Sir Ian McKellen, ‘My lifelong passion for L. S. Lowry’, The Telegraph, 21st April 2011
When A Cricket Match last appeared at auction in June 1996, it sold for a then world record price for a painting by Lowry, prompting a plethora of cricket-inspired puns from the newspapers, both national and local to the artist’s home town of Manchester: ‘Lowry scores a record price’, ‘Cricket oil hits artist’s price for six’, ‘Painting a big hit’ etc.
What the newspapers were not to know was that this painting of the most British of games was to spend the next twenty years in a private collection in America. In the meantime, Lowry’s auction record has been set and reset many times, most spectacularly just 3 years later when Lowry’s great football picture, Going to the Match, sold for £1.9m in 1999. A Cricket Match returns to the open market, then, to find it much changed. And the world is much changed too, although what is fascinating is that the game of cricket – despite the invention of American-influenced ‘sports entertainment’ formats such as T20 or the Indian Premier League and a general level of ‘razzmatazz’ unimaginable in Lowry’s day – in some ways is moving back towards the grass-roots Lowry is painting. Due to the global popularity of the IPL, the star players of today are just as likely – if not more so – to have honed their skills on the maidans of Mumbai or Lahore or the parks of Kingston or Bridgetown, as they are on the green and pleasant fields of England.
A key contention of the 2013 Lowry retrospective at Tate was that the industrial world of factories and smoking chimneys, of workers living tough lives in tough conditions that is Lowry’s true subject, may no longer exist in Britain (and was fast-disappearing during the artist’s own formative years), but that doesn’t mean such scenes have vanished from the world entirely. Cities that are today the ‘workshops of the world’, as Manchester was once known, have much the same look and the effect on the people who work in them is much the same, albeit that the chemical waste does not flow across waste-ground and into the River Irwell, but into the Mithi.
Cricket is a surprisingly rare subject in Lowry’s art, especially given the presence of a major international cricket ground, Old Trafford, just down the road from Lowry’s beloved Salford. In the 1930s and 40s, matches at Old Trafford would have drawn the kind of crowds that one would have imagined would appeal to Lowry: after all, his interest in sporting occasions is always less for the game itself and more for the spectacle, whether in professional form, as with Going to the Match, set at Bolton’s Burnden Park, or the various scenes he painted of amateur football games taking place on Saturday afternoons between the factories. Lowry painted a formal cricket picture only once – a tough as nails Lancashire League game in full swing on an urban pitch – but there are a few examples of him depicting pick-up games of cricket taking place on the streets and on waste-ground, such as the match featured in a beautifully executed drawing recently acquired by the M.C.C. (fig. 1), in which arguments and fights seem to breaking out on all sides, a game that could not be further removed from those played on the hallowed pavilions of Lord’s.
The game we see underway in A Cricket Match is another step further still from the ‘home of cricket’, although – pertinently, when we think about Lowry’s relevance in today’s world – it is not far at all from the maidans of the Indian Sub-Continent. Set in Broughton, a suburb of Salford, this is a waste ground in every sense of the word, the slightly hilly aspect of the surroundings almost certainly having nothing to do with nature and all to do with these houses being built on mounds of coal slag. The match itself is framed by the large dilapidated tenement building behind (leaving one to wonder if Lowry is making a visual parallel with the grand brick pavilion at Old Trafford). This building, with its broken and boarded up windows, almost ghostly in the palest pink is one of the sadder buildings in Lowry’s oeuvre, its presence exquisitely haunting (although intriguingly, someone has a fire going at the end that is meant to be boarded up),
To the left a group of men smoke and pass the time over a wall, oblivious to the match going on behind them. They are the only adults in the painting, unemployed and with nowhere to go, the narrow confines of their prospects echoed in the dead tree artfully placed immediately above them and also in the broken fence posts below, which take on a strange, almost anthropomorphic quality, as they lean in and jostle against each other like drunks – echoing similar forms in his other early masterpiece, The Lake, a fugue for Victorian Manchester (fig. 2).
In A Cricket Match, Lowry gives children the centre stage. They are dotted throughout the painting, but most noticeably in a diagonal line across the middle, as the players are joined by a small crowd of spectators, behind a low, broken wall of their own. To the right and left in the middle distance, prams are left at the edges of sight of those told to watch them, as various games capture the babysitters’ attention. Children are an essential narrative element in Lowry’s work, a constant motif throughout his career. As yet unburdened by work, they provide the counterpoint to the life of their parents, a life of rent books and payments on tick, everyday small humiliations and graver worries. Children are the joy that for the adults has become elusive or fleeting. Yet Lowry was also very aware that this time of freedom was all too brief, before the children head to the factories and mills as apprentices, as movingly portrayed in Walter Greenwood’s classic 30s novel Love on the Dole - an essential ‘reader’ for unlocking Lowry’s world. As such, children lend a heart-breaking poignancy to his art, none more so than here, as they play-out their parents' lives of work, listless unemployment, the care of children, and the all-too-brief moments of fun and games. But for now, at least, as the bowler sends down the ball and the children behind the wall strain for a better view, all of this is close, but still far away.
A Cricket Match is a wonderful example of Lowry at his very best, in what is arguably his best decade as an artist, the 1930s, where he fully establishes the rules and parameters of his unique vision. It seems at first-glance to be a simple ‘slice of life’ and yet the painting is constructed very carefully, in both the way the narrative unfolds and also in how it releases its emotion. As ever, Lowry restricts his palette to a range of colours so narrow that Mondrian would no doubt approve: the dominant white; outlines in black; a dirty green and sooty blue to pin the work to the ground and to give it its sombre timbre. It is this blue-green that also frames the picture, drawing our eye into it, across the dirty standing water and snaggletooth fence posts in the foreground and through to the ramshackle sheds in the middle ground. To this Lowry adds a few dots of red, in a scarf or a hat: another favourite trick to draw the eye in a zig zag through the composition, to ensure the viewer looks everywhere and experiences it as a whole.
It is in the 1930s that Lowry’s masterful use of white really comes to the fore. It has both a painterly function – allowing him to give a clarity to his figures and buildings, which in turn enhances their phenomenological solidity – as well as an emotive quality, as it brings a hard, brittle coldness to his work, whatever the season, that in the viewer’s mind translates into an understanding of the hardship of the world he is painting. It has a conceptual aspect, too, as it is the white that makes this Lowry’s world, something that has its root in a hard reality but also seems to exist in of itself.
In common with all of Lowry’s finest works, A Cricket Match holds an exquisite balance between being a view of somewhere in particular, a patch of scrubland in Manchester, and being a symbolic landscape, that stands as both metonym and metaphor for the urban industrial experience. It is this balance, this thread throughout Lowry’s career, that was the central idea behind Tate’s 2013 retrospective, in which the curators T. J. Clark and Anne M. Wagner argued for Lowry to be seen as one of the great ‘Painters of Modern Life’ alongside the likes of Manet and Caillebotte. The city that Lowry was painting in the 1930s might well have been disappearing, but today megacities around the world are springing up at the same rapid speed as Victorian Manchester once did. And if these cities are in the Indian sub-continent, somewhere amongst the building sites and the factories, there is every chance that there will be children with a fruit crate for a wicket and a shaped piece of wood for a bat, having a cricket match.
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