In 1909 Lowry's family moved to 117 Station Road, Pendlebury, between Manchester and Bolton, which was to become his home for nearly forty years. This move from the residential side of Manchester to an industrial suburb made a huge impression on the 22-year-old Lowry: 'At first I didn't like it at all. It took me six years. Then I got used to it; after that, interested. I wanted to depict it. I couldn't recollect that anyone else had done it before. Finally I became obsessed by it, and I did nothing else for 30 years' (see M. Leber and J. Spalding (eds.), exhibition catalogue, L.S. Lowry, Salford Art Gallery, 1987, p. 68).
The present work, painted in 1958, Industrial Landscape; Stockport Viaduct, is a highly complex, mainly composite industrial landscape in which Lowry has combined many different elements to create an extensive urban scene, filled with figures and houses against a background teeming with factories belching out smoke.
Lowry has packed this grand composition with a plethora of recognisable motifs: the terraced houses with familiar red front doors; heavily-outlined black churches; Stockport Viaduct stretching right across the horizon, with a goods train travelling across it; and factory buildings and chimneys as far as the eye can see receding into the distance. The recognisable shop fronts of Jackson's auctioneers and salerooms, first recorded by Lowry in a drawing from 1936 (private collection), and Smith & Smith Stores, are clearly depicted in the composition.
Lowry commented on this industrial sprawl, the greatest subject matter that the artist drew upon, 'It fascinates me, dominates my imagination. As you know, my pictures are often based on separate fragments of reality which I fit together to create townscapes. Not all my pictures, by any means, are topographically accurate, many are composite, and it is into these composite pieces that the Stockport Viaduct so often creeps, like some recurring subject in a dream' (quoted in The Studio, see J. Sandling and M. Leber, Lowry's City A Painter and his Locale, Salford, 2000, p. 96).
In the central position of the canvas, the viewer is drawn to a crowd of people, who have gathered around a street vendor or van, while other smaller groups are positioned around the foreground. At the front of the canvas, solitary figures walk determinedly across our viewpoint, resolutely going about their everyday business.
The typical elevated viewpoint, from which this work is painted, gives these figures a diminutive feel in comparison to the urban sprawl beyond them. This device is particularly present in the 1951 landscape, Industrial Scene, sold in these Rooms on 16 November 2007, lot 117, £1,476,500 (private collection).
Michael Howard comments on these brooding industrials, 'What is the value, Lowry seems to be saying, of all this industrial frenzy in the face of our major spiritual concerns, our metaphysical loneliness and our disregard for our fellow man and the environment in which we live? Lowry's art, although informed by literature, theatre, film and art, is essentially a response to his private experience and he remains, like Blake, profoundly personal and inimitable. He shares with many the acceptance of 'nothingness' as the source of true reality. The city in Lowry's work is a place where natural relationships are impossible to sustain. Man's fragile identity with the natural rhythms and cycles has been broken by the industrial processes and his world is reduced to a timeless, seasonless, weatherless place. His paintings are articulate testimonies to such primal fears expressed through the remorseless spread of the urban fabric and the revenge of nature. What Lowry in effect presents is a denial of nature, the terrifying vacuum behind the apparent solidity of buildings and purposeful actions. All man's structures are temporary, and one day will disappear into the flake-white nothingness from which they were created' (see Lowry: A Visionary Artist, Salford, 2000, pp. 157-158).