One of the most famous English footballing artworks in existence has been sold at auction this week in a historic deal that breaks the record for an L.S. Lowry painting in auction and ensures it will remain on display at the gallery that bears his name.
Lowry’s timeless “Going to the Match” painting went under the hammer at Christie’s in London on Wednesday. It was initially expected to sell for £5-8 million but eventually went for £7.846,500m ($8.787m) — with that price consisting of a winning bid of £6.6m and the rest of an additional buyer’s premium. That eclipses the previous auction record for a Lowry painting set in 2011, when “The Football Match” sold for over £5m.
All proceeds from the sale of “Going to the Match” will go to The Players Foundation, a charitable organization that supports current and former professional footballers who are experiencing dementia, poverty or hardship of any kind.
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The 1953 work depicts crowds of fans milling around outside Bolton Wanderers‘ old Burnden Park ground on matchday — a flurry of excitement and anticipation amid an otherwise grim and grimy post-war industrial scene.
Famed for his “matchstick men,” the late Salford-based artist (and Manchester City supporter) is beloved for his stylised depictions of working-class life in Northern England during the 1940s and 50s, and “Going to the Match” is often cited as one of his archetypal works.
The painting also won Lowry his first prize after he entered it into a competition run by the English Football Association in conjunction with the Arts Council of Great Britain called “Football and the Fine Arts.” After much deliberation among the judging panel, “Going to the Match” was selected as one of four winning pieces, landing him a quarter share of the £1,000 in prize money.
The scene captures English football while it was still predominantly rooted in working-class culture, when people would graft in factories, offices and mills for five-and-a-half days a week before clocking out and spending their precious free Saturday afternoons watching their local team.
“Going to the Match” was last sold in 1999, when it was purchased by the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) for £1.9m and then subsequently sent out on loan to The Lowry arts centre in Salford, where it has been exhibited ever since. However, due to financial constraints exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, The Lowry announced in September that it had reluctantly decided to sell the painting in order to raise some much-needed funds.
So ingrained is the image in English football heritage that Salford Mayor Paul Dennett first attempted to launch a campaign to buy “Going to the Match” outright before asking that the U.K. government place an export ban on the painting prior to it coming up for auction at Christie’s in order to prevent the masterpiece leaving the country. “We need to do all we can to save this critically and important L.S. Lowry painting for people to access free here in Salford,” said Dennett.
At Wednesday night’s auction, The Lowry declared “It’s coming home!” as it announced that it had made the winning bid, with the support of The Law Family Charitable Foundation, and that the painting would remain on public display at the gallery.
“Going to the Match” is one of the most renowned footballing artworks in the world, but there are several other notable examples.
‘The Football Match’ (painting by Lowry, 1949)
L.S. Lowry’s 1949 The Football Match
A bird’s-eye, landscape view depiction of a Saturday football match in industrial Manchester. It sold at auction for £5.6 million ($9.2 million) in May 2011. Christie’s London has described the painting as ‘a modern masterpiece’. pic.twitter.com/PyjasMfK2e
— OldFootballPhotos (@OldFootball11) July 28, 2018
Formerly the most valuable work of football art on record, “The Football Match” was painted four years before “Going to the Match” and prior to this week, had commanded the joint-highest price paid for a Lowry when it sold for £5.6m at Christie’s in 2011. The painting depicts a typical football match in the late 1940s, with swarms of stick figures gathered to watch a game taking place on a pitch surrounded by grimy factories, terraced houses and billowing chimneys.
‘The Art of the Game’ (painting by Michael Browne, 1997)
🎨 The Art of the Game
👨🎨 Michael Browne
Inspired by Cantona’s ‘resurrection’ following his nine-month ban for assault.
— Nat. Football Museum (@FootballMuseum) September 30, 2021
Currently owned by the National Football Museum, “The Art of the Game” surely represents one of the oddest football artworks ever to have been produced. Originally created in 1997 in response to the “resurrection” of Eric Cantona’s career following a lengthy ban for assaulting a supporter in 1995, Browne based his grand painting on Piero della Francesca’s “Resurrection” (circa 1460), replacing Jesus Christ with Cantona while his disciples — Manchester United teammates David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville — worship at his feet. Above “King Eric,” legendary United manager sir Alex Ferguson has a wreath placed upon his head by a lesser-known academy graduate, defender John Curtis.
‘Footballeur’ (sculpture by Pablo Picasso, 1965)
👨🎨 Pablo Picasso
The Lionel Messi of the art world, Picasso reportedly took inspiration from the swashbuckling Barcelona team of the sixties.
— Nat. Football Museum (@FootballMuseum) September 30, 2021
One of the most famous and influential artists of all time also dabbled in football with Picasso’s evocative “Footballeur” ceramic from the 1960s capturing a player — or perhaps a starfish — mid-kick. Not known to be a major football fan (he preferred boxing), the great Spanish surrealist still managed to capture the flow and motion of football in one deceptively simple statuette.
‘The Splash’ (sculpture by Peter Hodgkinson, 2004)
Statues are fairly commonplace in football these days, but few have ever surpassed the majesty of Peter Hodgkinson’s tribute to Preston North End legend Sir Tom Finney. Based on a famous photograph of Finney sliding through an enormous puddle on Chelsea‘s waterlogged pitch in 1956, the sculpture recreates the image with angled fountains creating a “splash” around the former England forward. The statue was located outside the Sir Tom Finney Stand at Preston’s Deepdale stadium and also close to the nearby National Football Museum before it relocated to Manchester city centre in 2012.
‘Table Football’ (sculpture by Stephane Cipre, 2019)
The most expensive table football game ever sold was actually a functional sculpture by French artist Stephane Cipre, who created his table in collaboration with a Belgian arthouse co-owned by Borussia Dortmund right-back Thomas Meunier. Featuring a heavyweight metal table construction and smooth leather pitch, the 22 rotating figurines are modelled on footballing greats such as Johan Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stefano, Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi. A total of 12 identical tables were made, and the first sold for €80,000 in 2019.
‘Parc des Princes’ (painting by Nicolas de Stael, 1952)
The most expensive football artwork on record is the wonderful abstract painting by French artist De Stael that forms the final offering from his 24-painting chronical of the international friendly between France and Sweden at Parc des Princes in March 1952 (a 1-0 defeat for Les Bleus). The final painting of the series “Les Grand Footballeurs” was a tribute to the grace and elegance of players such as Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa and sold for €20m at Christie’s in Paris in 2019.