Sir Ian McKellen, ‘My lifelong passion for L.S. Lowry’, The Telegraph, 21st April 2011
The great skill of A Town Square is its ability to transform an ordinary and otherwise unremarkable set of circumstances into an evocative and compelling masterpiece. As the title suggests, the precise location is not important: it could be any industrial town in the North of England. The essential elements of civic space are there - factory chimneys, a spire, clocks (as reminders to punch-in for your shift) and terraces opening out onto the street - but here it is the people that are the focus. This reflects Lowry's increasing shift away from his more panoramic views of the city towards its individual denizens, which by the 1960s saw him reduce his back-drops to almost abstract flat sheets of flake-white.
A Town Square, in its size and scope, has much in common with the mesmerising and disturbing The Cripples (fig.1, 1949, The Lowry, Salford) painted four years earlier, which concentrates the viewer's eye on what most city dwellers chose not to see. Both works are made to the same size as Lowry's largest industrial landscapes, but to view typical Lowry figures up-close like this and on an immense scale is both an unusual and captivating experience.
The sophisticated structure of this painting is central to its effect. Here, Lowry has employed a lateral composition of receding planes, painted in subtly varied techniques and colours. This produces a foreground with a small group of people on a pavement, a middle-ground of the town square and a background of the industrial urban skyline. At each level, the colours soften and the figures gradually diminish in size until they become consumed by the industrial haze of the smoking chimneys on the horizon. The subject of the work - a town square - is presented in the middle-ground, but our initial focus, inevitably, is on the sizeable foreground figures. The effect is emphasised by Lowry’s familiar device of an iron railing that divides the gathering in the front from the more remote groups and industrial elements beyond. The steps separate these figures further and create distance and perspective, another typical Lowry device, as seen in The Steps, (1940, Private Collection) and The Playground, (1935, Private Collection). Lowry himself commented:
'... Steps and things.... I liked doing steps, steps in Ancoats ... Steps in Stockport ... Steps anywhere you like, simply because I like steps and the area which they were in was an industrial area...' (Lowry, quoted in Judith Sandling and Michael Lever, Lowry's City, A Painter and His Locale, The Lowry, Salford, 2000, p.60).
With each receding plane, the number of people increase, as does their mobility. The figures in the foreground are relatively static, whilst at the back of the square they can be seen walking with intent, and one woman is caught mid-run as she disappears into the mist. The work is flanked by the solid structures of clean houses with primly arranged curtains, and what appears to be a civic building in the centre. The pink and orange hues subtly reflect the sun catching the buildings as it streaks through the white haze of industrial pollution.
It was the carefully selected cast of characters which Lowry was so keen to illustrate: 'A street is not a street without people... It is dead as mutton' (Lowry, quoted in Julian Spalding, Lowry, The Herbert Press Ltd, London,1987, p.31). We are first drawn to the group of men talking in the foreground: two with string-tied parcels tucked under their arms, whilst an upright gentleman walking his dog pauses beside them. Most arresting of all, is the direct stare from the central, slope-shouldered figure with a distinctive red tie. Lowry adds colourful mischief and energy with the inclusion of scuffling children and, more generally, he uses children as a compositional device: their bright, incongruously red jumpers stand out and lead us around the different planes of the town square. We meet the smiling lady with her burnt-yellow scarf, a large familiar looking man waddling slowly forward and a woman leaning out of the window exchanging an anecdote with the man below. Lowry, here, is celebrating the ordinary, creating a cast of individual figures with distinctive characteristics and a timeless appeal.
The arrangement of the figures in the foreground could almost be a direct staging of Luigi Pirandello's masterpiece Six Characters in Search of an Author, a play that fascinated Lowry, who saw it on a number of occasions. In A Town Square, the viewer seems to be invited to complete the story of the characters who gather stage-front, in the same way that in Pirandello's play, the 'characters' beseech the play's Director to complete them. Only the children have taken matters into their own hands, solving this narrative, existential impasse by starting to fight. Lowry's fine sense of the absurd would become more clearly felt in his later works, which focus increasingly on single figures, isolated against plain white backgrounds, but it is very much there throughout his art, significantly here in A Town Square, in his awareness of the dislocation caused by city life.
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