Laurence Stephen Lowry’s paintings offer a tantalizing glimpse into his vision of life in twentieth-century Britain. These are all the more intriguing when his works feature recognisable elements from the places where he lived and visited, yet pinning down the exact location of each work is often a difficult task, as Lowry often took isolated aspects from the surrounding environment and used them to create landscapes which he termed “composites.” Elaborating on this when describing The Pond (Tate, London), he stated, “This is a composite picture built up from a blank canvas. I hadn’t the slightest idea of what I was going to put in the canvas when I started the picture but it eventually came out as you see it. This is the way I like working best.” (Lowry, quoted in T.J. Clarke and Anne M. Wagner, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, Tate Publishing, London, 2013, p.111).

LAURENCE STEPHEN LOWRY, R.A., THE CHURCH IN THE HOLLOW, ESTIMATE: £600,000 — 800,000 ($891,720 - 1,188,960).

The Church in the Hollow is a perfect example of such a composite work, and retracing the elements of the composition illustrates Lowry’s method of melding various features into one scene. The setting of the work is Manchester, in particular that of Brindle Heath, Salford. From the steep streets leading to Brindle Heath Road, Lowry has taken both the hilly descent and the stepped houses which bordered them, creating a stylish composition which sweeps the viewer down into the heart of the city. The church in the valley is similar to St Thomas’ with its castellated tower and the exterior of its nave, although has been moved from its original location, that of above Brindle Heath. The mills and chimneys of Salford populate the background, whilst the tall steeple could be that of St Mary’s church, and the white building and blue roof the Maypole Hotel. In keeping with the composite nature of the scene, Lowry has also taken elements from elsewhere in Manchester: the central church steeple also bears a similarity to that of St Michael and All Angels Church, Angel Meadow, its steeple a key landmark in both View of a Town, 1936, and Britain at Play, 1943 (both Usher Gallery, Lincoln).


This tendency to pictorial invention is apparent throughout Lowry’s work. Writing about a group of twenty-five drawings by Lowry of Ancoats, another inner-city neighbourhood in Manchester, Anne M. Wagner notes that the features appear to portray Lowry’s typical penchant for fabrication, yet also illustrate ‘the artist’s distinctive ability to present the most ordinary feature of the urban landscape – a view over roofs, a stark city square – as a tonal or compositional tour de force’ (ibid., p.99). Indeed, Wagner could as easily be discussing The Church in the Hollow, a veritable tour de force in both tone and composition. 

Lowry presents this view over the rooftops of the city with panache, expertly guiding the viewer through his highly structured scene, one based around rectangular blocks which shift and recede to the smoking stacks of the city beyond. The impact of the work is heightened by a palette full of contrast: whilst the scene is built within the limited range of creamy white, murky blue-grey and black, he brightens it with aplomb, the varying tones of red, yellow, green and blue all the more impactful given their economical use.  Lowry thus takes inspiration from the particular – the streets of Manchester and their inhabitants – and transforms these elements into an engaging scene with universal appeal, rendered with characteristic eloquence.