People Standing About is an outstanding example of Lowry’s work from the mid 1930s, a period in which his output was rendered light and optimistic by the use of strong colour tones on a bright white ground. The foreground frieze portrays people going about their everyday activities and routines; children running, people shouting, elderly people with their walking sticks, talking in small groups, children holding balloons, and dogs being taken for walks. With its diminishing perspective, winding streets, buildings and people, People Standing About demonstrates Lowry’s innate ability to instil his paintings with an intricate compositional structure and sense of equilibrium. The vast expanse of road, and gathering of people in the foreground draws the viewer's eye to the immediate happenings at the pictures lower edge. The circular steps and railings in the middle ground of the painting subsequently pulls us back along the length of the street, and smaller groups can be distinguished further in the distance. In this way, Lowry draws attention to the activities of each of the different groups of characters and buildings.
At the very heart of Lowry’s output and vision is the industrial landscape. Lowry was captivated by how people would act in both isolation and a crowd and combines the daily activities and habits of people within their surrounding environment. His inherent loneliness seemed to fuel his fascination in the way that he would watch and study how people communicated or did not communicate with one another. The mills and factories, the terraced housing, the darkness, soot and gloom of the northern industrial scene were characterised into a new type of English landscape painting. Lowry was for his time, what Hogarth or Brueghel were in theirs:
'Bruegel did the industrial scene as he knew it in his day and I did it in my day, so it's natural that critics make comparisons between his work and mine. It jumps to the eyes. When he was alive he saw the industrial scene around him and he did it. Now four hundred years later I saw the industrial scene around me and I did it. And with him people said "What are you doing these things for? Nobody wants pictures like this", and funnily enough, they have said the same thing to me' (L.S. Lowry, quoted in S. Rohde, L.S. Lowry A Biography, Salford, 1979, p. 101).
In 1909 Lowry and his family moved from the residential side of Manchester to Pendlebury where he lived for the next 40 years. He later wrote: ‘At first I didn’t like it at all … Then I got used to it; after that interested; I wanted to depict it … I couldn’t recollect that anyone else had ever done it before seriously … Finally I became obsessed by it, and I did nothing else for thirty years…’ (L.S. Lowry, quoted in exhibition catalogue, L.S. Lowry, A Centenary Tribute, A Loan Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, London, Crane Kalman Gallery, 1987, n.p.). Lowry in effect transformed the deprived, poverty stricken Northern industrial towns of the 1920s and 30s, eternalising them, giving the streets, people and environment aesthetic worth, historicising the everyday activities of the local community.
The backdrop to People Standing About exemplifies Lowry’s fascination with the use of flake white paint that was used in the 1920s after Lowry’s tutor and art critic for the Manchester Guardian, Bernard Taylor, suggested his paintings were too dark in tone. Lowry began his experimentation with white pigment: He covered a small wooden board with flake white paint, placing it in an airtight container for seven years. Upon removing the board, he painted a second identical board with the same flake white paint and compared the affect the seven years of ageing had had on the original painted board. The older white had developed a wonderfully creamy-yellow and grey palette. ‘Give it time to yellow- to darken- to discolour- then you will see what I mean!’ exclaimed Lowry (L.S. Lowry, quoted in M. Levy, The Paintings of L.S. Lowry, Oil and Watercolours, London, 1975, p. 24). Leaving his paintings to naturally discolour enhanced the effect of the smoggy quality of the industrial air he painted. Alongside his experimentation with white, Lowry solely used Prussian blue, vermilion, yellow ochre and black which, as seen in People Standing About, stands out brilliantly against the surrounding white background. Lowry honed his skilful use of colour allowing him to utilise the selected pigments to precisely create the effects he desired, which he uses here to striking effect to capture the industrial scene and the colourful myriad of characters who populate it.
Lowry said of the people in his paintings, ‘I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me … Natural figures would have broken the spell of it, so I make my figures half unreal. Some critics have said that I turned my figures into puppets, as if my aim were to hint at the hard economic necessities that drove them. To say the truth, I was not thinking very much about the people. I did not care for them the way a social reformer does. They are part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way: as part of a vision’ (L.S. Lowry, quoted in M. Howard, Lowry A Visionary Artist, Salford, 2000, p. 123). In many cases, the subject of the paintings of this period would be an individual, or a situation in which a group of people are involved, such as An Organ Grinder (1934; Manchester City Art Gallery), or The Fever Van (1935; Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery). However, in the present work, People Standing About, the people who just stand around are the subject of the work, just as much as the landscape in which they inhabit. The street is loosely based on the main thoroughfare of the Northumbrian town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, a favourite location for Lowry after he had first discovered it and the only place that he had ever considered leaving Lancashire for.