The Graphic Game: Art, Design and Football on Wearside – Part 1


The representation of Sunderland AFC, its fans and its games in the arts is a topic we periodically review here on Roker Report. There’s clearly a reason we’re drawn to thinking about graphical representations of the beautiful game, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past few weeks.

I’ve spent much of that time lying with covid-19 and looking at the Chris Cummings print of a boy and his dad playing at Roker Park that I bought a few years ago, which hangs on my bedroom wall.

Why do I love him so much? Why am I going to see Frank Styles’ new mural of ex-Sunderland lioness Demi Stokes in South Shields on my to-do list when I next return to the North East? And why was I excited when I saw Kathryn Robertson’s artwork that accompanied the club’s membership renewal campaign when it came out the other week?

What is it about the art and design of Sunderland AFC that makes it such an important part of our footballing culture?

To begin with, I have to acknowledge the long history of the genre, but I won’t dwell too much on the grand depiction of Sunderland’s clash with Aston Villa at the old Newcastle Road ground in 1885 by Thomas Hemy which hangs proudly in the main entrance to the Stade de la Lumière here.

Its current position at the center of the exclusive gleaming marble and polished metal lobby sets it apart from the masses – a close view is usually reserved for stadium tour parties, executive box dwellers and club officials. The spectators of the matches are left with a partial glimpse, their view obscured by security guards and the reflection of several square meters of sheet glass.

It may be an instantly recognizable piece of work and an important part of our history, but it is neither public nor accessible to your everyday bettor. It may be about us, but it’s not really for us, it is more for them.

Instead, I want to look at some of the ways artists have brought gaming to Wearside and the depictions of the people who do it – gamers and fans – into our daily lives.

And by talking to three very different contemporary artists whom I admire – Cummings, Styles and Robertson – I will try to answer these questions that swirled around my feverish mind and learn a little more about the mercurial connection between the arts visuals and football culture. on Wearside.

But first, a bit of history.

Papers, magazines and bins

For decades, football and art have intersected primarily through the products that ordinary people buy from tobacconists and newsagents on their way to work.

Indeed, in the early days of the game, it was sketches of footballers in action that accompanied newspaper reports that first brought images of newly standardized association rules matches to wide audiences in conurbations. booming Victorian Britain.

Often depicted alongside other dramatic arts and theatrical entertainment, it is clear that at this time football was still seen as a pursuit of gentiles where the amateur and aristocratic ‘Corinthian spirit’ was still highly valued.

An illustration of The sketch15 November 1893, which accompanied an article describing the struggle between Sunderland and Aston Villa for supremacy in the Football League

These back and white line drawings look like the self-improvement, discipline and values ​​of “muscular Christianity” that proponents of football and other organized sports have sought to imbue in the proletariat of in high.

A more colorful but deadly medium for football illustration after the turn of the 20th century was the cigarette card. Hand-drawn series produced by Churchman’s, Ogden’s and Gallaher’s from the pre-Great War era reproduced football action in color like working people had never seen before, and made celebrities like the Sunderland skipper Charlie Thomson in the process.

A fine example is the 1914 Churchman map, which also depicted the matchday scene at Roker Park with the stands of the large old ground clearly visible in the background. As with line drawings in newspapers, the neatly colored illustrations were later replaced by photographic maps, which in fag packs were often colorized for emphasis.

The illustration tradition, however, continued after World War II in boys’ magazines and football yearbooks – as well as fantasy world comics like Tiger and then Roy of the Rovers.

Legendary Sunderland striker Charlie Buchan, once he retired from the game, set up a magazine that chronicled the British game and regularly featured graphics from Sunderland AFC – giants of the English mid-century game – in action.

These iconic images were reminiscent of those cigarette card miniatures, and they too were replaced by photographs in later editions.

But together the cigarette cards and magazine pin-up posters set the tone for how, in the days before the ubiquity of color photography and color film, real football was now portrayed.

They became the standard – a visual language of gaming whose echoes are still detectable even in the computer-generated graphics that accompany today’s matchday television coverage. They also form the backcountry of much contemporary football art, a subject I will explore in the rest of this short series.

The mists of time

For many of us, however, our fellow supporters are as – if not more – important to our club-tracking experience than the players on the pitch. The same familiar faces, the local characters, the guy you hugged at Wembley when it looked like we’d finally won and sobbed on your shoulder when our dreams were shattered once again, but most of all friends and family that we share the match day experience with.

It is the family that is at the center of Chris Cummings’ paintings. Chris kindly answered a few questions I sent him recently and told me that his inspirations include the Pitman painter from County Durham, Norman Cornish, and the contemporary Scottish Impressionist. Alexander Thousandwhose styles and subject matter – the everyday lives of working-class people – he brings soccer crowds to his depictions.

He is unambiguous about the emotions behind his work that make him so popular with fellow Sunderland supporters:

My work and my subjects are nostalgic and my goal is to create an instantly recognizable style through the characters with oversized beanies and large scarves. I want my paintings and sculptures to evoke memories that people have had especially from Matchdays.

Cornish Norman

Pitman Painter Norman Cornish
Photo by Staff/NCJ Archives/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

As traditional as his works may be, his method of disseminating his work to the masses is very modern. Chris realizes that social media has played a huge role in embedding his paintings into the consciousness of the fan base – the biggest philistines among us instantly recognize this as it is ubiquitous online.

Cummings tells me, “Supporters are the main focal point of most of my work because it’s something I can relate to and recreate from my experiences.”

Chris and I are around the same age, and our shared memories of Roker Park and the early days of the Stadium of Light figure prominently in his repertoire.

Being taken to the game with our parents is a common childhood experience for so many boys and girls in our city, it’s a vital and essential part of our upbringing and something we as parents seek to emulate. with our own offspring. That’s the power of Cumming’s art, and why it probably sells quite well as Father’s Day approaches each year.

Image courtesy of Chris Cummings

This tendency to return to a lost and golden era of childhood – simpler, mythical and happy days might say – which is lost in the mists of time, is something that an artist Chris admires, Paine Proffittalso sought to explore to great effect and widespread success.

Although an American expat is no Wearsider, Proffitt’s retro, cartoonish take on socialist modernism has been featured on the covers of books about our club and Sunderland is a perennial subject for this sport-mad Anglophile Picasso fan. .

His work has a slightly harsher masculine edge to it than Cummings, reminiscent of the two Spanish Civil War propaganda posters, celebrating mid-20th century footballers as working-class warriors, as well as recalling aspects of cigarette card art. from more than a century ago. We’ve seen Proffitt’s iconic images on the cover of Sunderland’s matchday programmes, promoting Netflix documentaries and on books about our club’s history.

Whether it’s the footballers themselves or the crowds watching them, people want to consume this art – they’ll pay for it, they’ll hang it on the walls of their homes, collect it in folders and display it on their coffee tables. If it’s particularly rare, they’ll bid ridiculous sums in online auctions.

So far I have viewed images which are privately held – items which we personally cherish and which we will no doubt pass on to our descendants who support Sunderland. In Part Two, I will examine the works that adorn our public spaces and both celebrate the glorious past while pointing to a future that, despite the difficulties of the past half-decade or more, still holds great promise for our club. and our cities.

I’ll also talk to some of the artists who are currently making waves and creating a new pop culture at the intersection of art, football and even music in our beautiful city by the sea.


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