Helen Little, the Assistant Curator of our Lowry show, delves into one of the artist’s rare depictions of manual labour: his 1932 painting, Excavating in Manchester

L. S. Lowry Excavating in Manchester 1932
L. S. Lowry
Excavating in Manchester 1932

For me, one of the most intriguing paintings in the exhibition is this picture, Excavating in Manchester, which Lowry sent to the Paris Salon in 1932. In many ways it is a quintessential Lowry -not least because of its restricted palette of black, white and red (he famously used only five colours). Yet its subject matter sets it apart from other works in the exhibition. In Lowry’s pictures we often see workers going to or from the mill at the start or end of the working day, but to see people ‘at work’ is very unusual. We can assume that the nature of Lowry’s job didn’t allow easy access to the workplace of others (although he did enjoy the odd tour of a factory late in life). After all, Lowry’s world was one of the street rather than the interior or workplace.

Excavating in Manchester 1932 Lowry
A close look reveals power tools being used in addition to traditional construction methods

As well as describing the manual labour that is its subject, the title of this painting more broadly suggests the wider dynamic experience of the city. In it, Lowry depicts the construction of one of the last great cotton warehouses in Manchester, now the site of Debenhams department store. The vast pit of the foundations are framed by earthen piles and backed by hoardings as men and machines dig or mill about. Looking close up, we see power driven tools connected to a generator as well as traditional ladders and spades.

What is most certainly at play here is the idea that fundamental to the urban experience are its cycles of destruction and rebuilding. How has this cycle impacted the area where you live?


This exhibition taught me more about Lowry than any other encounter with his work. I enjoyed it enormously. As a painter myself I found it very revealing. People often say to me that his use of white denies the grime of these working scenes. I think the white adds to the atmosphere allowing the imagination to take you from one scene to another...the mind seeing the colour. The details are lovely...the huge townscapes an absolute knockout.

I really enjoyed the Lowry Exhibition. I thought it was well-displayed and was surprised to see how prolific an artist he was. I found his work as a social commentary very moving, the detail in his paintings insightful and perceptive and so relevant to the times. If I hadn't been exhausted at the end of two and a half hours, I'd have started all over again! It was a wonderful, if at times sobering, experience and I am so glad I went.

Lowry has never really made it down south, has he ? You can never divorce him from his Northern roots, no matter how many Piccadilly circuses he may have painted. What's sad is that he was a more versatile artist than this exhibition lets on, with his grotesque portraits ( eg the bearded lady ) and his self-portrait of his younger self, which was reproduced, but not shown. While other artists were dying in garrets, he went around collecting the rent. While Baudelaire was spouting about being heroic in patent leather boots, Lowry was quietly trudging the streets looking out for the decidedly non-heroic detritus of everyday life. This did not go down well down south.