Saturday Afternoon (1941) seems to depict a large playground in the shadow of a mill or bonded warehouse, immediately below which crouch four short rows of back-to-back dwellings. The empty space is probably a building site, where the rest of the street is waiting to be built, but at the moment it is an improvised football pitch, where the local lads kick a ball around for their own amusement and the enjoyment of a few passers-by. To the extreme left, a more professional game takes place in front of more substantial crowds: it is the Saturday afternoon football match, one of Lowry's greatest and most popular subjects. (Compare The Football Match, 1949, sold in these Rooms, 26 May 2011, lot 140 for £5,641,250, world record price for the artist). But here the focus is on ordinary folk, though what for Lowry constitutes the ordinary is never as obvious or expected as it sounds.
Two sets of pram wheels in the foreground peer out at us like bespectacled eyes, echoed by two sets of bicycle wheels up by the back-to-back houses. Lowry's penchant for the diagonal is clearly visible, not least in the zigzag battening on the two furthest gable-ends of the dwellings. If you look closely at the trademark white, the inflections of other colours (mainly pink, yellow and green) will become apparent. Close study of the surface will also reveal Lowry's inventiveness with texture - in particular the way he has drawn with the other end of the brush, scratching into the paint to create more subtle variations in his overall design. As always with Lowry, the paint surface is incredibly important to a full appreciation of the picture, which is why his paintings never give up all their secrets in reproduction.
Although the title of Saturday Afternoon gives away no reference to a specific place and is one of Lowry's compositions, the factory bears a great similarity to the Acme Spinning Company Mill, Pendlebury. Lowry had often passed this mill. However, one afternoon in 1916, having missed the train to Manchester, he observed a scene that could only be described as his artistic epiphany.
Sir John Rothenstein describes this moment; 'The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows stood up against the sad damp-charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out, and hundreds of little pinched black figures, heads bent down, as though to offer the smallest surface to the swirling particles of sodden grit, were scurrying across the asphalt square, along the mean streets with the inexplicable derelict gaps in the rows of houses, past the telegraph poles, homewards to high tea or pubwards, away from the mill without a backward glance. Lowry watched this scene with rapture: he experienced an earthly equivalent of some transcendental revelation' (Modern English Painters, volume 2, Lewis to Moore, London, 1976).
In the Winter of 1940 Manchester and the surrounding area suffered an intensive bombing campaign due to its inland port and industrial production. During the Manchester Blitz Lowry was employed as a fire-watcher on the roof of Rylands Store and Lewis's in Manchester city centre. He was also an official war artist and undertook commissions for the Ministry of Information, although he was once reported to say that he had agreed to become an official war artist because it was the only way to get hold of paints and canvas.
At first glance Saturday Afternoon has little to do with the Second World War or indeed the Manchester Blitz. It depicts people of all ages at play and leisure on their weekend. On the left we see crowds of spectators tightly enclosing a football match and in contrast an informal 'kick around' taking place in the centre of the work with groups of people strolling, chatting and idly watching. On closer inspection this informal game is being played on terraced streets now devoid of houses. The external walls of the remaining homes are clearly pinned with battens for structural support to prevent collapse. This large white void may have been cleared of the rubble from destroyed homes but the skeletal evidence remains. In stark contrast to this stands a looming industrial factory with Lowry's idiosyncratic smoking chimneys in the background. Even while Lowry's figures are at play there is a constant reminder of work and industry. Production and destruction. Work and play. All part of what Lowry called The Battle of Life.