Although Lowry is quoted as saying “I never do a jolly picture” this is an optimistic painting, one that fits squarely into the post-war period of regeneration when the artist’s focus changed and he saw great inspiration to be found in the open parks that bordered the grimy industrial landscape. While this regeneration of the early 1950s saw the destruction of much of the architecture that had provided him with his best known subject matter, it also provided him with a new impetus and occurred during Lowry’s most productive period. In the years following his retirement from the Pall Mall Property Company, Lowry produced some of his most iconic paintings including The Funeral Party, Lake Landscape and The Pond.
In Park and Steps the looming factories and terraced houses have been replaced by openness and the borders are two converging lines of mature green trees, the pale, almost ethereal outlines of the factories and billowing chimneys in the background and an inviting band of steps in the foreground. Even the glowing red building to the right appears barely industrial in form.
Lowry often towers over the action, pulling the viewer over the rooftops and beyond into the drama below. With Park and Steps, however, the park is seen from below and Lowry has used the full width of the canvas to create a stage-like setting with steps that lead up to the large open city park, inviting us into the scene. “Steps and things … I liked doing steps in Ancoats … in Stockport … steps anywhere you like, simply because I like steps and the area which they used in what was an industrial area. I did a lot you see. I’ve never found it interesting to paint pure landscapes. I’m not interested in pure landscape. I’ve done a few.” (T.G. Rosenthal, L.S.Lowry, The Art and the Artist, Norwich, 2010, p. 239).
Lowry’s extraordinary ability to capture the human element, the essence of the everyday, is ever present. Edwin Mullins describes Lowry’s keen eye for detail: ‘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.’ (Edward Mullins, March 2011).
When asked by Mullins about the reasons for his fascination with crowds his response was, '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'.
In Park and Steps Lowry’s characteristically careful placement of figures is obvious to the keen observer and the elements that make a great Lowry painting are all there; scurrying adults, awkward children, mothers with prams, accompanied by the familiar, slightly absurd pipe-cleaner dogs, but as with the best of his paintings, one or two figures in particular will catch the viewer’s attention. It may be the boy standing at the top of the steps looking back towards us. Is he beckoning all to join him in the park or is he giving a last glance outwards as he reluctantly follows his parents, hurrying away to the left? Then there is the comical scene to the right with the child in the pram climbing out, far too far out, in an attempt to reach the ball on the ground while the distracted mothers stand with their backs to the scene, unaware that the joyful scene may turn to tears in a moment. Our eyes turn to the young girl sitting on the steps. Is she sulking, exhausted, or just lonely? ‘All my people are lonely,' Lowry once said, 'in creative work you let all the cats out of the bag, you know, what your disposition is like (and I live entirely by myself, used to live with my parents). It all comes out. I have never been away - not really. I’m not married - I live by myself and I keep myself to myself. I have one or two friends, but not really. Your art is bound to come out in the work, you can’t keep it in.’ (S. Rohde, L.S. Lowry, A Life, London, 2007, p. 224).
Lowry was an only child, shy and gauche and he found it difficult to make friends. He undoubtedly felt empathy for the two young children in the foreground who are seen climbing hesitantly, arms awkwardly outstretched, into the arena. With the simplest of brushstrokes, even from behind, the artist conveys that childish mix of joy and apprehension at arriving at a park filled with the boisterous activity of older children and dogs. As so often with Lowry’s work there is a sense of separation and here it plays on many levels. As well as a separation from the ghostly industrial background, with its reminder of the life of the factory, there is a line of separation drawn between those enjoying their moment of play on the upper plane of the park and those yet to mount the steps into this world. The composition is balanced both in colour and structure with a careful placing of reds and, unusually for Lowry, the complimentary greens. As T.G Rosenthal noted, ‘Lowry has almost as much joy with the range of greens for the grass surface and the healthy trees in leaf as he does with the white.” (T.G. Rosenthal, op. cit., 2010, p. 243). In some respects it is the trees that make this landscape what it is. Painted with a fullness that is in stark contrast with the scrawny leafless trees we are used to seeing in his industrial landscapes, they are unmistakenly Lowry trees. And then it becomes obvious. The master of billowing smoke has created billowing foliage emerging from slender trunks.
On the verso is an additional image by the artist, a rare unfinished portrait of a woman.