They flock to the turnstiles, stick-like figures instantly familiar to anyone who has looked at a painting by LS Lowry.
In the foreground, their coats and hats are clear. In the background, under the tall chimneys of a long-gone heavy industry, the people are a blur. But all of them have a common goal: go to the game.
Next month, the painting by one of Britain’s best-known and best-loved painters is set to break records when it is put up for sale to raise money for a charity that helps professional footballers.
Going to the Match, painted by Lowry in 1953, is expected to fetch up to £8m. It was last sold in 1999 when the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), the union for current and former players, paid £1.9m.
Lowry only started painting full-time after he retired from his job as a rent collector in 1952. Before that, he usually painted late at night after his mother, with whom he lived, had gone to bed. A modest and reserved man, he declined five separate state honors during his lifetime, including a knighthood in 1968.
The artist, known for his industrial scenes in north-west England in the mid-20th century, produced a number of football paintings, of which Going to the Match is the most famous.
“What they’re really about is humanity,” says Nick Orchard, head of modern British and Irish art at Christie’s, which is auctioning the painting in London next month.
“Going to the Match is about emotion, excitement, the crowd coming together, the group experience. In the industrial northwest, most mill workers would probably do a five-and-a-half-day week, clock off at lunch on Saturday, off to the game on Saturday afternoon, and that was the beginning of their work stoppage life.
“Lowry was a keen observer of people, particularly within the industrial landscape, and these football matches really captured the essence of what Lowry was trying to achieve in his paintings.”
The stadium in the painting was Burnden Park, the home of Bolton Wanderers, near Lowry’s home in Pendlebury. (The artist was a lifelong supporter of Manchester City.) Thirty-three fans were killed at Burnden Park in 1946 in one of the worst stadium disasters of the last century. It was demolished in 1999, and the site is now a retail park.
As well as the crowds flocking to the turnstiles, the painting shows crowded terraces inside the stadium, and surrounding terraced houses as well as the factories in the background. “He packed it all in,” says Orchard.
When the PFA paid £1.9m, more than four times the estimate, for Going to the Match in 1999, then chief executive Gordon Taylor said it was “simply the best football painting ever”. It would be the PFA’s “sought after asset”, he added.
Earlier this year, the PFA’s charity arm became a separate body, the Players Foundation, under a reorganization prompted by a warning from the Charity Commission. It helps players and ex-players with matters including education, pensions, health and legal issues.
Going to the Match, which has been on display at The Lowry in Salford since 2000, is now being sold to raise money for the new body.
A spokesperson for the Players Foundation said: “We are very proud to have been able to ensure that the British public had the opportunity to enjoy such a wonderful piece of football memorabilia and art.
“The Players Foundation no longer guaranteed any income, so we had to completely reposition the charity. The trustees recognize the current financial crisis means we need all the income we can get, and all our assets need to work for us to ensure our ongoing work.
“We want to continue, among other things, to provide benevolent grants to those in real financial need and to assist people with dementia. This led us to the inevitable decision that the Lowry must be sold in the interests of our beneficiaries.”
The current record price for a Lowry is jointly held by another football painting, The Football Match, which sold for £5.6m in May 2011, and a painting of Piccadilly Circus, which six months later also sold for £5. 6 million were sold.