‘He was a great wit – and his dry humour was never absent even on the greyest of days. Once we went to a picture auction together, and a picture he’d sold years before for very little money was sold for quite a few thousand pounds. He was asked how he felt, and he said, “like the horse must feel when they give the jockey the prize for winning the race”' (H. Riley, quoted in L.S. Lowry, 1887-1976, London, Royal Academy, 1976. p. 37).
'The paintings of L.S. Lowry are probably, almost certainly, the most familiar, the most loved and the most appreciated of all twentieth-century British art’
(M. Vaizey, L.S. Lowry, London, 1995, p. 84).
Lowry’s celebrated depictions of 20th Century modern life evocatively capture a sense of time and place, conjuring vivid images of the changing world around him. In his highly distinctive style, Lowry’s paintings are instantly recognisable, portraying with an understated simplicity visions of a past time, whether his subject is the urban landscape or its inhabitants, people who surge in crowds, or stand apart, each one an individual vying for attention from the onlooker beyond the canvas. Taught by Adolphe Valette, a collector of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and an admirer of Lucian Freud, Lowry acknowledged no influences, nor did he encourage others to acquire his style. Parallels have been drawn between Lowry and the English Impressionists, in particular the Camden Town School painter, Malcolm Drummond. Breughel has also been cited by the critic Mervyn Levy as an interesting comparison, 'The Brueghel peasant and the Lowry worker are not far apart’ (M. Levy, The Paintings of L.S. Lowry: Oil and Watercolours, London, 1975, p. 18). However, Lowry’s work will continue to be seen as utterly unique; 'a vision both big enough in conception, and uniquely enough expressed in style to ensure for the artist a permanent place in the patterns of European art’ (M. Levy, Painters of Today, L.S. Lowry, London, 1961, p. 23). His is a story of self-depreciating genius, of hidden talent found. 'Lowry established a vision of the North that is unique and unforgettable … he is among the last of those splendid individuals who have so enriched our heritage’ (ibid., pp. 13-22).
A Northern Race Meeting is a unique painting in the artist’s oeuvre depicting a day out at the races, painted in 1956 and purchased by the present owner’s father in the same year. For Lowry, the mid-fifties saw a long overdue recognition for him by the artistic establishment. In 1955, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and offered, but declined, an O.B.E. In 1956, the year that the present work was exhibited, his large painting Industrial Landscape was selected for purchase by the Chantrey Bequest and acquired for the permanent collection of Tate. At the same time, he had been commissioned by Ted Frape, curator at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, to record the local area, which was condemned for demolition and subsequent regeneration in the sixties. The teeming street scenes of Lowry’s youth, which had dominated his output from the 1920s, the factories and terraces, no longer fit for purpose, were increasingly being replaced by new housing and industrial units. Just as the old haunts and neglected buildings were decaying, Lowry imbued them again with street life and a cast of characters, evoking the earlier days of his youth.
Eventually the new structures that replaced the old Salford landscape did not have a role in Lowry’s topography, and instead he continued to paint the area with a parochial vision of the suburbs that he knew and loved from his rent-collecting days, spent walking around the old city. At the same time, Lowry turned his attention to the individual in the landscape, replacing the surging crowds going to work with a vision of eccentrics, the unemployed and neglected single figures, who appear to have been left behind by the modern age. His concentration on the individual led to larger format figures appearing in his pictures, each one vying for their own turn in the spotlight, often turning to look out at the viewer from the stage of the picture that they inhabit. In the present work, the bookies gaze out beyond the crowd, just as several other individuals appear to look out at their audience, including the figure in the black suit leading a small dog. He acts as Master of Ceremonies, inviting the audience to gaze at the unfolding spectacle before them.
Lowry enjoyed watching football and rugby matches and his interest in following Manchester City, and attending games at Chelsea with his football enthusiast friend and dealer, Andras Kalman, is well known. His love of cricket is also well recorded and there are many pictures that illustrate these passions. The world of racing, however, appears to interest Lowry here only to the extent that it would draw an orderly crowd and allow the artist to focus on the individual amongst the group, in the same way that his paintings of fairgrounds or beaches could show people at their leisure pursuits. Another early drawing, The Mid-day Special, (The Result of the Race) (1922; Manchester City Galleries), in which a group of characters huddle around a news stand for the latest sporting reports, punctuates the working day and provides a release from the daily grind. The Gaming Act of 1845 had allowed gambling at racecourses only, and this had opened up attendance at race days to the working classes who would flock to such events by train for a 'grand day out’ during the racing season. A frisson of expectation is captured in both compositions, created before betting shops were allowed onto the British high street in 1961.
Inspired by music halls and the theatre, Lowry’s favourite forms of entertainment, the larger than life characters in the present work perform as actors on a stage, and are set within a distinctive picture plane, so that they appear to be viewed from above. Looking down onto this group, the audience can recognise a cast of familiar characters, set before them on a day at the races. The joyful spirit is emphasised by the sense of people standing in groups, relaxed and in animated conversation with the each other. Figures on the sidelines of the composition on both sides lean in, as if to listen in on the conversations of the main groups. Lowry’s decades of detailed observation are showcased perfectly. The crowd is divided into several small groups, and form the main subject of the composition. Recognisable figures appear from earlier works; two sisters in matching coats and skirts but different coloured berets are listening to the central bookie who is presumably communicating the current odds by tic-tac, a form of cockney rhyming slang, to the race goers. He cuts a dapper figure in his blue suit, red tie, and trilby, with his bookie bag to hold the money, hanging down in front of his body. Just as the crowds who flock to watch Bolton Wanderers play in Going to the Match (1953; The Professional Footballers' Association) are Lowry’s subject, rather than the stadium and the football match, in the present work race goers are depicted milling around beyond the main action of the day. We see them strolling in front of the betting ring, with only a hint of what action lies beyond them, glimpsed in the indistinct figures beyond the left hand side of the composition. In this way, Lowry keeps his audience from the main event, despite titling the work, A Northern Race Meeting, we are unable to view any action taking place beyond the rail and the betting ring. This device serves to create a focus on the bookmakers and their stands. They are raised above the crowd, all the better to display their odds on blackboards next to them, which would be called out by their assistants as they wander among the crowd. The two men in the lower left and right hand corner of the composition in the present work seem to be making hand gestures which could be communicating a rival’s odds back to their principals. As was the custom, the senior bookies stand in a betting ring around the grandstand or in front of the rails while the races are taking place. Each set of bookies in the betting ring set at the back line of the composition are smartly dressed, standing on a small platform to rise above the level of the pedestrians who stroll around this area, watching the odds change on the blackboards beside the bookies. The bookie’s first assistant in each case wears a flatter hat, set at a jauntier angle.
A Northern Race Meeting belongs to the genre of Lowry’s fairgrounds and football paintings and in this composition Lowry allows himself the same amount of artistic licence in recording the event. In Saturday Afternoon (1941; private collection), the distant crowds on the left hand side of the composition are watching a match, but the focus of the painting is on the spontaneous kick about that is taking place between some local lads on the waste ground behind the crowd. This game has attracted fewer spectators, allowing Lowry to describe these people in much more detail, which include couples passing by and families with dogs and children in tow. For Lowry, this was an opportunity to cast his net beyond the sporting atmosphere and into the general excitement of a Saturday afternoon spent walking, relaxing, playing, or watching a long awaited match, despite the shadow of the central mill looming over the proceedings. By 1953, and after his retirement from the Pall Mall Property Company in the previous year, Lowry felt able to leave the shadow of the mills behind him, and replace the familiar urban backdrop with a plain wall of white, such as the single tree spreading out its branches in the present work, to indicate landscape or countryside, or indeed the racecourse beyond.
As Michael Howard (Lowry A Visionary Artist, Salford, 2000, p. 248) concludes, 'Describing the effect Lowry's paintings could have on his viewers, the critic Eric Newton wrote: 'After spending an hour with his pictures one descends the steps into Mosley Street into a world that still belongs to Lowry. Having compelled one to tune to his wavelength, the wavelength persists. For at least ten minutes one finds oneself dodging traffic designed by him, moving among pedestrians and along strange perspectives and stark buildings created by him. Slowly, the world of reality returns, but it has been insensibly transfigured by the experience. One has borrowed his eyes for a while, and then handed them back, but the memory remains. Only a narrow, blinkered vision could perform this minor miracle'' (E. Newton, 'A Painter Honoured in his own Land', The Guardian, 3 June 1959, p. 5).
A Northern Race Meeting is a highly important work which was created by the artist at the height of his powers. The painting has been in the same family ownership for over fifty years and was hung at Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield for over thirty years. The sale of this work will benefit a family charitable trust.