Easily the most popular sport in the world, both to play and support, football has a global appeal. The sport had obscure and violent origins in medieval England before being codified in the second half of the 19th century. Since the foundation of The Football League in 1888, the game has been exported around the globe and is played on every continent, whether in stadiums or the streets. With the Euros kicking off this weekend, football has to be the first sport on this list.

Lawrence Stephen Lowry R.A., Going to the Match, 1953, oil on canvas, 71 x 91.5cm, The Lowry, Salford

Rather unusually, the greatest football picture of all time does not actually depict the game being played. L. S. Lowry instead shows streams of figures, their backs determinedly hunched, beating a path through the streets of the industrial North to the turnstiles of Burnden Park, the old home of Bolton Wanderers. By depicting the sport in such a manner, Lowry recognises that the most important thing about football is not the twenty-two men on the pitch, but the congregation of people all united in their support for their club (or national team). Recognised as one of Lowry’s great masterpieces, this painting was recently sold at Christie’s for over £7.8m to The Lowry gallery in Salford, ensuring that this work remains in its spiritual home of Greater Manchester.


Tennis, in the UK at least, is very much a summer sport and Wimbledon has long been an immovable fixture in the British summer ‘season’. Despite our unreliable summers, lawn tennis is the traditional format played in the UK, with Wimbledon being the only Grand Slam tournament played on that surface.

John Lavery R.A., R.S.A., R.H.A., The Tennis Party, 1885, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 183 cm, City of Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeen

For many, the greatest painted depiction of the game is John Lavery’s The Tennis Party. This large canvas shows the rather more recreational side to the game, depicting a mixed doubles match contested on a late Victorian summer’s afternoon and spectated by a rather genteel set congregated on a sun-dappled country house lawn. Lavery was a noted Irish society portraitist, working in a style not dissimilar to that of John Singer Sargent. His carefree depictions of late Victorian and Edwardian leisure are imbued with added poignancy given that many of the last years of his career were devoted to his work as an official war artist during the First World War.


Cricket is perhaps the sport most immediately associated with the English summer, and, with its arcane codes and traditions, with England itself. Much like tennis, the sport is entirely at the mercy of the British weather and is played in a season from April to September, with both players batting and bowling for both club and country. This summer, England will compete in the T20 World Cup held in the West Indies and the United States, and will face both the West Indies and Sri Lanka in test series.

Anonymous, A Game of Cricket (The Royal Academy Club in Marylebone Fields, now Regent’s Park), c. 1790-99, oil on panel, 26 x 29.2 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven

The game was invented in southern England in the 16th century and had become a widely played amateur sport by the 18th century. The painting shown here is a relatively early depiction of the sport, played in open fields on what is now Regent’s Park in central London. The game was inevitably exported to Britain’s colonial possessions and it was one of the first sports to be played by international teams. Interestingly enough, the first international fixture appears to have taken place in 1844 between a team from the United States and a team from Canada. The professionalisation of the sport came in in the late 19th century and although cricket is now a huge entertainment industry, especially in India, one can still see the game played up and down the country in scenes not at all dissimilar to this painting from the 1790s.


The horseracing calendar in Britain is marked by historic annual meets at Cheltenham and Aintree in the Spring, Epsom in the early Summer and Ascot at the end of July. Horses have, of course, featured without interruption throughout the history of art and have inevitably been the subject of sporting pictures, whether of hunting or racing.

Edgar Degas, La Défilé, 1866-68, oil on paper laid in canvas, 46 x 61 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Although the British have produced a remarkable series of sporting equine painters, such as John Wootton, George Stubbs, Benjamin Marshall and Sir Alfred Munnings, in the interest of balance, we have picked a French painter who was an undoubted master of depicting this sport. Degas, better known for his pictures of ballerinas, painted many pictures of horseracing, a pursuit becoming increasingly popular with Paris society in the second half of the 19th century. Moving away from the traditional approach of simply recording a winning horse and jockey, Degas here pioneers a new type of sporting picture, one that captures the pre-race nerves of the riders and their mounts, along with the anticipation of the crowd. In employing a proto-Impressionist style, Degas eschews many minute details, and instead focuses on summoning the atmosphere of the event with his brush.


Certainly, the earliest evidence for codified sport is found in the Ancient Olympics in Greece. Much like the Modern Olympics, these took place every four years and are believed to have been inaugurated in 776 BC and were held until after the Romans established their rule of Greece. Beyond being a sporting tournament, the games hosted artistic and literary competition and were also a religious festival; indeed, there was a concerted effort by the ancient Greeks to create a mythology around the games that claimed they had been founded by the gods. The sporting events were essentially all what we would now consider athletics and consisted of various running events and a pentathlon as well as wrestling and chariot racing. The eyes of the world will soon be turned on Paris, which will, at the end of July, host the XXIII Olympiad.

Roman, c. 140 AD, after a bronze by Myron, 5th century BC, Discobolus, marble, height 155 cm, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome

The Discobolus is one of the most instantly recognisable ancient sculptures. It is a work that survives in many versions, the original being a lost Greek bronze from the 5th century BC. The sculpture illustrated here is a Roman marble copy. The original Greek sculptor, Myron, succeeded not only in portraying the human figure with accuracy, but also in freezing, now for millennia, the exact moment of muscular tension in the split second before the discobolus launches his discus. The discus is still a competive event at the Modern Olympics, the basic tenets of the sport being essentially unchanged since this artwork was first sculpted. Further to this, the image of the Discobolus has frequently been used as a symbol of the Olympics themselves, notably in the poster for the 1948 London Olympics and, more sinisterly, in the 1938 Leni Riefenstahl film Olympia.

Central Office of Information’s official poster advertising the 1948 London Olympics, The National Archives, London