Executed in 1943, The Mill, Pendlebury is an urban, industrial landscape, set in the northwest of England. L.S. Lowry, who lived in the area his whole life, is synonymous with bustling scenes of looming mills, smoking chimneys and large factories, in and out of which workers pour.
The Mill, Pendlebury — which is one of the highlights in the Modern British Art sale in London on 21 January — is typical in this regard. The viewer’s eye is drawn from a teeming crowd in the foreground, via a receding bank of terraced houses on both left and right, towards the eponymous mill in the background.
In 1916, the Acme Spinning Company Mill had inspired Lowry to paint his first ever industrial scene, and 27 years later, it was still providing him inspiration. (‘Pendlebury’, in the work’s title, refers to the industrial area outside Manchester where it was located.)
‘This painting ticks all the boxes where Lowry is concerned,’ says Nick Orchard, Head of Modern British & Irish Art at Christie’s in London. ‘It’s a classic, industrial landscape from a peak period in the artist’s career, the 1940s. The balanced composition of the scene is impressive too — yet, two things about this painting set it apart.’
One of those is that it doesn’t depict a working day, but a day of rest, presumably a Sunday. Lowry’s pictures tend to be populated by tiny, stylised figures, with a look so uniform they’re referred to as ‘matchstick men’. In The Mill, Pendlebury, however, figures are individualised — and having fun.
Children can be seen playing cricket, and parents pushing prams. Some folk stop for a chat, while others walk their dogs. ‘Unusually for Lowry, this is quite a happy painting,’ says Orchard. ‘The atmosphere is relaxed, and people are interacting with each other rather than streaming en masse into work’.
The Mill, Pendlebury doesn't feature in any books or publications about Lowry. ‘Very few people knew it existed,’ says Nick Orchard
The second factor that sets The Mill, Pendlebury apart is that it’s actually a new discovery. The picture was bought directly from Lowry and its only owner has been scientist Dr Leonard D. Hamilton, a native Mancunian, who acquired the painting while a medical student at the University of Oxford. When he was a child, Hamilton and his family had lived in Salford, a few miles from Lowry’s mill.
In 1949, Dr Hamilton moved to the United States, taking The Mill, Pendlebury with him. Interestingly, it doesn’t feature in any books or publications about Lowry.
‘Very few people knew it existed,’ says Orchard, of the work that’s coming to market — as well as to light — for the first time since its only sale, more than 70 years ago.
Hamilton passed away in August 2019, aged 98. A keen art collector, he also owned works by the likes of Whistler, Matisse, Picasso and Candido Portinari.
As a medical researcher, he made his name working at the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York. Hamilton developed an advanced technique for extracting DNA and worked closely with Maurice Wilkins of King’s College London. It was with Hamilton’s rich DNA samples that Wilkins was able to generate X-ray crystallography images, from which the double helical structure of DNA was inferred.
This ended up being one of the great scientific discoveries of the 20th century, one for which Wilkins — along with James Watson and Francis Crick — won 1962’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In a number of correspondences from around this time, Wilkins hailed the contribution to his success of ‘good, old Leonard’.
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The Acme Spinning Company Mill was demolished in 1984, as many of the industrial buildings in Lowry’s pictures now have been. There seems something appropriate about a vanished painting of a vanishing world.
‘This is a remarkable discovery,’ Orchard says. ‘What makes it special is the way it connects such a distinguished artistic figure with such a distinguished scientific one’.