A Slice of Sporting Life

Customers_enjoying_afternoon_tea_at_Lyon's_Corner_House_on_Coventry_Street,_London,_1942._D6573I’ve just visited ‘The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity 1946 – 1955’, the wonderful exhibition of late 1940s and early 1950s prints that has been curated by Towner at Eastbourne. It’s currently on at the National Trust’s Mottisfont in Hampshire.

J. Lyon’s & Co , that mainstay of the British catering industry from the 1920s until the 1960s, commissioned a series of prints from leading artists in 1946 in order to brighten up their cornerhouses. The artists, including Duncan Grant, John Nash, and L.S.Lowry, were commissioned to produce images of Britain, and the slice of life that emerged included numerous representations of sport and leisure.

Anthony Gross celebrates the rural idyll of a village cricket match, but one in which the main action is amongst the spectators: boys arrange the numbers for the scoreboard or coax beetles from matchboxes to fight each other, while young men in blazers watch the action intently from their deck chairs while a young girl, looking bored, turns her back on the game. This print is reminiscent of some Victorian genre paintings of sport, such as Frith’s Derby Day, in which the play is of secondary importance to the social life of the crowd. Rural peace also features in John Nash’s Landscape with Bathers, which feels like something of a British response to Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, with two women reclining on the riverbank after a swim, ignored by a lone angler further down to the shore. WHO included scullers in his view of the Thames at Putney, stroking their way amongst the industrial and passenger traffic on the river.

Scenes from more working class sport and leisure also made their way into the series. Sam Rabin’s The Last Round  has three figures – two boxers and their referee – against a stark canvas, their faces abstracted so that we concentrate only on the shapes of their interaction against the vast neutral space of the ring. In Ruskin Spear’s Billiard Saloon, we can almost taste the smoke that hangs like a fug under the table lamp as a player lines up a shot while his opponent, head hidden in the darkness, chalks his cue.

The slice of British life covered in these prints reminds us of the diversity of popular culture, and of the range of sites – urban and rural, indoor and outdoor, commercial and free – that made up the leisure landscape. The prints have some things in common with the Your Britain: Fight For It Now posters of the Second World War, and there is also some resonance with the examples of cultural identification that T.S. Eliot listed in his 1948 Notes Towards the Definition of Culture: ‘It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.” The collection at Mottisfont takes us into this culture, and suggests to us the ways in which people drinking tea at their leisure in the Lyon’s corner houses could look on the country’s culture of sport and play, and see themselves reflected back.

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