Helen Little, Assistant Curator of the Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life exhibition at Tate Britain, talks on how Lowry’s love of the theatre may have influenced his painting of the street
Accidents interest me… What fascinates me is the people they attract. The patterns those people form, an atmosphere of tension when something’s happened. Where there’s a quarrel there’s always a crowd.
Lowry was a painter of modern life and his paintings are complex records of the British working class. Cramped and monotonous, life in the slums during the early twentieth century was often played out in the street. Lowry’s job as a rent collector at the Pall Mall Property Company gave him unique access and intimacy with the inhabitants of some of the poorest areas of Salford and Manchester created by industrialisation and suffering from the economic slump of the 1920s and 30s.
Lowry was not a social reformer but saw a great beauty in the life he saw. Like the Impressionists, he believed it was vital that modern painting should continually adapt to the world to capture new and unexplained subjects. Hence his fascination with the rituals of everyday life: football matches and protest marches, evictions and fist-fights, workers going to and from the mill. And although many of Lowry’s early paintings including An Accident suggest the gloomiest of circumstances, Lowry knew how regular, ordinary and un-dramatic these occasions were and presented them as such. In fact, a quiet humour and wit is often at play, just like George Formby Senior’s popular music hall song When father said he’d pay the rent which you can hear in the exhibition while looking at pictures such as A Removal, a picture about the urban displacement and domestic break up after an eviction.
I like to think about the relationship between Lowry’s love of theatre and how he captured the dramatic events he saw unfold on the street. In the same year that he began sketching and painting the urban landscape and its inhabitants, Lowry saw Stanley Houghton’s 1912 play Hindle Wakes. A gritty working class story set in the Lancashire town of Hindle, Lowry recalls this being the first time he saw beauty in the industrial environment. Lowry’s class and profession may have meant he was ‘exterior’ to the turmoils and happenings of street life but perhaps his love of theatre goes a little way to explain the complex construction of his images, often positioning the viewer at a distance looking down at a scene from above.
For me, the ‘Lowry effect’ lies in the strange lack of sentiment he expresses in his paintings - a world of streets but no interiors - as if to communicate not quite knowing where in the world we belong.