'The extraordinary fact is that nobody faced with Lowry's pictures whose subject-matter is nearly always social, ever discusses the social or historical meaning of his art. Instead it is treated as though it dealt with the view out of the window of a Pullman train on its non-stop journey to London, where everything is believed to be very different. His subjects, it they have to be considered at all in relation to what actually exists, are considered as local exotica'
John Berger, 'Lowry and the Industrial North', 1966, published in About Looking, London, 2009, pp. 97-98.
Lowry was a frequent traveller, and as he never owned or learned to drive a car, his preferred mode of transport was the train. What better way for a people watcher to spend time observing humanity from the comfort of a warm carriage? Lowry once related such an episode from 1957 to friends, 'I came on the train, and facing me - facing me - was a lady with a beard, and I couldn't take my eyes off her. I did a quick sketch, but she noticed and said angrily, "What are you doing?. What are you drawing?". ... At first she was greatly troubled but we talked, and by the time we reached Paddington we were the best of friends'. This encounter resulted in the painting, Woman with a Beard, 1957 (private collection).
As well as having the opportunity to study people at close quarters, the train window also provided Lowry with a vantage point from which to view the world and its inhabitants. Just as he had sat at the upper window of the Technical College in his youth to gaze down on and record his subjects as they bustled to the mills and factories. In the present work, the artist observes a crowd of people on the other side of the platform which he was able to study while his train was waiting at the station. The platform full of patient travellers bustles with activity: friends are meeting and greeting each other, a dog nuzzles its owner's leg for his attention, people converse in small animated groups, while others read a newspaper, or turn to chat with a travelling companion. Such a large crowd is captured here that it is necessary for the artist to employ an unusually long format, in order to capture a vignette of the mill and smoking chimneys glimpsed beyond the station walls.
Painted in 1953, after the artist had retired from his role as Chief Cashier of the Pall Mall Property Company in Manchester in 1952, Lowry was free to travel and enjoy other areas of the British Isles that formed his favourite places. The resulting landscapes and seascapes from the North East coastline, hills and dales of Cumbria, the Lake District and South Wales, increasingly feature in his work from the late 1950s, but in the earlier part of this decade, Lowry was still very focused on the industrial north. Thus the ubiquitous railway station still keeps Lowry's people in the Manchester suburbs, even if the artist himself is posed to travel onto other destinations. However, this station is clearly Pendlebury on the Bolton Road, opposite St Augustine's church, and only half a mile from Lowry's home at 117 Station Road. The jagged awning that hangs somewhat ominously over the people on the platform was in reality a distinctive frieze in yellow brickwork, still visible today, although the station had been decommissioned in 1960.
Pictures of railway stations are very rare in Lowry's output (a small number of paintings of Paddington station exist), which is particularly surprising since they provide such a rich opportunity to record the fascinating patterns produced by a crowd together with the opportunity to sit and stare. Michael Howard comments on Lowry's crowd scenes, 'In these works the view presented is that of a distant scene brought into close focus. Like the artist, the viewer is aware of his or her role as a watcher, whose dislocation from the scene may be further accentuated by a series of painted barriers, walls or fences that again serve to move the action away from the viewer. All these devices create an indefinable sense of voyeurism, heightened by the occasional questioning look as one of the painted figures turns to look out of the canvas' (Lowry A Visionary Artist, Salford, 2000, p. 147).