by lifting the cup the following season, beating Portsmouth 2-1 in the final. On the way to the final a crowd of 84,569, still the record attendance for any club in England, watched the sixth round home tie against Stoke. Our first league title in 1937 was followed by relegation the following season – still the only reigning champions to be relegated. But Typical City went down in style, scoring more goals than champions Arsenal and also every other Club in the top Division: that season saw City beat Derby 6-1 and 7-1, West Brom 7-1, Leeds 6-2 and Charlton 5-3. Before the final game of the season there were five teams below City in the table but a 1-0 defeat away at Huddersfield coupled with wins for Grimsby, Portsmouth, Birmingham and Stoke meant that the trapdoor opened and City jumped the queue. Lowry himself had something of a black sense of humour and there is little doubt that the champions of England going down the next season would have produced a wry smile on his dour face (our famous gallows humour goes a long way back before York Away). Just to rub salt in, United were promoted to the first division the same season.

Before retiring to Mottram in 1952 (to a house a stone’s throw from the church where Mike Summerbee was later married) Lowry had worked as a rent collector. His job caused him to travel largely on foot from one house to another, one street to another. Before his retirement Lowry did his painting in the evenings and at weekends, painting from memories of what he had seen as he went around Manchester - women nattering on the front step, kids playing in the street, factories and mills turning out. So whilst most artists work by painting what they see in front of them - a bowl of fruit or a portrait in a studio, or a landscape painted in the open air - Lowry’s way of working meant that most of his work from his the pre-retirement period are general impressions of daily life, rather than images capturing specific events.

Many more are composite pictures: a street from Chadderton leading up to a Mill in Stalybridge, with a row of shops in Collyhurst to one side. As Lowry once himself said "Most of my land and townscape is composite. Made up; part real and part imaginary. Bits and pieces of my home locality. I don't even know I'm putting them in. They just crop up on their own, like things do in dreams.” Another time he said “If I had shown things as they are it would not have looked like a vision. So I had to make up symbols. With my figures also, of course".

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Street Scene, Pendlebury

This is why one of Lowry's paintings, Manchester City v Sheffield United, is highly unusual. It is quite rare for any Lowry to depict any identifiable event, but this picture reflects a crowd scene at the second division fixture between City and Sheffield United which took place on 22nd October 1938 which City won 3-2 (apply to G. James Esq., c/o bluemoon-mcfc.co.uk for details of City's scorers). So far as I know this is the only specifically identifiable sporting event known to have been captured by Lowry. In 2008 the picture was sold to a private collector following auction. Speaking at the time of the auction, Christies Art Historian Rachel Hidderley said: "Manchester City Versus Sheffield United is from a small and important group of paintings in which Lowry records an actual event rather than a composite image of different locations or impressions. In the work, he concentrates on the home crowd rather than the team members, using the occasion of the match to concentrate on depicting the personalities of the individuals attending."

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Manchester City v Sheffield United

The date of the painting obviously indicates that the location is Maine Road, the match taking place just a few months after relegation to the second division. There has been some speculation that the scene Lowry shows is a ticket tout, but that seems to me unlikely as the cost of admission to the ground on match day in the Thirties was well within the means of the average working man, and entry was usually just cash on the door. Having mentioned that, it is worth noting tangentally something that a photographer called Ian Hughes said in 2009 of a picture he had taken of Arsenal's old ground Highbury from an adjacent street during the course of a match there: “I counted five houses with the game being shown on Sky TV in the front rooms. Perhaps this signifies that the local fans that the club was traditionally based on are being priced out of going to top-end football matches. I contrast this with the great L.S. Lowry's 'Going to the Match' painting from 1953, depicting crowds streaming into Bolton's Burnden Park ground on foot from the surrounding terraced streets." But I digress.

There is little evidence beyond the image itself of what Lowry was actually capturing in this painting but it seems to me far more likely than not that, as some other art historians have concluded, that the scene shows a bookie plying his trade before kick-off in the manner commonplace at the time. If so, there is some irony given that one of the most prolific collectors of Lowrys in recent years has been Selwyn Demmy, son of the well known bookmaker Gus Demmy (well known if you’re of a certain age) and that - rumour has it - Selwyn Demmy was himself advised to start collecting Lowrys by a footballer called Gary Owen. Now where have I heard that name before?

Whilst the painting may be unique in terms of the event that it captures, the crowd scene shown in the City v Sheffield painting is a typical Lowry image. Crowds were significant in Lowry’s work, and many of Lowry’s admirers pay tribute to his ability to capture the feel of a crowd. In 2011 for instance Sir Ian McKellen – fresh from a stint appearing in Coronation Street, itself a programme named after a Lowry painting – made a film for ITV called ‘My Lifelong Passion for Lowry’. In an article in the Telegraph publicizing the film, he said “Until Lowry painted his crowds, no other artist had recorded how people look and behave en masse. Each individual is on his/her own journey across the canvas yet leaning to form the crowd with its own collective identity. Once you have seen how Lowry saw us, you cannot ever see or be in a football crowd, nor watch kids playing, workers leaving the factory, queuing, or stopping to chat or hear the fairground barker, without saying, ‘Lowry! It’s just like a Lowry painting!’ Going about our business or pleasure, we are all subjects of his vision.”

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Mill Scene

Nonetheless the irony of Lowry’s crowd scenes is that Lowry himself suffered terribly from loneliness. He never married or had children. He lived with his mother until her death in 1939, after which Lowry said “I have no family, only my studio. Were it not for my painting, I couldn't live. It helps me forget that I am alone.” But being part of a huge crowd, at a match or otherwise, often underlined the loneliness. Lowry later said “the loneliest place in the world is in a crowd”. It is for me very sad to think of this great man, standing on the K
Kippax perhaps, surrounded by thousands of fellow blues but still feeling intensely lonely.

Many of the blue persuasion are devoted admirers of Lowry. Gary Owen is noted above, but another obvious example is Noel Gallagher, who said in Sir Ian McKellan’s film that he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t known about Lowry, and who wondered out loud why the Tate Gallery in London has 23 Lowrys in its collection but none of them is on display. The video for the Oasis single The Masterplan is not only Lowry-esque in its animation throughout, but it pays homage to a number of Lowrys by reproducing in the video some of his most famous images (like the one below) whilst the animated Gallagher brothers walk past. Towards the end of the video, Going to the Match is reproduced, although Burnden Park has somehow become Maine Road.

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Man lying on a wall

There are many non-football related Lowry pictures which will be of interest to Blue Mooners (google them to see the images themselves). In 1953 he sketched St Mary's church in Beswick. In 1969 he painted Stockport viaduct (and as we all know from Sad Café, we’re all from Stockport really). There is a very famous Lowry showing the Good Friday fair at Daisy Nook park near Droylsden in 1946, which sold for more than £3 million in 2009. Many City fans will find it amazing that the Art World will pay £3 million for a picture of Droylsden, but the Art World is just as amazed that City spent the same money on Lee Bradbury.

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Good Friday, Daisy Nook

Some of his more colourful pictures of daily life – such as “Fight” and “Home from the Pub” which features three women staggering home pissed clutching bottles of booze and each other - are images which could be a Friday night today as easily as a street scene from seventy years ago. (Well, he did live near Stalybridge). But it is interesting to think about what Lowry would have made of us now: would he have nodded in recognition at the blues in Shambles square and Mary D’s ahead of the game? He captured Piccadilly Gardens and Piccadilly Circus in London perfectly: what could he have done with City Square? And what of the crowds streaming down the spirals and away from the ground into a cold Manchester evening; would he have recognised the same breed of blues who watched us beat Sheffield United 74 years ago?

Yes, I think he would too.

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