A.J. (Tony) Thompson was born in Trumpington, on the outskirts of Cambridge, and lived in the surrounding area for his entire life. Collecting came early to him: his sister remembers a childhood interest in coins and medals inspired by regular visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where the young Tony sought out the advice of the curator in acquiring his first objects. The Heffer Gallery on Sidney Street, with its constantly changing exhibitions of prints, drawings and photographs, was another favourite destination for the Thompson children, where they sharpened their appetite for fine art. In 1967, Tony started a waste-paper recycling business. The sixties were the decade defined by a new consumer society, bursting with ambition after the privations of WWII and the years of rationing that followed. The new superseded the old and so starting a business making the most out of unwanted materials was both unfashionable and remarkably prescient. It was the success of this business that would eventually allow Tony to pursue the two great passions of his adult life, horse racing and the paintings of L.S. Lowry. These would later intersect in the naming of his horses: the David Elsworth-trained Salford Express (who won the Dante Stakes at York in 1999), Salford City (who finished fifth in the 2004 Derby) and Salford Mill (who won the Newmarket Stakes in 2007), all named for Lowry’s home-town and favourite subject.
Tony’s close friends all remember his particularly instinctive response to Lowry’s work and his delight in the artist’s extraordinary ability to draw out the multifarious details, characters and events of everyday life. In 1982, Tony acquired his first Lowry, Street Musicians (lot 11), at Sotheby’s. Over the years he added more, almost always staying with the crowded urban scenes that he loved, and almost always keeping to the period in which Lowry produced some of his finest paintings, the decades from the late 1920s through to 1960 - these were the years in which the artist himself also felt his understanding and treatment of the subject were at their height.
Over the years, Tony developed strong friendships with many of the key figures within the Lowry world, not only at the major London auction houses but also with Crane Kalman Gallery and later with Richard Green Gallery. He was also a generous lender to museums, with much of his collection on long-term view at The Lowry, Salford and four works included in the recent exhibition Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life at Tate, London. Tony enjoyed the sense that others could share in his own enthusiasm and would visit The Lowry regularly, spending much of his time watching the film presentations of the artist at work. His initial meetings with auction specialists and gallery owners were rarely filled with pomp, as this most modest man was more than happy just to appear quietly at a private view, sale preview or exhibition, and enjoy the paintings. Only after one got to know him, would his discernment become clear. When shown a fine Lowry, Tony’s response was fantastic to see. He understood the paintings so well that he was able to absorb the artist’s often overlooked skills at highlighting the nuanced language of social placement, or the way in which crowds ebb and flow across a space, the distinctive atmosphere of a place, or just the simple oddities of our everyday lives. He would often point out a figure or group that had particularly caught his attention and draw you with him into the artist’s world. He also had a finely-tuned sense of the market for the Lowry’s work. He recognised when a painting was of top quality and he would be relentless in pursuit. Tony was the first collector to bid over half a million pounds at auction for a Lowry painting, when he bought the smaller version of Piccadilly Circus (lot 10) in 1998, and a little over a decade later he would bid many times more in order to secure its larger companion at the sale of Lord Forte’s collection in 2011 . As one friend remembered, ‘When it was a picture he wanted, he was as brave as a lion’.
25 MARCH 2014 | LONDON