Modern British & Irish Art

Three of a Kind: L.S. Lowry

By Robin Cawdron-Stewart

As one of Britain’s most popular and beloved artists, L.S. Lowry gained fame and recognition for his depictions of Britain’s industrial heartland and those that lived and worked within it. Born in 1887 and raised on the outskirts of Manchester, Lowry worked for almost his entire life as a rent collector in the area.

Attending evening classes at Salford School of Art, Lowry would spend his working days sketching those that he saw on his daily rounds, working them up in the evenings in the attic room of his mother’s house under stark electric lights. Today best known for his bustling scenes, full of smoking chimneys, tall red-brick factories and spiking steeples, Lowry’s inspiration for painting these industrial scenes followed his missing a train at Pendlebury station: ‘I saw the Acme Company’s spinning mill: the huge, black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows … against the sad, damp-charged, afternoon sky… The mill was turning out hundreds of little, pinches figures, heads bent down … I watched this scene – which I’d looked at many times without seeing – with rapture.’

Lowry was a prolific artist, producing sketches, worked drawings and paintings from the 1920s until his death in the 1970s. The breadth of Lowry’s working output really does mean that there is something for every collector, at every level, and this is celebrated within the 12 and 13 June sale of Modern & Post-War British Art in London.

1. Industrial Panorama, 1954. Estimate £1,000,000–1,500,000.

My ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map, because nobody had done it...
L.S. Lowry

Lowry’s ‘Industrial Panoramas’ – the largest of which were spectacularly displayed in a room of their own at the recent Tate retrospective - are a distillation of all the key themes and ideas of his art. As the curators of the Tate show were keen to point out, it is Lowry’s painting of the experience and pyschology of the industrial city that makes him not only an important artist historically, but also a hugely relevant artist today. Lowry’s work is given extra relevance in that he paints both this and the other side of ‘progress’, when the white heat of industrialisation has died down and these shiny new metropolises start to be covered by a layer of grime soot and hopelesness.  

Whilst these paintings are based on real places – Salford, Manchester and the towns that surround them – they are never simple ‘views’ but deliberate constructions, made from interdependent parts: chimneys and mills, terraces and pubs, churches, waste-grounds and open spaces. Industrial Panorama is a master-class in Lowry’s poetic vision of the industrial and post-industrial city. Larger than the majority of his works, it has an expansive quality – the cold, dirty river seems to weave not just between the various parts of this imaginary city, built on hills like an industrial Rome.

2. A Mill Scene, Wigan, 1964. Estimate £200,000–300,000.

I liked that, to do a picture out of my own head on the blank canvas. I think it gets nearer the truth, because there are no facts to hamper you, and you are setting something down that comes entirely from your own imagination.
L.S. Lowry

Like any great artist Lowry refused to stand still, and continually sought out new inspiration for his work – whether in the form of the eerily empty landscapes of the Yorkshire moors; the stark portraits and figure studies or the seascapes of the North East. So when in the mid-1960s Lowry was challenged by his friend Mr A.E. Hunter that he had lost his ability to recapture the crowd scenes of his earlier work, Lowry readily accepted the test to prove him wrong. The result was the delightful A Mill Scene, Wigan, commissions by Mr Hunter for his daughter, Mrs Lois Leroy in 1964, depicting a mill scene in Wigan, not far from Manchester.

And prove him wrong Lowry certainly did, for the present work captures all the great hallmarks of the artist’s very best industrial scenes, executed on a scale that is strikingly intimate and personal. A Mill Scene, Wigan is a painting alive with energy and buzzing with activity. The movement of the figures towards the mill gates seems even more rushed than usual, with figures, arms and legs blurring into each other.

3. Mill Gates, 1954. Estimate £50,000–80,000.

My subjects were all around me… in those days there were mills and collieries all around Pendlebury. The people who worked there were passing, morning and night. All my material was on the doorstep.
L.S. Lowry

Throughout his life Lowry was a passionate draughtsman. Unlike many other artists’ work Lowry’s drawings typically function as stand-alone creations, as he employed very similar working methods and stylistic effects in both. Mervyn Levy has noted Lowry’s drawings 'are seldom planned as a preparation for painting, and…have always run distinct, if parallel, courses.' (Mervyn Levy, The Drawings of L.S. Lowry, Public and Private, Cory, London, 1963). They are painterly images, but are not intended to be painted from. Lowry’s adept handling of the pencil – seen here in the fresh, stark lines and soft, gentle shading of Mill Gates, showcases his skill as a draughtsman, and his technical understanding of the medium.

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