Room 3 Street Life: Incident and Accident

Banner for the Tate Britain exhibition on Lowry

Lowry was a painter of the working class. ‘I’ve a one-track mind,’ he was fond of remarking. ‘I only deal with poverty. Always with gloom.’ But this is inadequate as a verdict on his art as a whole. The world he shows may be limited and repetitive – in this true to life – but at the same time it is restive and unpredictable. ‘Accidents interest me,’ he said. ‘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.’

Punctuated by factory whistles and school bells, life in the slums was cramped and most often monotonous. During the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, when Lowry first developed his vision, ‘poverty and gloom’ loomed large. Hawkers and pawn shops beckoned towards debt; unemployment shadowed everything; arrears of rent often ended in eviction; a child with diphtheria or scarlet fever meant the arrival of the fever van. Infected children seldom came home. Lowry’s painting fastened on such episodes. Yet the grimness and narrowness of the daily round were always offset, in his most characteristic canvases, by the energy and animation of life acted out on the pavement, at the market, in the street procession, on the steps of the hospital or mission hall.