Helen Little, the Assistant Curator of our Lowry show, delves into one of the artist’s rare depictions of manual labour: his 1932 painting, Excavating in Manchester
For me, one of the most intriguing paintings in the exhibition is this picture, Excavating in Manchester, which Lowry sent to the Paris Salon in 1932. In many ways it is a quintessential Lowry -not least because of its restricted palette of black, white and red (he famously used only five colours). Yet its subject matter sets it apart from other works in the exhibition. In Lowry’s pictures we often see workers going to or from the mill at the start or end of the working day, but to see people ‘at work’ is very unusual. We can assume that the nature of Lowry’s job didn’t allow easy access to the workplace of others (although he did enjoy the odd tour of a factory late in life). After all, Lowry’s world was one of the street rather than the interior or workplace.
As well as describing the manual labour that is its subject, the title of this painting more broadly suggests the wider dynamic experience of the city. In it, Lowry depicts the construction of one of the last great cotton warehouses in Manchester, now the site of Debenhams department store. The vast pit of the foundations are framed by earthen piles and backed by hoardings as men and machines dig or mill about. Looking close up, we see power driven tools connected to a generator as well as traditional ladders and spades.
What is most certainly at play here is the idea that fundamental to the urban experience are its cycles of destruction and rebuilding. How has this cycle impacted the area where you live?