By 1930, the year in which the present work was painted, Lowry had regularly exhibited throughout the U.K. and very often in France, where he had found particular popularity at the Paris Salon. However, the London art scene still failed to acknowledge his existence. While he found this fact together with the lack of sales of his paintings somewhat depressing, he continued to paint major works throughout the 1930s. Eventually in 1939, the prestigious London dealer Alex Reid & Lefevre held his first one-man show, where the Tate Gallery bought Dwellings, Ordsall Lane, Salford and press coverage was very encouraging. The firm took over his affairs and this heralded a turning point in his career.
During the 1920s Lowry had gained the encouragement and support that he craved from a wide circle of friends and well-connected acquaintances and this was sufficient to keep his artistic vision alive. The grittier realities of the inner-city street scenes that inspired his paintings were seen by contemporary critics, such as Bernard Taylor of the Manchester Guardian, as subjects portrayed 'with real imagination' and this positive critical response to his work encouraged him to continue to record the events that he observed on his daily rounds as a rent collector. Paintings such as The Hawker's Cart (1929; Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh), Sudden Illness (1920; private collection), and The Arrest (1927; Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham), all focus on a small crowd caught by the artist in a dramatic moment. Lowry's characters often take on the role of observers or onlookers unprepared to step in and assist each other, reinforcing the anonymity of existence of people living in a large industrial city, where individuals are at the mercy of forces beyond their own control. In the present work, the artist's title People Talking could easily be a euphemism for a heated argument or even an impending arrest. The women in shawls are mill workers and the suited men are the same characters who appear as policemen in The Arrest. In that painting, the action takes place on the comically named 'Police Street', but the present work is clearly set in the same location, among the tenements and lodging houses in a street dominated by the large mill where the factory workers spent most of their lives. (see M. Howard, Lowry A Visionary Artist, Salford, 2000, pp. 26-29, 126-140).
Mervyn Levy in his monograph (The Paintings of L.S. Lowry, London, 1976, p. 13) observed a duality in Lowry's approach to the characters in his paintings: 'He is a mocker of great individuality, great humour. Out on a limb, the artist is a 'loner', a fastidious observer who will suddenly seize a character from life and inflate it dramatically into a vision of loneliness, ugliness, or even horror ... Eccentric too in his painterly interests - he admitted to me recently that only two artists, Ford Madox Brown and Rossetti, held any real fascination for him - he is rather like the benign uncle who suddenly pulls faces and frightens the children. There is even something of the classical fairy tale element in his vision - that sharp, sometimes terrifying, contrast of good and evil, of malicious or at least, mischievious forces always at work alongside the safe and happy areas of life. But this is only in between times. For the rest of the time, the artist acts out in his canvases responses to life which reveal both his detachment from affairs, and his continual search for symbols and metaphors to express his personal isolation and detachment'.