FINE ARTIST

'I work on many levels, between the visuality, history, hypocrisy, cultures, conflicts. They're all running through the paintings simultaneously, so people can look at them for longer.'

Michael J Browne, the man, the artist, this is his story.

‘I was born in Moss Side in 1963 to a single mother. My mother, affected by her own past, struggled. She was adopted and temporarily crippled as a 2-year-old during the World War II blitz. She wasn’t around much when I was young. She was either working as a dishwasher, or out socialising in the pubs, so I spent many late nights alone as a child, drawing.

Although my mother’s absence was hard, I believe that’s how I started to discover my artistic gift. My talent continued to develop during my time at Wilbraham High School — but my studies suffered significantly due to life at home.

During my childhood, we moved between Hulme and Moss Side but at age 15, my mother threw me out of the family home. My art teacher, Howard Love, and his family invited me to live with them for a year, in a more stable environment, where my work could prosper. This series of events happened twice over — moving home, moving out, and living with the Love family as I had become mixed up in bad company.

I studied ‘A’ Level art and tech drawing and was told by my teachers that I had great propensity. Unfortunately, I missed my tech drawing exam, but I was still offered a place at Manchester Polytechnic to do a foundation course. At this point in my life, an ex-Oxford Professor named Peter Smith became a patron and would go on to support my work for a number of years.

'During my time at college, I was invited to hold a One-Man Exhibition at the Ginnel Gallery in Manchester.'

During my time at college, I was invited to hold a One-Man Exhibition at the Ginnel Gallery in Manchester in 1982. At the time, I was on probation (due to events during the Moss Side riots), but got an interview for a university degree at the Chelsea School of Art. With the help of my probation officer and a close friend, I was able to source the funds to take two crates of work on the train down to London for the interview.

The interview was a success, and I got my place at the Chelsea School of Art.

This was a pivotal, positive turning point for me, not least because it allowed me to socialise with different types of people.

Back to One Man Exhibitions – this happened when I was 19 years old. The work was pretty dark in nature but most of it sold. I sold a painting to a member of the Royal Family (Lady Rose Cecil) and was invited to her Thames Wharf home to view the painting. I had two more annual exhibitions during my degree, but I sold some of my college work there, much to the disapproval of my college principle. This did impact my degree mark, sadly.

I went on to complete my MA at Manchester Metropolitan University in 1993 and during that time, I was commissioned by Alfiero Centamore to paint the 2000 square foot Sistine Chapel copy in Cocotoo Restaurant. The piece received world media coverage.

In 1996, having already been a supporter of Manchester United for a number of years, admiring Eric Cantona through thick and thin, I proposed a painting of him. He proved difficult to reach but I made a start on the piece anyway. Barca’s management (a bar in Castlefield, where Mick Hucknall was a co-owner) allowed me to use their wall space. I spent 10 months there working in public. Two weeks in, Eric paid me a surprise visit.

Eric watched on from a distance so I approached him and asked him if he was happy for me to paint him and if he would be willing to pose for some photographs. He willingly obliged and we arranged a date for the following week.

Two weeks after I took the photographs, Eric expressed interest in buying my painting of him. The sale was concluded early on and he visited me numerous times to watch its progress. He even brought his father, who is also an artist, along for one of the visits.

Eric arranged for me to gain access to the other players and Sir Alex Ferguson, who were also in the painting. I went along to The Cliff training ground and took photographs of David Beckham, Gary Neville, Philip Neville, and Nicky Butt. I wanted to include these players because they were part of the next generation of England players.

During this time, I asked Eric if I could do a drawing from one of the photos of him and make some prints to sell, then donate the original to the Mend A Broken Wing appeal. He said yes and had even signed them for me.

Towards the end of the painting's completion, I approached Howard Smith, a curator at Manchester Art Gallery, and asked him if I could unveil it there. He offered me a room space between exhibitions and within five weeks, an unveiling event was hosted by Suzie Mathis. World media was present and reporting; Sir Alex and the players were in attendance, and Eric too, of course.

The next couple of years held some memorable moments too. In 2000 Sir Alex unveiled a bronze frieze I made to celebrate Manchester United winning the treble and in 2001, the National Portrait Gallery in London, had requested my The Art of the Game painting to be included in the Gallery's Painting the Century exhibition.

For the Painting the Century exhibition, one portrait was chosen for each year of the 20th Century. Works included Picasso, Dali, Bacon, and Freud. The Gallery enquired about purchasing The Art of the Game painting but to my knowledge, Eric declined.

In the Early 2000s, my focus moved towards boxers and religious expression in sport form. In 2006, I worked in public, in one of Harvey Nichols’s windows, on a painting of Sir Winston Churchill, Wayne Rooney, and Rio Ferdinand. The PFA later purchased that painting and it was hung in the Manchester Arndale Centre for a few years, now hung at the PFA London offices.

This wasn’t the first appearance of religious themes in my artwork. Back when I was 19 years old, my first ever exhibition included a piece that showed a semi-nude, crouching figure titled Anti Pope. That painting was purchased by a Jewish family, who also bought a drawing of myself with my mother.

There were even derivations of this design years later, featuring an image of Bin Laden—an artistic statement highlighting Transgressions, which was turned into a Tee-Towel. It was about wiping our hands of war and striving for peace.

Religious motifs continued to appear in my works over the coming years. Tyson and Lewis as a detail from the Last Judgement. Tyson Fury with Jesus. The George Best Transfiguration (and Dionysius). Famous boxers and a Caravaggio painting. The list goes on, with some interesting stories attached to each of the pieces.

In 2008-9, I was asked by Centini Productions to make a documentary for the BBC, titled Michael Browne, Made in England, focusing on city life, country life, and multiculturalism, all expressed as an oil painting. The programme won the RTS Best Regional Programme Award. Some following televised features included BBC’s Inside Out programme, where I paint about elements of George Best’s life.

In 2012, following the opening of the National Football Museum in Manchester, I instigated the displaying of The Art of the Game there. It remained on public show in the venue for more than 10 years.

In 2013, the National Football Museum allowed me to also complete a painting there in public view, titled Manchester United in Procession.

That same year, I travelled to Italy—first to Milan for six months and then onto Rome. Working on private projects. But whilst there, I did return to Manchester for a few months to do a large canvas painting for Gusto Restaurant in Manchester, creating a design displaying some major historical events in Manchester.

I returned to the UK in earnest two and a half years later, on Brexit Day, when I moved to Chorlton, where I am now.

I requested a return to the National Football Museum to complete a large drawing I’d already started in Rome, based on Wayne Rooney’s football achievements. A large portion of the sale proceeds were donated to the Wayne Rooney Foundation.

Soon after, by pure coincidence, in January 2016, a friend of mine told me that Eric was coming to Manchester for an event at the Lowry. During that meeting, Eric proposed a project to me—one that aligned with both of our philosophies. It was initially planned for two years, but with a growing list of meaningful sports figures involved and resounding success, it is still ongoing today.

In 2017, a friend arranged for me to start a drawing of Anthony Joshua, in public, next to the stage, during the Willow Foundation event in London. In the same year, I started the project with a Jesse Owens painting, which was the first of Eric’s commissions. This piece gave me freedom of expression and choice throughout all the concurrent paintings.

I spent many weeks researching each of the sportspeople‘s lives, for each painting I did, working concurrently for 6 years of this exhibition phase. They also incorporated many elements of my own philosophy too—the sportsperson's life and the events surrounding them.

Starting with the already completed first painting ‘The Art of the Game’ the following nine paintings were based on, in order; Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, The Black Panthers, Sócrates together with Viv Anderson, Maradona, Caszely, Mekhloufi, Rudolph, and Eric’s Family Portrait.

The 6-year culmination of this work was shown in a major exhibition that I had accepted at the National Football Museum in January 2023. It was originally intended to have been opened to coincide with the Greek Orthodox Christmas (linked to themes in Eric’s family portrait, and also my birthday, 7th January.

My earlier works from my childhood mostly intuitively focused on emotional suffering and romantic scenes of Moss Side. My developing work has focused on integrated themes of sport, religious iconography, politics, philosophy, and media. What unites all of my works is that portraits have always been (and probably always will be) a focal point.

Art galleries don't often show themes of sport as a focus for public exhibitions. As a result, there isn’t much movement for artists to incorporate sport into a fine art format. From my perspective, sport does not exist in a vacuum—these are all individuals too, all intertwined in the fabric of life and experiencing struggles within their own cultures.

So, for me, sports exhibitions are about people too. Individuals with struggles. Not just cogs in a machine. I believe art galleries and museums should show more interest in this theme because ultimately, all events in life overlap, including cultural, political, and ethical issues.