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
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.
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.
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.