From almost the beginning of his artistic career, Lowry was determined to paint landscape. Horizons in Salford were most often narrow, with warehouse and terrace blocking the view and Lowry’s art thrived in these confined spaces. But a few miles away lay the moors, and from the 1920s onwards Lowry tried to find form for the impact of the Industrial Revolution on nature. Later Lowry remembered walking the open country at night as a young man, hearing the thump of the mine machinery in the dark, and ‘thinking of the mystery of it all’. His first visions of industrial landscape were dismal to the point of melodrama. Smoke poured from chimneys, rivers turned into polluted swamps. Lowry seems to have been struck – overwhelmed – by the prospect of ‘dark Satanic mills’ stretching as far as the eye can see.
This wild vision of ecological disaster was a necessary first step in Lowry’s thinking of the mystery. And the feeling of hopelessness never entirely wore off. But in the end it was replaced by a more complex response. The sense of waste and catastrophe gave way to a rueful, almost admiring recognition of the ugly grandeur of the industrial scene. The great Industrial Landscapes of the 1950s (on display in room 6) were in the making.