Conceived in 1943, The Mill, Pendlebury is a powerful example of the industrial landscapes that dominated the artist’s oeuvre throughout his career. The present work depicts one of Lowry’s most important views. The large square building at the end of the row of terraces is the Acme Spinning Company Mill, which, in 1916, inspired Lowry to paint his first industrial scene. Having missed a train from Pendlebury, Lowry recalled how ‘… as I got to the top of the station steps I saw the Acme Spinning Company’s Mill, the huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows stood up against the sad, damp-charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out hundreds of little pinched, black figures, heads bent down, as though to offer the smallest surface to the swirling particles of sodden grit, hurrying across the asphalt, along the mean streets with inexplicable derelict gaps in the rows of houses, past the telegraph poles, homewards to high tea or pubwards, away from the mill and without a backward glance. I watched this scene – which I’d looked at many times without seeing – with rapture’. (Lowry quoted in J. Spalding and M. Leber, Lowry’s City, A Painter and His Locale, Salford, 2000, p. 17). The Acme Spinning Company Mill was the first mill in the country to be powered completely by electricity. The building was later demolished in 1984.
The modernist society of the mid-20th century was perhaps defined largely by the disproportionate influence of the urban and industrial. Despite Lowry’s chosen subject material, exemplified in the present work, he remains aloof from the activities of modernism, which was constantly transforming. The Mill, Pendlebury demonstrates Lowry’s reluctance to conform to the wave of technological development that was reshaping the first half of the twentieth century. The figures that populate the painting show no evidence of changing fashions. In fact, the drawing, Industrial Scene, conceived by Lowry in 1936 and owned by Eric Newton, displays figures in very similar placements and wearing identical clothing as the inhabitants of the present work which was painted seven years later. When compared, the two works convey an idea of time stood still. However, whilst Lowry seemingly neglected notions of ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’, the alienated sensibility, the self-aware simplicity and indiscriminate colouration of his work are qualities more frequently associated with 20th century avant-garde art. At the same time, the absence of a truly specific modernist timeframe allowed the artist to revisit the same scenes and compositions time and time again. The Mill, Pendlebury demonstrates how Lowry managed to preserve industrial traditions and heritage, thereby creating his own nostalgic urban culture from an exhaustive bank of memories, honed in the early years of the century.
The depiction of the people in the bustling streets surrounding the mill, is testament to Lowry’s almost compulsive preoccupation with using the figure to help portray his industrial surroundings. In this case, there is a joyful aspect to the painting, clearly the subject depicts the day of rest, the figures are moving about without urgency, from the children playing cricket in the middle of composition to the fathers pushing their prams in the forground, to the small groups of people milling about and chatting, all demonstrating the acute level of observation that Lowry acquired from the regularity of his sketching. Under close inspection, however, the figures are reduced to Lowry’s unique painterly language of direct brushstrokes and shorthand. ‘Natural figures would have broken the spell of it, so I made 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.’ (Lowry quoted in M. Howard, Lowry, A Visionary Artist, Salford, 2000, p. 123). It is, however, undeniable that the reduction of these figures to a plastic interpretation serves as a powerful metaphor for the de-humanising effects of the industrial process, and contribute to the vivid portrayal of the industrial landscape for which the artist is justifiably renowned.
‘We went to Pendlebury in 1909 from a residential side of Manchester, and we didn’t like it. My father wanted to go to get near a friend for business reasons. We lived next door, and for a long time my mother never got to like it, and at first I disliked it, and then after about a year or so I got used to it, and then I got absorbed in it, then I got infatuated with it. Then I began to wonder if anyone had ever done it. Seriously, not one or two, but seriously; and it seemed to me by that time that it was a very fine industrial subject matter. And I couldn’t see anybody at that time who had done it – and nobody had done it, it seemed’ (Lowry quoted from an interview with Hugh Maitland, in J. Spalding and M. Leber, Lowry’s City, A Painter and His Locale, Salford, 2000, p. 14).