This grim picture is dated 1935 and its title, as well as its execution are ominous, given that T.S. Eliot's poem with the same title was published in 1922 and that Lowry's poetic tastes were firmly rooted in the nineteenth century there is no point in seeking any linkage there. If there's a literary connection it is much more likely to be with Walter Greenwood's great novel of working class ife in Salford during the Great Depression, Love on the Dole, which he published only two years before Lowry painted this picture. Lowry would certainly have read the book and it remains one of the minor tragedies of North Western cultural life that bossy Mrs Lowry apparently prevented a meeting between Salford's finest novelist and its greatest painter when Greenwood called at the Lowry house.
It is worth quoting here the second half of the opening paragraph of Love on the Dole since it bears an uncanny relationship to both the surface and the deeper meaning of this painting.
'On either side of this are other streets, mazes, jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, two rooms above and two below, in some cases only one room down and aloft; public houses by the score where forgetfulness lurks in a mug; pawnshops by the dozen where you can raise the wind to buy forgetfulness; churches, chapels and unpretentious mission halls where God is praised; nude black patches of land, 'crofts' as they are called, water-logged, sterile, black and chill [my italics]'.1
What is so scary about Lowry's painting is that, while it undoubtedly portrays a Wasteland, it also looks like the word Howard Jacobson attributed to another hellish Lowry painting, Golgotha. What he has painted, with Greenwood's social observations neatly out of sight, but far from our out of mind, is a Wasteland which has not, as you might expect, come to a standstill but is clearly hard at work. There are lights in the factory windows, the majority of the chimneys are belching smoke, there are isolated clumps of people on the odd spit of land. In other words it is a functioning wasteland where a lucky few are still in work and a handful of Mr Gradginds are still exploiting their employees and, somehow, squeezing a profit out of them. Heaven knows how many people the swollen, overflowing river has destroyed. Who knows how much more of the Wasteland will be eroded into this turgid, dangerous waterway.
The whole landscape reminds one of the sinister inventiveness of Hieronymous Bosch while, without crediting Lowry with the power of second sight, it looks forward to the outbreak of war in 1939, a year I cannot help noticing, which also saw the death of Mrs Lowry.
Leaving those ultimately trivial co-incidences aside, having written about Lowry for half a century now I never thought that I would, regarding one of his most powerful paintings, use the apocalyptic but here no other will do.
1Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood, Vintage Books, 1993, p. 11.