LAURENCE STEPHEN LOWRY, R.A.Industrial Panorama
- Laurence Stephen Lowry
- Industrial Panorama
- signed and dated 1954
- oil on canvas
Alex. Reid & Lefevre Ltd, London where acquired by Mrs Wood at the 1976 exhibition
Their sale, Sotheby's London, 30th June 1993, lot 63
Their sale, Christie's London, 19th November 2004, lot 136
Sale, Christie's London, 25th June 2014, lot 28, where acquired by the present owner
London, Alex. Reid & Lefevre Ltd, A Memorial Exhibition of Paintings & Drawings by L.S. Lowry R.A., 20th May - 3rd July 1976, cat. no.18, illustrated p.27.
(L.S. Lowry, quoted in Michael Howard, Lowry: A Visionary Artist, Lowry Press, Salford, 2000, p.81).
L.S. 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, which itself is a distillation of life in the industrial towns of the north of England in the early 20th century. As the curators of the Tate show, T.J. Clark and Anne Wagner (themselves eminent art historians of 19th and early 20th-century French painting) 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 now. For ours is a world where a small fishing village can turn into a mega-city within a single generation; where parts of China, India and South America are experiencing the vertiginous industrialisation that gave birth to cities like Lowry’s home town of Salford in the 19th century; where the mass migration from countryside to city and the haphazard urbanisation and environmental havoc that has created the likes of Shenzhen follows the same forces that created Victorian England. Lowry’s work is given extra relevance - urgency even? - 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 metropoles start to be covered by a layer of grime soot and hopelessness. Lowry’s work is always nostalgic, a deliberate, life-long recherche du temps perdus, but in today’s world, it feels eerily prophetic too.
It is Lowry’s single-minded engagement with the dying industrial world that makes him a unique figure in modern art. Indeed, it’s surprising in many ways that no-one else has made the city their abiding subject in quite the same way – something that was noted by the critic Herbert Read, for whom Lowry was one of the most important artists of 20th century British art. In his portraits of ‘lovely, ugly towns’ (to borrow from Dylan Thomas, another great poet of working-class life) the buildings themselves become metaphors for the tough, constrained lives of the city’s workers, for the relentlessness and inevitability of it all, that is captured in the smoke that pours from the chimneys day and night. 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: chimney and mill (work); terraces and pubs (home); churches (birth, marriage, death); waste-ground and open spaces (the possibility of leisure, play and therefore freedom from work). These ‘panoramas’ are therefore of nowhere and everywhere; a day in the life and a whole life in a day.
Within this constructed world, Lowry makes each painting individual, unique. Here, in Industrial Panorama, he divides the composition in two through a rust-red viaduct, drawing a line between the city centre and its ragged peripheries. The geometry of the bridge finds its counterpoint in the strip of wasteland at the bottom of the picture. There is something extremely beautiful – haunting almost – in this seemingly incidental strip of dirty blue-green, yet to be claimed by the hard white and brick red of the city. Here on the periphery of the painting, the old world seems to stare down the new. It is no surprise that it is here that Lowry places little clusters of children, who are an ever-present metaphor in his art for joy and for a life untrammelled by work. They are the soul of the city, here returned to a pre-industrial Arcadia, albeit one with a lop-sided telegraph pole and built possibly on coal-slag. Yet they are also placed deliberately below the two largest chimneys and the most prominent factory, suggesting their state of innocence will be short-lived.
Lowry’s technique always tries to mask his own dexterity, but his use of colour – as evidenced so brilliantly here even at the edges of Industrial Panorama – is unerringly sophisticated, with his masterful handling of muted colours and tone and subtle alternating patterns of hard, deep blacks, smoky greys and warm reds and his ever-present brittle white (and Lowry’s use of white as a poetic driver is as sophisticated and compelling as any abstract artist’s could be). Lowry was certainly not the naive painter he was perceived to be, an image that he himself was happy to hide behind when it suited. Instead he used his long-considered artfulness to make paintings like Industrial Panorama feel uncannily real, a stripped down version of the ‘truth’ that feels all the more real for it. It is a form of visual poetry, a close-to hyper-realism akin to that of Thomas.
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, but also through the full play of Lowry’s vision itself – with our eye ever pulled back to the bridge at its centre, with its sense of arrival into this hard world.