Although it is the sweeping industrial panoramas that made Lowry famous, they are perhaps not the most representative of his work. From his earliest days, it was the combination of place and people that gave his paintings something that brought them to life, and thus the places where people gathered, the courts, alleys, ginnels and street corners became the focus of Lowry's attention.
Lowry was well aware that his occupation as a rent-collector allowed him to pass into the poorer districts almost unnoticed, areas in which his presence without such a pretext would have been less than welcome. The present painting shows just such a location. A small off-shoot of the street, we can see not only the end-terrace house of a row of small two-up two downs but also the fact that it looks straight out onto what appears to be a factory building of some sort. Mostly filled with children of varying ages, this little area is a hive of activity. One or two adults pass through, but one can almost hear the games and chatter of the children. In the court it appears there might be a bit of football being played, the taller child at far right looking as though he has just caught the ball, in the foreground the others mill about. To the left a child appears to be getting a telling off, although it looks like he might well be giving his interlocutor some lip back.
Such detail was based on observation. Walking his rounds in Manchester and Salford's poorest areas, Lowry had ample opportunity to see such scenarios. Certain images seem to have stayed with him, and the present painting exists in another version of the same year, A Court, Manchester (Formerly in the Lawrence Ives Collection). Although a little larger than A Court, Manchester, both paintings share the same backdrop with only minor differences, such as the steepness of the main street. However, there are a number of differences in the character and disposition of the figures. Lowry himself felt that once he was painting, the figures almost appeared on their own in the pictures, drifting out of his memory, and indeed there are many distinctive attitudes amongst his figures, appearing again and again over the years. In Children in the Back Street, Lowry employs his characteristic use of red highlights to guide the viewer around the painting. As is often the case with Lowry's compositions, this movement around the incidents of the painting leads the viewer to one particular point. Although both versions of the painting employ exactly the same setting and the same disposition of figures, both in specific groupings and overall placement, the point to which he leads us is subtly different. A Court, Manchester focuses the viewer's attention on the woman with the red hat walking right through the centre of the foreground. However, in Children in the Back Street, we find ourselves led beyond this to the doorway of the house beyond. Whilst in A Court, Manchester we can see a single figure standing in this doorway, perhaps watching the children at play, in Children in the Back Street there are clearly two figures engaged in conversation. The figure nearest us stands out on the step, as would a visitor, and thus perhaps we are seeing a shadow of the visit of the rent-collector, the short doorstep conversation that Lowry would himself have experienced many, many times in his life.
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