This room assembles for the first time all five of the panoramic views of the city that Lowry painted between 1950 and 1955, together with the three impressive views of Welsh mining towns that soon followed. These panoramas are his largest paintings, and bid a grand farewell to the subject – and the world – he had made his own. Lowry understood that British industry was grinding to a halt. ‘When the industrial scene passed out in reality,’ he said, ‘it passed out in my mind.’ But in 1951 the Festival of Britain invited him to depict a subject of his choice. Only its size was specified: five feet by almost four feet. ‘When I started in on the plain canvas I hadn’t the slightest idea as to what sort of industrial scene would result,’ he said later. ‘But by making a start, by putting say a church or chimney near the middle, [the] picture seemed to come bit by bit.’Four more paintings followed. All are imaginary landscapes, though filled with familiar motifs. The vast built fabric remains ‘forbidding’, but the new scale seems to have steered Lowry back into Impressionist territory – or his own dour version of it. In the effort to conjure the chill, particle-filled atmosphere of these ailing post-war cities on canvas, he allowed himself a last flourish of pictorial effects. In Wales, the drama reached even darker, more chaotic heights.
L.S. Lowry (1887–1976) devoted his life to painting the England of the Industrial Revolution. ‘I saw the industrial scene,’ he said, ‘and I was affected by it. I wanted to get a certain effect on the canvas. I couldn’t describe it, but I knew it when I’d got it.’ For forty years he painted the urban landscape of Salford and Manchester, and the everyday life of its working class. The range of his art is therefore narrow. Men come and go constantly through factory gates. But under the veil of cloth-cap uniformity, the life of the streets in Lowry’s painting is intense and resilient, always in search of the new. A crowd gathers instantly at a street fight or a strike meeting or around a woman’s body dragged from the canal. Lowry was an enemy of ‘sentiment’ in art. He made his living as a rent collector, which meant he had daily access to the detail of poverty and respectability in the slums. But his art never claimed false comradeship with the world it took as its subject. He was an outsider. The streets were gloomy to him, but magnificent. ‘I was inspired by their beauty,’ he said. This exhibition shows his long struggle to give that beauty form.