A Northern Race Meeting by L.S. Lowry

For more than 50 years the British Modernist painted busy scenes of the industrial north of England, typified by this affectionate depiction of an afternoon at the racetrack. On 19 November it is offered in the Modern British Art Evening Sale

There is a story L.S. Lowry used to tell about how he came to paint the industrial north of England, which is redolent with the prosaic mystique he mischievously promoted about himself. It was on a grey day in 1916, having missed his train to Manchester, that he walked up the steps of Pendlebury station to be confronted by Acme Mill — ‘a great square red block with the cottages running in rows right up to it — and suddenly I knew what to paint’.

What he saw was a landscape of factories, red-brick terrace houses and workers going about their days against creamy skies heavy with pollution. Seated on a campstool, hat pushed firmly down and his mackintosh buttoned up tight against the Lancashire chill, he sketched out this pedestrian world in a style so singular that he became known as ‘the matchstick man’ — and the unofficial artist of England’s northern working-class.

But not all his paintings were about factory life. He also painted people during their leisure time, in much the same way that French Impressionists like Georges Seurat had done 40 years before. In pictures of the races and football matches, he depicted the excitable atmosphere of a Saturday afternoon, despite the omnipresence of the chimney stack.

Detail of Laurence Stephen Lowry’s (1887-1976), A Northern Race Meeting, painted in 1956. 30 x 40  in (76.2 x 102  cm). Estimate £1,500,000-2,500,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Evening Sale on 19 November 2018 at Christie’s in London © The Estate of L. S. Lowry

Detail of Laurence Stephen Lowry’s (1887-1976), A Northern Race Meeting, painted in 1956. 30 x 40 in (76.2 x 102 cm). Estimate: £1,500,000-2,500,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Evening Sale on 19 November 2018 at Christie’s in London © The Estate of L. S. Lowry

A Northern Race Meeting, painted in 1956, is a typical scene of this nature. It depicts a relaxed group of people enjoying a day out. Figures on both sides of the composition lean in, as if to listen to the conversations around them. In the middle of the picture is the central bookmaker (above), communicating the odds by tic-tac — a traditional form of sign language used on British racecourses.

The picture is unusual in that Lowry paints the figures in the crowd as though looking at them from above. A fan of the music hall, Lowry brings a lively vitality to the scene, which suggests he saw the characters as theatrical, like actors on a stage.

Laurence Stephen Lowry, R.A. (1887-1976), A Northern Race Meeting, 1956. 30 x 40  in (76.2 x 102  cm). Estimate £1,500,000-2,500,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Evening Sale on 19 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Laurence Stephen Lowry, R.A. (1887-1976), A Northern Race Meeting, 1956. 30 x 40 in (76.2 x 102 cm). Estimate: £1,500,000-2,500,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Evening Sale on 19 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

When the picture was exhibited in London it was described by the critic Frederick Laws as representing a new development in his work: ‘People have come forward into the picture out of the distant streets. We see their faces close to. They are by no means flattered and yet I think Mr Lowry is painting them with considerable affection.’

The picture was purchased from The Lefevre Gallery in 1956 by the London manufacturer Barnett Shine and his wife, Sylvia. By this time Lowry was a rich man, yet he remained wryly bemused by the art world. On witnessing an auction at which a painting he had sold for a few pounds went for thousands, he commented wickedly that he felt ‘like a horse must feel when they give the jockey the prize for winning the race’.

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On Sylvia Shine’s death in 1978, the family loaned the painting to the Graves Gallery in Sheffield, where it hung until recently. On 19 November, A Northern Race Meeting  will be offered in the Modern British Art Evening Sale  at Christie’s in London.