In the 1950s Lowry experimented with watercolour but completed only a few paintings 'no more than a dozen', he thought. 'Watercolours I've used only occasionally. They don't really suit me...dry too quickly. They're not flexible enough. I like a medium you can work into, over a period of time'.
Referring to Lowry’s works in watercolour, the writer Mervyn Levy remarked that ‘He has no great relish for the medium, although he can extract from its fleeting potential a deftness of touch and a shimmering translucency of colour which lends itself especially to beach scenes and seascapes (Mervyn Levy, The Paintings of L.S. Lowry, Oils and Watercolours, London, 1975, p. 25).
Although Lowry preferred to work in oil for its more forgiving nature, and it would be hard to deny that Lowry has extracted the most from the medium’s ‘fleeting potential’ in this charming work. As with his oils, the ground is white and there is a linear nature to the buildings and the edges of the pavements, but whereas Lowry often depicts a mill gate as the centre of activity, in the present work there is a perceptible separation created by the gate. The pillars of the entrance have an ethereal, almost religious quality and Lowry has used the wash effect of watercolour to portray the diminished clarity of the smog-filled air beyond the gates, almost obscuring the tall chimney stacks in the distance.
The viewer's eye is drawn to the background as the repeated shapes recede towards the vanishing point. The houses frame the canvas on either side, leading the viewer between the houses and through the prominently placed first set of gateposts. Through this we discover a further pair of gates in the background. These frieze-like receding planes of the composition are typical of Lowry's technique. This type of division of the composition reinforces the themes of isolation and separation which run throughout Lowry's work.
In the foreground, by contrast, there is clarity in the portrayal of the perfectly balanced collection of men, women, children and dogs. With characteristic deftness of touch, using just the slightest change in the angle of his brushstroke, Lowry lets us know that the rush to work is over. Now the figures can amble, take their time to observe their surroundings and even stand quite still.
This rare watercolour was included in both the 1959 Retrospective of the artist’s work at the City Art Gallery, Manchester and the 1962 Retrospective at the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield.