It has been described as “the best football painting ever” and is expected to fetch $9 million at auction later this month, but the sale of LS Lowry’s “Going to the Match” could see the much-loved artwork disappear from public view. display
The 1953 painting, depicting Lowry’s trademark massed matchstick-style figures marching towards a football stadium in north-west England, will go up for auction on October 19, possibly ending a 22-year residency at the Lowry museum in Salford. .
The upcoming sale has sparked fears in the art community and beyond about the future of the photo, so much so that Salford’s mayor has called on wealthy football clubs and players to buy the painting and keep it in public.
“There is a very real risk that the work will be removed from public display, and there is a very real risk that it will leave the country,” Michael Simpson, the Lowry’s director of visual arts, told CNN.
The painting is expected to sell for between $5.5m and $9m (£5m-£8m) at auction, according to Christie’s, and Simpson hopes a temporary export ban will ensure the work remains in the UK after the sale.
At some point, an independent commission would examine the painting and advise the UK government on whether it is considered a national treasure and “too important to leave the UK”.
Many people think of the North West of England as ‘Going to the Match’ and the nostalgic image of crowds attending a football match.
The small figures in the painting walk towards Burnden Park – the former home of Bolton Wanderers, now demolished – against a backdrop of factory chimneys and a gray, hazy sky.
Far from the multi-billion dollar industry of today’s Premier League, English football in the 20th century. It provides a snapshot of the mid-20th century when spectators went straight from work to matches.
“It’s probably the best football painting ever, in my opinion,” Mick Kirkbride, the London-based artist featured in the Football Art Prize exhibition, told CNN.
“He remembers everything about that release on a Saturday: going to that cathedral in your groups and your groups and your tribes. And then, the industrial background says everything about where the game was born and where it flourished.”
Painted when Lowry was at the height of his powers, “Going to the Match” – like much of the artist’s work – has grown in popularity in recent decades.
Today, almost 50 years after his death, he is celebrated for his honest depictions of ordinary people leading ordinary lives.
Using a limited and largely monochrome palette, Lowry captured the brooding, industrial scenes around Manchester and Salford, amassing a prolific body of work throughout his artistic career.
He made several works that focus on sporting events, but “Going to the Game” is the most famous, as the estimated price of the painting would suggest.
“For working-class people in the North who like to look at paintings, she really is our Mona Lisa,” says Kirkbride. “It’s iconic for football fans… You can’t think of many iconic football pictures.”
The picture was bought by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the union representing football players in England and Wales, in 1999 when then chief executive Gordon Taylor called it “the best football painting ever”.
But now the PFA must sell the painting to fund its charity work, which includes helping ex-footballers with dementia.
The Mayor of Salford has launched a campaign for a temporary export ban to stick to ‘Going to the Match’ and has written a letter pleading “[people] means” to help buy the painting and put it in public in the city.
“It’s taken on its iconic status over the last 20 years when it’s been seen in public,” says Simpson, who believes the Lowry museum has “a very good case” for continuing to display the painting after it’s sold.
“When it was in a private collection before, few people would have known about it. But having it on public display has made it an icon and has significantly increased its value.”
The Lowry is a 15-minute walk from Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium, and as a pre-party gathering place for fans, it gets more traffic during home games.
“A lot of people come in, they’ll have something to eat in our cafe and have a few drinks at the bar,” says Simpson. “They’ll go up and take a look at the painting, or meet the crowd before going to the game.”
But Simpson believes the World Cup in Qatar could prompt overseas collectors to try to buy “Going to the Match,” and Kirkbride expects the painting to sell for more than its estimate given Lowry’s growing popularity.
“It’s the commodification of art versus cultural heritage; it’s a clash of two ideologies,” says Kirkbridge. “Art is a commodity, the currency of art. It’s a tough market out there… It’s very, very cutthroat”.
Whatever the outcome of the auction, efforts in recent weeks to keep the painting on display in the UK are a testament to Lowry’s artistic legacy and the nostalgic appeal of football.
“Anybody who’s been to a football game can see themselves in that picture because it’s a shared experience of watching a game together and coming together at the game,” says Simpson.
“Lowry does a wonderful job at it.”