With the arrival of September, ease yourself back into the daily round with Lowry’s Coming out of School
What a difference a day or two makes. A few days ago I was revelling in glorious sunshine in the Golden Valley of Herefordshire. The apple trees were heavy with fruit and you pretty much couldn’t make out the buddleia bushes for butterflies. Now the kitchen calendar is turned to September, the mood has shifted and these hazy days of summer suddenly seem no more. September means business: it’s back to work, and back to school for you.
Like many of Lowry’s pictures, Coming out of School is not a picture of a particular place, but is based on his recollections of a school seen in Lancashire – complete with traces of an unfinished composition on the back. Lowry’s unique blend of observation and imagination often produced images which capture a deeply felt experience of place. Following a visit to Lowry’s first solo exhibition in London in 1939, the then Director of the Tate Gallery, John Rothenstein, later wrote of how he marvelled at ‘the accuracy of the mirror that this to me unknown painter had held up.’
T. J. Clark, the co-curator of Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life exhibition at Tate Britain, wrote of Lowry’s often-repeated ‘recognition scene’ and how ‘atmosphere’ was ‘fundamental to Lowry. Much of his effort as a painter went into perfecting a dry, slightly abrasive, decidedly unpicturesque (‘un-impressionist’) state of the light and air’. Dark figures in the foreground mill around outside a red-brown school building at the end of a day’s teaching. What do they come out of school to? A sky that matches the colour of the road, which is just a few shades lighter than the grey factory buildings that loom over them.
Clark goes on to describe how ‘Lowry conjures up the memory of a tighter, smaller, ground-level world – the one he walked through each Monday to Wednesday. The world faces front and is pinned matter-of-factly to the picture’s surface and edges. The gravestone blocks at each side of Coming out of School only slightly exaggerate – and formalise – the compositional formula.’
In showing a world that ‘faces’ us front on, the scene certainly does feel ‘tight’. It’s as if the grey presses upon you, reminding of the reality that is overcast British sky and that yes, it will soon come again. Maybe, just maybe, we can repurpose Lowry’s acute attention to atmosphere and make indelible in our own minds that summer feeling. To help keep us going in our daily rounds, before the first week of September is up.