Passion drives football convert Sue Clayton's portrait project marking York City's centenary

·5-min read
Sue Clayton's portrait of former York City defender Chris Topping, a promotion winner in 1971 and 1974, who will open Saturday's centenary fan celebration at Cliffe Village Institute
Sue Clayton's portrait of former York City defender Chris Topping, a promotion winner in 1971 and 1974, who will open Saturday's centenary fan celebration at Cliffe Village Institute

IT began with a chance conversation on a Museum Gardens bench.

It ended with 140 portraits by a Wigginton artist from a family of football haters who became a season ticket holder, cheering on York City at the LNER Community Stadium as promotion to the National League was clinched last Saturday.

Sue Clayton's portraits will be revealed en masse on Saturday at the York City Football Club Fan Centenary Celebration at Cliffe Village Institute, near Selby, where Bubwith-born club legend Chris Topping (463 appearances,1968-1978) will perform the opening ceremony at the 10am to 4pm event.

A3 prints of the entire collection will be available for the first time at the celebration: mounted and ready to pop into a frame for £25 each or £40 for a framed version.

"This year-long project came about from having a chat last year with Michael Miles, a lifelong York City fan who creates the Y-Front fanzine," says Sue. "The passion Michael showed for his club captured my attention: it was one of those conversations where someone's passion for something sparks your own interest to listen to them.

"I suggested I should paint a few fan portraits. Then, when he mentioned it would be the club's centenary this year, I realised a new art project was germinating in my mind and I was fizzing with creativity."

At first, Sue anticipated painting maybe ten portraits from the photographs and stories sent to her. Instead, the project grew and grew, not even stopping at 100 paintings to mark 100 years.

"It was so strange really, a total perseverance on my behalf, with many 3am finishes," she says. "In reality it may have been prudent to stop when I reached 100 but I still had images I wanted to paint; I wanted to do the fans justice."

Each 30cm square in size, the portraits span multiple media, from watercolours to oils, acrylics to charcoal, pencil to collage. "In the collection, there are brides, babies, fans pictured in celebration sadly no longer with us, sisters, dads and sons, friendships, former players...the full range of life in all its glorious forms," says Sue.

She is drawn to "painting portraits of people whose stories I want to tell", such as her exhibition of children and young adults with Down Syndrome, entitled 21, on display in the Tent of Hope at the NHS York Vaccination Centre at Askham Bar, York, last May and June.

"I'm equally passionate about making art accessible to all and love the concept of art meeting football," she says. "A wonderful year-long journey has led me to the fantastic warmth of the fan community. From knowing so little about football, my son James and I are now fully signed-up season ticket holders roaring with the crowds on the terraces, culminating in the amazing play-off final last weekend."

Sue believes passion creates the best portraits. "As an artist, I was on a roll with this project and became very quickly immersed within it. The range and scope of the photos sent in could let my imagination free, and it enabled me to paint such a range of ages within the series," she says.

"From a sitter's perspective, I think the fan in the act of celebrating, oblivious to all, just consumed with joy, is really delicious to paint. Equally, the moment capturing a fan watching the team intensely, apprehension etched on their face tells a great story."

Saturday's celebration is taking place at Cliffe on account of Michael Miles living there. "There's quite a gathering of fans in the village, who call themselves 'The Cliffe Minstermen'," says Sue. "Michael was eager to create an event just for the fans. The response has been phenomenal, with offers of help, sponsorship from the fans and fabulous raffle prizes donated. It's a perfect chance to gather and celebrate not just the centenary but last week's victory to go up a division."

Look out for Jack Radcliffe's match reports from the 2021-2022 season, on full display on Saturday. "Jack, who, like my son James, has Down Syndrome, has captured the hearts of the team, in particular goalie Pete Jameson, and the fans too," says Sue. "His match reports are superb with such honesty and integrity. He led the team on to the pitch for the final game and did the lap of honour with them."

"Football-type" food and drink will be available; a colouring competition for children promises fabulous prizes, and the raffle prizes will range from football kits and signed footballs, to a portrait commission from Sue and signed lyrics from Shed Seven's Rick Witter for the club's terrace anthem, Chasing City Rainbows.

The legacy of Sue's portraits will build. "Work will begin soon on a book about the portrait project and some of the wonderful stories behind the faces," she says. "I believe so strongly that these stories should not be lost and want them to be part of the archives for the club's centenary.

"The portraits will form a large art installation inside the fanzone at the LNER Community Stadium later in the year as a permanent feature, and the Give It A Go Joe drama group has expressed an interest in developing these stories further to create some community theatre. Not bad from a chat on a park bench, eh?!"

As for the future of the original portraits, "some will go on display in York Hospital, and I would dearly love to show them again in their entirety in York centre before the collection will be broken up at the end of the year. If any galleries, museums or community spaces are interested, I would love to hear from them via sueclaytonart@gmail.com."

By Charles Hutchinson

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