People-watching with Lowry
'An abiding memory of Lowry is of sitting in Manchester's Piccadilly Gardens on an early-summer evening and watching the world go by. This was in 1966, and I had written to ask him if he might be prepared to let me drive him around the Manchester area to show me some of the places he had most loved to draw and paint. I was planning an extensive feature on him for one of the Sunday newspapers for which I was then the art critic, to coincide with the artist's forthcoming retrospective in London at the Tate Gallery. Lowry seemed tickled by the idea of being chauffered by a journalist with a tape-recorder, and he wrote back saying he much looked forward to it, warning me that there was nowhere to stay in Mottram where he lived; 'a dreadful place, and I spend a lot of time wondering why I ever came to live in it.' I duly picked him up from Mottram, and he was, as ever, delightful company. It was towards the end of the first day that we abandoned the car and sat in the centre of Manchester in the evening sun, and began people-watching.
There was a quizzical look on his face beneath the inevitable trilby hat as he gazed at one passer-by after another, giving the occasional twitch of a smile as something caught his eye. It was as if he was mentally photographing them all for future use - which I am sure he was. After a while I broke the silence and asked him what it was about crowds that so intrigued him. He turned to me and chuckled: 'Well, you see, sir' - he sometimes called me 'Sir' ironically, being almost fifty years my senior - 'people think crowds are all the same. But they're not, you know. Everyone's different. Look!' And he became very animated. 'That man's got a twitch. He's got a limp. He's had too much beer. That woman, she's angry with her child. Those two have had a row ... It's wonderful, isn't it, sir? The battle of life: that's what it is. The battle of life'.
Later, in one of his favourite tea-shops Lowry expanded on the theme. When he was at art school in Manchester the French Impressionists were coming into fashion. 'I liked them up to a point,' he said, 'but I didn't see the battle of life in them. But I saw it in Daumier all right.' Then he mentioned other painters he admired for the same reason, in particular Pieter Bruegel and that masterful 17th Century Dutch painter of winter scenes on the ice Hendrick Avercamp. But, as he pointed out, these were painters of country life, and what he was trying to do was quite different. 'And by the mid-1940s, at the end of the war, I'd done what I set out to do' he went on with an air of modest pride. 'I'd proved my point - that there was subject-matter for a painter in the industrial scene.' It had not been done before, at least not with real people, and not romanticised, I believe he meant.
Then he added something that surprised me. 'What was that line of Sheridan? "There's nothing so noble as a man of sentiment"'. It was a remark, I came to realise, that offered a clue to why Lowry's work is so loved. At first glance a Lowry painting of crowds may seem impersonal and cold. But on closer acquaintance it is the opposite: it is full of quirky humour, affection and it is rich in sentiment - even when, as in The Football Match (lot 140), his figures are so tiny they are little more than an army of ants. The sentiment is still there - the feeling that this is the heartland of real people - just as it is with the bleak industrial landscape beyond which he was so proud of having put on the painter's map. Here was the hard battleground of human life.
Lowry was a solitary who loved crowds. His grey figures stride purposefully through the streets of industrial England, wearing shoes like boxing-gloves and hats rammed over their ears, their clothes draped over gangling limbs that seem to possess no bones or muscles. They find their true role pouring out of a mill after a day's work, or pacing a railway platform, congregating round a street fight, whooping it up on V.E. Day to mark the end of the war, swarming into a football ground, or forming a procession of pram-pushers in the park accompanied by absurd dogs looking like animated pipe-cleaners. Lowry loved them all, just as he loved those claustrophobically-empty landscapes which express the inner solitude of the man, and which have always been among my personal favourites.
Lowry's figures are as unmistakeable as Chaplin's bowler-hatted tramp, who emitted the same quality of 'sentiment' - sad, funny and vulnerable. Indeed there is something of the silent movie about Lowry's canvases. Chaplin's celebrated figure in The Goldrush, chewing at an old boot out of hunger, could have been a Lowry character we might have witnessed that evening in Piccadilly Gardens. Sitting there on that evening in Manchester forty-five years ago there were a good many other Chaplinesque figure who brought a twinkle to Lowry's eyes. I hope he enjoyed our people-watching as much as I did. I miss him, his warmth, his humour and his 'sentiment'.
(Edwin Mullins, private correspondence, March 2011)
Failsworth was a popular subject for Lowry and the location of Daisy Nook country park, where an annual Easter fair has been held since the 19th Century. Lowry regularly painted the fair in the late 1940s in scenes of post-war optimism, such as Lancashire Fair, Daisy Nook, 1946 (Government Art Collection), and Good Friday, Daisy Nook, 1946 (sold in these Rooms for a world record price of £3,772,000; private collection).
In the present work, the end of the street is populated by children playing, with an accompanying dog, with Lowry's characteristic small groups of figures, and a solitary on-looker leaning against the wall.