Celebrating football through art

Explore how the FA's 1953 Football and the Fine Arts competition in 1953 became the foundation of the National Football Museum's latest art exhibition

Football Is Art exhibition (2019-04-05) by National Football MuseumNational Football Museum

Inside the Football Is Art exhibition

The National Football Museum has used the 1953 Football and the Fine Arts exhibition as the basis and inspiration for its very own art exhibition, 'Football is Art.' The exhibition brings together over 100 artworks in one gallery. Support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund has allowed the museum to strengthen its collection of paintings and sculptures to better showcase the various artistic interpretations of the beautiful game.

Football Match at Chelsea (1953) by Mary KrishnaNational Football Museum

1953: The FA Football and the Fine Arts competition

To celebrate their 90th anniversary in 1953, the FA launched the Football and the Fine Arts competition with sponsorship from the recently formed Arts Council of Great Britain. Artists were encouraged to create artworks showing ‘any aspect of Association football, not only the game itself, but all its related activities’. 

Princess Alice opens the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition (1953-10-31) by Illustrated London News GroupNational Football Museum

Princess Alice opens the Football and Fine Arts Exhibition

There was a huge response to the call, with over 1700 entries. With prizes nearing a total of £3000, it’s no surprise that the competition received a lot of interest. A final selection of 150 works were exhibited at the International Faculty of Arts, at Park Lane House in London.

Mid-week Practice at Stamford Bridge (1953) by Lawrence ToynbeeNational Football Museum

Mid-week Practice at Stamford Bridge
Lawrence Toynbee, 1953
Winner of the painting prize

Mid-week Practice at Stamford Bridge, an oil on canvas was one of two works submitted by Lawrence Toynbee to the 1953 competition. This piece was particularly praised by influential art critic David Sylvester in a review of the exhibition in The Listener magazine.

Toynbee was one of four winners in the painting category, awarded a £250 prize.

“The great flat sweeping bowl of Stamford Bridge with its scattered irregular stands looking as if they had been improvised overnight.”

David Sylvester The Listener magazine, 1953

The Changing Room (1953) by Robert TavenerNational Football Museum

The Changing Room
Robert Tavener, 1953
Winner of the engraving and lithograph category

The Changing Room was one of five engraving and lithograph winners at the 1953 exhibition, for which Robert Tavener received £50.

Robert Tavener (1920-2004) trained in the military, joining the Royal Artillery at the age of 20. He participated in the D-Day Landings during the Second World War. Post-war, Tavener studied art with the foundation college of the Rhine Army at Göttingen University. In 1953, the same year as he produced The Changing Room, Tavener took up a teaching post for printmaking at Eastbourne College of Art and Design. Later, he worked as an illustrator producing posters, magazines and book illustrations.

Moment of Victory (1953) by Michael RothensteinNational Football Museum

Moment of Victory
Michael Rothenstein, 1953
Winner of the engravings and lithographs category

Moment of Victory, an etching and aquatint, was a winner in the engravings and lithographs category, for which Rothenstein received £50. The abstract design of a purple pitch with colourful swirls might be interpreted as rosettes, floodlights or even players.

Rothenstein is best known as an English printmaker, though he was also a painter and illustrator. He illustrated the first UK edition of John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men. Rothenstein was the youngest son of celebrated artist Sir William Rothenstein, and his brother John was the head of the Tate Gallery. Using his family connections, he played a significant role in the formation of the Great Bardfield Artists, a group of artists from the village of Bardfield in Essex, whose styles were distinct, but unified by a shared interest in figurative art.

Snow at Stamford Bridge (1953) by Alistair GrantNational Football Museum

Snow at Stamford Bridge
Alistair Grant, 1953

This work shows the view from the terraces at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium. In the foreground are the fence and floodlights for the greyhound racing track, a feature at Stamford Bridge up until 1968. Here, fans show up to watch the match despite freezing temperatures.

Snow at Stamford Bridge received an honourable mention by the judges of the 1953 Football and the Fine Arts exhibition.

Alistair Grant (1925-1997) made a huge impression on the printmaking scene in London, and also spent the entirety of his teaching career passing on his knowledge as a Professor at the Royal College of Art. Many of his students reportedly went on to become successful artists themselves.

Off to the Match (1953) by Karel LekNational Football Museum

Off to the Match
Karel Lek, 1953

Karel Lek’s woodcut, with its emphasis on the importance of football supporters dressing up for the game, highlights a sense of character and carnival amongst football fans.

Off to the Match is reminiscent of the photographs of football supporters, often eccentrically dressed, that featured prominently in popular magazines such as Picture Post from the 1930s onwards.

Karel Lek (1929-present) is still a working artist, living in North Wales.

“I loved watching the spectators, and I didn’t care who won …You felt that Saturday afternoon was a time when these men were let loose, they worked in factories all week and were bossed about. They could vent a lot of their aggression – in a friendly sort of way.”

Karel Lek

Stamford Bridge 2.45pm (1953) by Edwin La DellNational Football Museum

Stamford Bridge 2.45pm
Edwin La Dell, 1953

Stamford Bridge, 2.45pm shows Chelsea fans arriving and heading in through the turnstiles of their home ground.

Born and raised in Sheffield, La Dell was awarded a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art under the guidance of John Nash in 1935. Following this, La Dell served as an official war artist in the Second World War, working on public murals and camouflage. In 1948, La Dell returned to the Royal College as head of the Department of Lithography, where he would remain until his death.

Clapham Common (1953) by Daphne ChartNational Football Museum

Clapham Common
Daphne Chart, 1953

This piece focuses on the infamous Clapham Common, a popular urban part in the heart of South London, where a match is depicted from a striking and unusual perspective. It is as though the viewer is stood behind the goal watching the game through the holes in the net.

Surrey-born Chart worked with oils to create landscapes, figures and interiors. Exhibiting and living in Chelsea, her inspiration often came from London sights and scenes.

Football Match at Chelsea (1953) by Mary KrishnaNational Football Museum

Football Match at Chelsea
Mary Krishna, 1953

This oil on canvas painting positions the viewer amongst the standing spectators in the crowd emphasising the movement of the players seen on a murky winter Saturday afternoon. Also in the collection are preparatory sketches for this piece.

British Impressionist and Modern artist Mary Krishna experimented with combining western art influences with the traditional practices and techniques of India. She was an early student of watercolour painter Abanindranath Tagore, and later became an Associate member of the Royal College of Art.

Study for 'Footballers' (1953) by William GearNational Football Museum

Study for 'Footballers'
William Gear, 1953

The block-like forms that represent these football players were clearly influenced by the work of Parisian painter Nicolas de Stael, also renowned for his abstract and block-like representations of football in the early 1950s. Also in the collection is the study in pencil for this piece.

William Gear was a successful Scottish artist best known for his abstract works. He was posted with the Royal Corp of Signals during the Second World War, serving time in Egypt, the Middle East and Italy. After the war, he spent a lot of his time working in Paris, before moving back to England in 1950.

Saturday Taxpayers (1953) by Gerald CainsNational Football Museum

Saturday Taxpayers
Gerald A. Cains, 1953

This painting came to Gerald Cains (1932-present) in a dream, so he hastily made a sketch of it when he awoke. He imagined people heading to Portsmouth’s Fratton Park stadium, passing rows of terraced houses, a scene reminiscent of Saturday afternoons across the country.

Cains’ emphasis on the football supporter, typical of many of the works on display at the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition, might be read as an intriguing and evocative response to the particular conditions in which both football and the art world found itself in 1953.

The provocative title refers to an Entertainment Tax levy that football match tickets were subject to at the time. This levy was first introduced during the First World War and despite protests at the time of painting, calls for a repeal had been rejected.

At 22, Cains was the youngest artist in the 1953 exhibition.

Watford Dressing Room (1953) by Hubert Andrew FreethNational Football Museum

Watford Dressing Room
Hubert Andrew Freeth, 1953

This piece depicts players from Watford Football Club in the changing room. Also in the collection is a preparatory sketch of Tony Collins, who made history as the first black manager in the Football League, leading Rochdale to their only major final appearance in the 1962 League Cup. Collins can be seen in the front right of the final watercolour.

Freeth (1912-1986) was a British portrait painter and etcher who trained at the Birmingham School of Art and regularly exhibited at both the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Watercolour Society. Freeth served as a British Intelligence Officer and War Artist in the Middle East during the Second World War.

Footballer in the Snow, Watford (1953) by Hubert Andrew FreethNational Football Museum

Footballer in the Snow, Watford
Hubert Andrew Freeth, 1953

In the early 1950s Watford Football club were languishing at the bottom of the Third Division South, having to seek to be re-elected to the league in 1950-51. Perhaps Freeth’s far from optimistic representation of this game reflects this bleak condition of his local team at this time, out in the cold!

Another of Freeth’s artworks was exhibited in the 1953 exhibition. Though renowned as a portrait painter, Freeth chose to capture a crowd in Footballer in the Snow, the monochrome style and frozen conditions suggesting bleak times at Vicarage Road.

Saturday Afternoon (1953) by Grace WheatleyNational Football Museum

By-products of a glittering prize

“By-products of the Football Association’s competition for artists have been turning up so often in recent months that one might have been excused for believing that all the painters and sculptors of Great Britain had entered into brilliant rivalry for this glittering prize.” The Times, 1953

Saturday Afternoon
Grace Wheatley, 1953

Although there is no evidence of this work by Wheatley having appeared at the Football and Fine Arts exhibition, it was clearly inspired by the FA competition, as were many artists in early 1950s Britain.

Grace Wheatley (1888 - 1970) enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a painter and a sculptor. She regularly exhibited her artworks at the Royal Academy between the 1940s and the early 1960s. Grace's painting style was altered significantly during the Second World War, when she depicted the impact of war on the nation's steel industry.

The Game of the Year (1953) by Ithell ColquhounNational Football Museum

The Game of the Year
Ithell Colquhoun, 1953

The background structure appears to suggest both a player, perhaps heading a ball, and a trophy, reinforcing an interpretation that this work was inspired by the 1953 FA Cup final. Although this work was not included in the Football and Fine Arts exhibition there can be little doubt that it was submitted to, or inspired by the competition.

Ithell Colquhoun had built a good reputation as a female surrealist painter in the 1940s, in a world dominated by male artists. Her symmetrical composition emphasises the two sides of a football match, with inverted colours, like those of opposing teams.

'Goal' (1953) by Clifford FishwickNational Football Museum

Clifford Fishwick, 1953

This is another example of an artwork which did not feature in the exhibition but was most likely submitted to the judges. Two of Fishwick’s other artworks did feature in the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition; Changing Rooms and Wasteground.

Clifford Fishwick (1923-1997) was a post-war painter and printmaker. Born in Accrington in 1923, he went on to train at the Liverpool School of Art, where he undertook two study periods sandwiched either side of World War II naval service. Fishwick went on to teach at the Exeter College of Art, becoming the principal from 1958 until 1984.

Football Is Art exhibition (2019-04-05) by National Football MuseumNational Football Museum

Football Is Art exhibition
National Football Museum
5 April to 3 November 2019

These artworks and many more are displayed on the Score Gallery, exploring the unique beauty, passion and drama of the beautiful game through the eyes of the artists.

How do football artworks make you feel? Let us know via Twitter @FootballMuseum.

Credits: Story

With thanks to National Lottery Heritage Fund, Art Fund, Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, Mike O'Mahony (Academic Partner, University of Bristol), Ray Physick (‘The Representation of Association Football in Fine Art in England From its Origins to the Present Day’, 2013).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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