Around the time of the 30th anniversary of the Bradford City/Valley Parade fire, The Guardian featured a story on Paul Town and his paintings. I went to his website, Stadium Portraits, and liked what I saw. The name itself referred to the human qualities of stadiums. The paintings were inexact imaginings of old stadiums; some which are still in use today, many of which have undergone major renovations. The paintings are very much a romantic representation of the old stadiums and grounds: they’re still, peaceful spaces, in which crowds gather in an orderly manner and focus on the game. There is no seriously unruly behaviour, the stands are full – but not bursting to dangerous levels; the players are wearing their traditional colours without being besmirched by the names of multinational companies. How the stillness and calm of so many of his paintings contrasts with the horrors of Heysel, Hillsborough and of course, Valley Parade. (Paul’s description of that day – the 11th May, 1985 is here.) Paul paints as a fan, both of stadiums and of Bradford City. I had a conversation with Paul and below are excerpts.
Two days after the fire, I left school and took up my first apprenticeship. From then on, I worked myself up as a builder, up until a few years ago. I had done fairly well for myself; I’d made my way up in a few different companies. Both my wife and my parents started noticing however that I was going to work and not looking happy. I was also asking myself, ‘is this all there is?’ I wasn’t happy with myself or what I was doing, despite the stability and regularity of my work. I felt glum.
Maine Road, Manchester City, 1967, Paul Town
I saw a counselor about five years ago. After not talking about the fire for so long; it had all built up and it was why I was suffering from anxiety. I’d never spoken about the fire with my father; even though we experienced it together and that we always – until now – go to the games together.
About three years ago, my mother gave me some painting equipment as a present. And so I started painting. I had always been doing drawings and had a strong interest in stadiums, so, when I started to paint, I painted stadiums. It was like a therapy, but it has now become my job.
My favourite memory is that game against Chelsea. It was like a movie, that game. You couldn’t believe it was happening: it was that unexpected. We was at the end that they scored the last three goals. We couldn’t believe it. The team, however, is not doing so well at the moment. We supporters think that we should be at the top end of League One, rather than near the bottom. But, on the other hand, the supporters are doing well. This year, season ticket prices are 149pound, which works out to be about six pounds per game. 18,000 seasons tickets have been sold, and obviously, not everyone turns up at every game, so the average attendance is just a little under that.
My father and I have been sitting in the same seats since 1986, after they rebuilt the stadium. At the time, we asked ourselves where do we want to sit, and since then, we have been sitting in the same seats. I think we are part of the fittings, by now. We used to take public transport and walk to the games, but, these days, as my father is getting a bit older, my mother drives us to the game and picks us up afterwards.
After the fire, us supporters, and the people of Bradford rallied together and really supported the club. We felt that if we stopped going to the games, it would be a kind of abandoning of the people who had died. Going to the games is a way of honoring the memories of the people who died at the stadium.
I miss looking at the old stadiums. These days, when you go to a stadium, if it weren’t for the colours of the seats, you wouldn’t know which ground you are at. The seats were so close to the pitch, there used to be that banter, which you don’t always get these days. It is the design of the stadium and the colours of the kit that gives a club its identity.
I love the work of the architect Archibald Leitch. I read the biography on him by Simon Inglis. Ever since a child I have loved reading books on stadiums. I would memorise sentences about stadiums. If you go to some grounds today, you can still see the specific designs of Leitch, but many of his stadiums have been lost.
Upton Park, West Ham, 1977
I do my paintings after looking at photographs of stadiums in books or from a range of websites. My skill is that I can see a stadium from one angle, and then I’m able to paint it from a different angle. I ask myself, when I paint the stadiums, ‘where would I like to watch the game from?’ and then I go ahead and paint it. Some of the other guys who paint stadiums make reproduce exactly from photographs. Mine are done from my imagination.
Doing these paintings has turned my life upside down. In a good way. I’ve now stopped working as a builder and am working with a friend on developing the website. Within four months of starting my paintings, I had made my first sale. My paintings are sold at a range of prices and there are a range of formats available. I often think that things will go quiet over Christmas, as many people are tight for money. But, I’ve also taken orders on Christmas eve. People have rung me up and said, ‘we’re putting in some cash to buy our mate a portrait of his favourite stadium’. I’ve become friends with several of the people who have bought my paintings. So, it is not just about me doing the work and making money, I’ve been able to meet new people and learn about their experiences of stadiums. It is these conversations and encounters that push my work further.
Over the past several years I’ve started going regularly to Midlothian games up in Edinburgh, and I’ve done a few paintings of the stadiums up there. I’ve been stopped in the street and asked, ‘are you Paul Town?’ Of course these are funny and unexpected moments, but it shows me that people like my works. My paintings have reached an audience quicker than I expected. I’m doing my best with my paintings so that I can leave something for my children and that I can continue to make a living out of making them. I’m only having my first exhibition this coming November: it is at my daughter’s school fete. But, apart from that I haven’t sought to exhibit my works in an art gallery. I’ve also had little formal engagement with the Bradford City Football Club. They haven’t bought any of my works. But, that is okay. That’s how it is. I know the fans like my works.
Town’s paintings form a catalogue of lost stadiums; stadiums that exist more in the memory and imagination. His works have a loose, calm and idiosyncratic quality to them. They are not exact replicas of stadiums; occasionally there are irregularities in perspective and depth. The paintings not only document the stadiums, but also the names of brands that speak of a recent but already distant past. These are works that function only in part as ‘therapy’ for Paul. But, the paintings move beyond this discourse and function and into the realms of heritage, architecture and sports culture. The trauma of the Valley Parade fire is mediated through these paintings each of which form homages to clubs and the communities they belong to.
Elland Road, Leeds, 1980, Paul Town