It’s a six-inch square folded tissue paper napkin, but on it is a hastily drawn sketch done by L.S. Lowry, probably in the café where he stopped for tea, and it could sell for up to £10,000.
Making this remarkable survivor all the more special is the previously unseen drawing shows “The Old Handball Court, Nelson, Glamorgan”, today a listed building and the largest of its kind in mainland Britain.
The napkin, which is dated November 6 1961, will be offered in a two-day sale at Nantwich, Cheshire fine art auctioneers Peter Wilson on April 27-28.
Peter Wilson paintings specialist Stephen Sparrow explained that the sketch was drawn probably on one of the several trips Lowry made to South Wales in the 1960s.
“It was Ebbw Vale businessman Monty Bloom who introduced Lowry to the Valleys,” Stephen Sparrow said. “Bloom, who became the artist’s friend and one of his major patrons, recognised the appeal the grim contrast of spoil tips side by side with the area’s rugged mountains would have on the artist.
“Lowry was inspired by the Welsh scenery and aged 77, he embarked on a new era of painting, working in a new, intuitive and experimental way. Together, Lowry and Bloom made visits to the area every six months or so and it is thought this sketch may have been done when the two men stopped for refreshment in a local café.
“One can well imagine Lowry drawing this whilst in discussions with Bloom and noting the exact location where he had seen the distinctive free-standing handball court in Nelson.
“As was his habit, he then added the fantastic figures and a dog to the foreground and it is interesting to see the scribbled out area to the left of the picture as if he had decided it detracted from the composition. The appreciation of perspective and strength of line is typical of Lowry’s ability as a draughtsman and artist.”
Lowry subsequently gave the napkin as a gift to his close friend, the artist Percy Warburton, who was Head of Bury School of Art. Through Warburton, Lowry became actively involved with the Bury Art Society and became its second president.
“Lowry would often call to visit Warburton socially,” Stephen Sparrow said. “Warburton owned several drawings and paintings given to him by Lowry and many have been sold over the years in the London salerooms.”
Warburton subsequently gave the napkin to a Cheshire family who have consigned it to the Peter Wilson sale.
According to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, handball uses a hard, leather-cased ball and is similar to squash and the more aristocratic Eton fives.
The game was first played in Nelson against a flat wall of the Nelson Inn (now The Village Inn). In about 1860, the landlord of the nearby Royal Oak then constructed a purpose-built court to entice customers from the Nelson.
It is thought that Irish immigrants who were working on the construction of the Great Western (Pontypool Road to Neath line), and Taff Vale Railways which both passed through the village, may have had a hand in designing the court. Handball in Ireland was, and is, a working-class sport played in ‘big alleys’ measuring 60 x 30 feet.
The Nelson court was most famous from 1880 until the Second World War with an annual tournament lasting from May-August, accompanied by much betting and is still in use.
The napkin sketch will be on view alongside a number of now highly desirable limited edition Lowry prints and paintings by other well-known Northern artists such as Geoffrey Key, William Turner and Arthur Delaney.