This man is perhaps Lowry himself, although in a typical visual play, the Artist also presents us with a figure looking straight back out towards the viewer – the heavier built man with his case, walking stick and hat. Maybe he is Lowry too: certainly between the two of them lies both painter and viewer, thus drawing us quite pointedly into the world of the picture. Again, this is an incredibly subtle technique, belying Lowry’s apparent ‘naivety’ as an Artist. From the clever little visual pun made between the smoke of the ferry and the passing goods train behind, to the way Lowry dots highlights of red from front to back, to draw the eye through the composition – this is the work of a skilled artist, a sophisticated ‘painter of modern life’ to rival the French Impressionists, which is exactly how the recent Tate retrospective (and quite rightly) positioned him.
The Ferry at Blyth is a painting rich in Lowry’s favourite devices – two small counterpointed crowds, one close-up, one distant; the figures in those crowds, some interacting but many alone with their thoughts; the oversized child in a pram (another surreal, Beckettian image, prompting all sorts of strange possibilities); the ever-present mill, with its tiny, empty windows, symbolising the tyranny of both employment and unemployment; and the steam train, with its hard black outline, bringing fire and smoke to street level, another metaphor for work and struggle.
Whilst the present work is set in Blyth, in the North East of England, trains were always an important part of the Lowry lexicon, so present were they in and around the streets of his home-town of Salford, as they were in many major industrial cities in the early 20th Century. Manchester was certainly a railway town as well as a mill town. Yet, like many aspects of the industrial world that Lowry grew up with, by the time this picture was painted in 1963, these feisty little steam engines were already almost extinct. They stand in Lowry’s art, then, more as a symbol of the way things were – in the way that all his art can be seen as a Proustian recherche du temps perdu.
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