(L.S. Lowry, quoted in Michael Howard, Lowry: A Visionary Artist, Lowry Press, Salford, 2000, p.81).
Lowry recognised the potential of the industrial scene, finding beauty in the harsh reality of industrial cities of the North. Here he lived and worked as a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company from 1910 until his retirement in 1952. His paintings are never sentimental or satirical; instead they have a remarkable integrity and honesty. The Rush Hour was painted in 1964, when Lowry was at the height of his fame and recognised as one of Britain's pre-eminent painters of the industrial city.
This carefully crafted work, the result of decades of observation, displays the technical skill in compositional arrangement for which Lowry has become so well known. The familiar, imposing buildings dominate the backdrop of the composition, forming an industrial cityscape, which looms above the busy street scene below. The classic Lowry motifs are all present: factories with chimneys billowing smoke, a distant spire, terraced houses, railings, walled alleyways, lampposts and the mill with its large gate. This towering building, which dominates the right side of the composition, would most likely have been inspired by the Acme Spinning Company Mill in Pendlebury. Lowry said that this mill was the reason he became interested in industrial scenes: 'I saw the Acme Spinning Company's Mill, the huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows stood up against the sad, damp-charged afternoon sky. The Mill was turning out hundreds of little pinched, black figures, heads bent down ... I watched this scene - which I'd looked at many times without seeing - with rapture' (L.S. Lowry quoted in Judith Sanding and Michael Leber, Lowry's City: A Painter and his Locale, Salford, 2000, p.17).
As with so many of Lowry's works from the period, this scene is unlikely to represent a tangible view. Rather, Lowry with his characteristic eye for design would have played with perspectives, modified the streets and buildings, even moving them entirely to create his ideal composition, and yet never compromising the spirit of the subject. Indeed, Lowry’s industrial scenes from the 1960s were usually composite, created from his imagination with little reference to the actual cityscape. In fact, by the early 1960s, when this work was painted, this would have been a far more modern city, which would have undergone considerable regeneration of the poorer areas and rush hour would have seen streets bustling with cars, trams and buses. Lowry preferred to paint from memory harking back to the 1920s when the boxy model of car seen exiting the street to the right would have been commonplace. Michael Howard comments, ‘Lowry was adept at editing out of his art anything that did not interest him... and from the late 1950s onwards, television aerials are, like his shadows, conspicuous only by their absence’ (Michael Howard, Lowry: A Visionary Artist, Salford, 2000, p.126).
Amongst this static set of industrial scenery, Lowry introduces his cast of characters who create the movement and rhythm in this work. Lowry was most interested in 'the flow of people' and depicts with great tenacity the action of a crowd on the move. He skilfully captures not only the rhythm of the mass, but also the individual groups and solitary figures which make up the crowd. In this iconic work, the main action is concentrated on the tide of workers, heads bent, striding shoulder to shoulder as they stream through the gates to the mill beyond. Michael Howard notes ‘Lowry’s figures go to work, leave work or are out of work, but they are never at work. He never depicted the activities inside the mills, factories and mines he painted so many times. For him, the proletariat he painted were not the heralds of some future age of equality, but instead they were presented as stoically accepting the traditional working-class values of continuance and forbearance common in the years before the First World War’ (ibid., p.128).
In this inner city rush hour no two figures are the same: people dart hither and thither, two cyclists peddle furiously, struggling against the wind, whilst a smaller colourfully dressed group rush purposefully across the composition in the opposite direction. Others idly chat and a tall gentleman at the centre pauses to post a letter, his dog waiting patiently at his side. Amongst this buzz of activity, our gaze is drawn to the classic solitary figure, the long-haired girl with a yellow skirt, who stands still, boldly staring straight at the viewer. Lowry was fascinated by the physiology of groups and crowds - here in this busy street full of people going about their business this girl seems all alone. Lowry comments ‘Crowds are the most lonely thing of all. Everyone is a stranger to everyone else. You have only got to look at them to see that’ (ibid., p.133).
In The Rush Hour, city dwellers are delicately arranged in such a way that social interactions are merely hinted at, yet with a few flicks of the brush Lowry manages to impart their cares and burdens in the bend of their legs or the curve of their backs. Lowry was not just interested in describing the industrial scene; rather, his paintings were a profound exploration of the human condition. Lowry stressed, 'An industrial set without people is an empty shell. A street is not a street without people, it is as dead as mutton' (L.S. Lowry, quoted in Julian Spalding, Lowry, London, 1987, p.31). In this sense, each figure in The Rush Hour is crucial to the scene, purposefully placed to capture the hustle and bustle of the city centre at rush hour.
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