By the 1960s Lowry was already an artist of great acclaim, with his work sought out by prominent public and private collectors across the country. Famed for his factory scenes, with smoking chimneys, tall, looming buildings and waves of crowds pouring in and out of work, he had, since the 1930s, also explored through his paintings and drawings his fascination with the sea. The coast – as well as land-locked lakes – had proved a rich source of inspiration for the artist from his early years, and would continue to do so for much of his later life. From holidays as a child, visiting the seaside town of Lytham St Annes with his mother, he had been drawn to depicting the water and the relative challenges that this task posed, together with the often-great compositional benefits. Whilst one can trace a clear distinction between his ‘seaside scenes’ of children and holidaymakers on yellow sands, and the eerily empty, almost abstracted seascapes, perhaps his most interesting depictions of the sea arrive when they are matched with architectural landscapes, as seen in Figures Beside a Harbour. The work, which displays Lowry’s great skill and understanding as a draughtsman, most probably depicts a small-scale seaside town, owing to the size and number of the buildings, and their relative low-rise scale. The scene is abuzz with activity. In the harbour sits a larger vessel – possibly a barge or fishing boat, and two smaller dinghies or row boats, one of which is being inspected by a group of figures on the shore. On the far left we see the bow of another boat, moored in the harbour.
During his life Lowry travelled the length of Britain and took particular interest in the coastal towns and cities, and their often-transient inhabitants. He is known to have depicted many of these in his paintings and drawings – including cities such as Glasgow, Liverpool, Southampton and Sunderland – but also smaller towns such as Rhyl in North Wales and Maryport in Cumbria. These locations allowed Lowry to marry together his ‘industrial’ scenes with his love of capturing water, and the movement of the waves. In Figures Beside a Harbour, executed in 1961, there is a Sunday-sort-of-feeling with the rhythm of the movement across the composition. It is not hurried or rushed, and instead exudes a sense of peaceful calm, reflected by the low, flat ripples of the water. As with all great drawings by the artist, the scene is rich with dramatic narrative in the small cameos of crowds appearing across the composition. Couples are embracing, families walking their dogs and children larking about on the sands. Whilst a single smoking chimney is visible on the far right, here Lowry presents us with a more relaxed, rural setting – one that the artist clearly took great pleasure in capturing on the page.
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