They stream towards 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 distinct. In the background, beneath the tall chimneys of a long-gone heavy industry, the people are a blur. But all of them have a common purpose: going to the match.
Next month, the painting by one of Britain’s best known and best loved painters, is set to smash records when it is put up for sale to raise money for a charity that helps professional football players.
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 took up painting full-time after retiring from his job as a rent collector in 1952. Before that, he generally painted late at night after his mother, with whom he lived, had gone to bed. A modest and reserved man, he turned down five separate state honors during his lifetime, including a knighthood in 1968.
The artist, famous for his industrial scenes in the north-west of England in the mid-20th century, produced a number of football paintings, of which Going to the Match is the best known.
“What they’re really about is humanity,” said 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 gathering, the group experience. In the industrial north-west, most workers in the mills would probably do a five-and-a-half-day week, clock off lunchtime on Saturday, off to the match Saturday afternoon, and that was the beginning of their break from working life.
“Lowry was a great observer of people, particularly within the industrial landscape, and these football matches really captured the essence of what Lowry was trying to get to in his paintings.”
The stadium in the painting was Burnden Park, the home of Bolton Wanderers, close to Lowry’s home in Pendlebury. (The artist was a lifelong supporter of Manchester City.) Thirty-three fans were crushed to death 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 homes as well as the factories in the background. “He’s packed it all in,” said Orchard.
When the PFA paid £1.9m, more than four times the estimate, for Going to the Match in 1999, Gordon Taylor, then chief executive, said it was “quite simply the finest football painting ever.” It would be the PFA’s “prized possession”, he added.
Earlier this year, the PFA’s charitable arm became a separate body, the Players Foundation, during a reorganization prompted by a warning from the Charity Commission. It helps players and former 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 that we have been able to make sure the British public have had the opportunity to enjoy such a wonderful piece of footballing memorabilia and art.
“The Players Foundation no longer has any income guaranteed, so we have had to completely reposition the charity. The trustees recognize the current financial crisis means we need all the income we can obtain, and all our assets have to work for us to ensure our ongoing work.
“We want to continue to provide, amongst other things, benevolent grants to those in real financial need, and assist people with dementia. This has led us to the inevitable decision that the Lowry has to be sold in the interests of our beneficiaries.”
The current record price for a Lowry is held jointly by another football painting, The Football Match, which sold for £5.6m in May 2011, and a painting of Piccadilly Circus, which also sold for £5.6m six months later.