In this previously unrecorded composition from his mature period, Lowry has captured the morning’s energy to perfection. The yellow-tinted sky heralds the start of another day and a muted optimism reflected in the purposeful stride of the mass of factory workers.
Lowry himself would have felt a good deal of optimism at this stage in his life. Subject to periods of depression, he had been annoyed for years for bearing the false label of a self-taught and untutored artist. He was, actually, highly trained but happened to find his most effective means of expression, his ‘style’, was a type of art that was labelled naïve. Famously he remarked "If people call me a Sunday painter I'm a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week!"
The 1950s, however, saw long overdue recognition by the artistic establishment. In 1955 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and also offered (and declined) an OBE. In 1956 his large painting Industrial Landscape was selected for purchase by the Chantrey Bequest and was acquired for the permanent collection of the Tate. Then, in 1957 Lowry was the subject of an illuminating BBC documentary titled ‘LS Lowry’ which helped the artist to become a household name.
The documentary, made two years before Going to Work was painted, offers a fascinating insight into the artist’s methods of painting. On view for all to see is the almost magical skill he possesses in portraying figures with just a tender dab of his brush. Perhaps even more remarkable is the layering and positioning of multiple figures, placed with an apparently haphazard fashion that belies the artist’s chess-player’s mind, able to set the scene twenty moves in advance.
Lowry sketched assiduously and certainly knew his surroundings and the characters who filled the landscapes but he was honest in his response to his preferred method of composition: ‘I prefer to paint from my mind’s eye’.
Going to Work is such a painting; the result of a carefully crafted composition, the result of decades of observation but, nonetheless, a composition in his mind’s eye. Going to Work from 1943, in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, has a similar magnetic focus to the present composition, save for the barrage balloons visible, reminding the viewer of Britain at War. A drawing of the same title, from 1953 demonstrates how Lowry developed his initial thoughts towards the final image. Interestingly, the drawing includes additional figures, a horse and cart and even a bicycle.
It is perhaps a sign of the confidence that Lowry must have developed in this period that he was able to pare everything down to the core elements and remove the distracting, more static details even though they had become exactly the details he had become known for. These have been removed in a conscious move by the artist to reduce the composition to its core elements; movement and rhythm but, principally, rhythm. The result is one of Lowry’s most successful compositions.
Although movement covers most of the canvas, the majority of the action is to be seen in the flow of workers heading towards the factory’s arched gate. Lowry once said, 'I am interested in the flow of people, the rhythm rather than the individual; I am the individual.
Lowry was, however, able to portray a single person or a whole crowd with the same skilful touch, whether they stand in the foreground or far in the distance. As with the best of Lowry’s paintings, one or two figures in particular in Going to Work will catch the viewer’s attention. It may be the old man in the foreground, progressing at half the speed of the rest, or the smartly dressed woman above him, somehow separate from the crowd, striding to the right with such purpose.
The scene appears almost as an open square yet the factories and houses are actually all on a plane and a sense of compression is achieved through the subtlest placement of the walls and iron railings to the left and the terraced houses in the foreground.
Lowry uses the same techniques of creating individuality in his buildings as he does with his figures. The seemingly naïve representation of the uniform lines of factories, chimneys and houses, hide a carefully considered assemblage of features which are the result of decades of close observation. Although the factories dominate the terraced houses below, these smaller buildings proudly stand their ground, the largest, a double-fronted house standing proudest of all.
Lowry knew that his paintings required time to mellow and for the white to age. 'Give it time to go down. Give it time to yellow-to darken-to discolour-and then you will see what I mean - and what it is that I want to show you…' In Going to Work, the white ground which Lowry used to such effect has mellowed to just the right hue – a yellowed white which captures the smog-filled environment to perfection. Using his very limited palette, Lowry’s bold use of reds, carefully placed throughout the scene, creates a balanced image. It is seen in the coats worn by a few of the workers, on the doors of their houses and on the walls that flank the composition. The result is a painting that dances with movement. It is a superlative example of a Lowry Industrial composition which has never before been offered at auction, having remained in private hands, and having been acquired around 55 years ago.