Painted in 1963, the year after L.S. Lowry received his Royal Academician status, the present work is a strong example of Lowry’s shift in subject matter from bustling street scenes with towering industrial buildings on the horizon, to paintings of individuals and small groups with little surrounding detail. Procession in South Wales, Whit Monday, depicts smartly dressed groups of people walking side by side in an absent landscape, constructed from Lowry’s distinctive off-white colouring that he so often favoured. The picture depicts orderly lines of older men and women, led by a small group of children who are energetically stepping off the right edge of the canvas. For Lowry, this emphasis on the person was considered just as important as the industrial scenes stating, ‘A street … without people … is as dead as mutton’ (L.S. Lowry, quoted in M. Howard, Lowry: A Visionary Artist, Salford, 2000, p. 199).
Lowry was a regular visitor to Wales with his family when he was young, and later in adulthood in the 1960s with friend and avid collector of his work, Monty Bloom. The Whit Walk illustrated in this painting was an event that Lowry particularly enjoyed. With beginnings in the early industrial communities of Manchester in the 19th Century, the annual event was initially created by the Church of England to alter the focus of rowdy workers, who would pick fights and bet at the races on the day of rest. Later, the walks instead became a place to celebrate Whitsun, the Christian festival of Pentecost. During these processions, a local band would lead the community through the streets, with the children at the front, as seen in this painting. Although the band are not included in this work, the excitement of the children help represent the energy the band would have created, pulling the menfolk, followed by their wives and daughters through the scene. This event, with its religious symbolism and importance for the church, provided the working-class community an opportunity to escape the monotony of long work hours and unappealing living situations. In Lowry's day, even as late as the 1960s, in industrial communities up to 30,000 people would have been involved in these walks. The importance and positivity that Lowry felt towards the Whit Walks, means it is unsurprising that a sense of unity is felt between the children and in the calm, advancing parental group within the present work.
This was not the first time that Lowry had depicted the walks. While Procession in South Wales, Whit Monday’s figures move along an empty canvas, his 1927 oil, The Procession, contrastingly portrays a scene in Swinton, Manchester, where large crowds stretch beyond the square, assembling ready to begin their Whit march. In this earlier work, small brushstrokes of colour form figures standing by and leaning out of windows of buildings to watch this famous event take place. In contrast, the present work provides a strong focus on the marching group, who are smaller in number than in The Procession but nonetheless atmospheric by virtue of the absence of location and surrounding atmosphere. This absence allowed Lowry to ensure the figures become the sole focus with only a mere suggestion of a horizon illustrated by subtle streaks of underlying pinks, blues and greys, visible in the top half of the painting.
Just as Lowry’s portraits do not depict any one individual, it is near impossible for the viewer to determine the identity of the characters in the present work. The minimalist mark making deliberately provides only rudimentary facial features, thus leaving the viewer to actively construct their own narrative to bridge such gaps. Michael Howard observes, ‘… their faces are masks which conceal any attempt on the part of the viewer to invade their intimacy, and block any opportunity to construct the details of their private lives’ (M. Howard, ibid., pp. 136-137).
Each figure, painted with Lowry’s selected oil colours, including ochres, vermilion red and ivory black, stands out boldly against the surrounding white background. In the present work, the white has been heavily layered onto the canvas and manipulated with a sculpted depth around each figure. This fascination with white began in the 1920s after Lowry’s tutor and art critic for the Manchester Guardian, Bernard Taylor, suggested his paintings were too dark in tone. In response to these comments, Lowry began to experiment with white backgrounds. By storing the painted boards and canvas away for several years, then adding a fresh layer of flake white, Lowry could age the paint to a creamy-yellow colour. Over the years that Lowy painted, this technique allowed him to utilise his pigments to precisely create the muted effects he desired, representing the heavy, polluted sky and sombre nature of the communities in which his subjects lived.
As a keen theatregoer, Lowry may well have taken inspiration from the avant-garde movement entering theatres in the 1950s and 60s. The present work appears to share similar characteristics to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where Beckett’s characters sit waiting in a barren landscape for the entirety of the play. The audience is instead left to interpret the importance of the setting and the concept of time, just as the viewer is left to determine Lowry’s present work, alongside his desolate paintings from the same era, in which he conveys empty harbour scenes and ghostly seascapes.
This work was previously in the collection of Vernon Sangster, founder of the betting company, Vernon Pools. On his death, the painting passed to Sangster's son, Robert, who later ran the family business in Aintree. By the late 20th Century, he had become one of the best-known racehorse owners in Europe, and the owner of a group of exceptional works by L.S. Lowry.