‘My ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map because nobody had done it, nobody had done it seriously’ (L.S. Lowry, quoted in T.J Clark and A. Wagner (ed.) Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, London, 2013, p. 37).
‘The Industrial Landscapes are terrible, heartbreaking, beautiful; they speak to the reality of England in ways that no other English painting of the twentieth century comes close to; but they are – it is integral to their realism – essentially modest’ (T.J. Clark and A. Wagner, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, London, 2013, p. 33).
The Red Bridge is a quintessential example of L.S. Lowry’s universally recognised industrial landscapes. Conceived in 1958, when the artist had already achieved critical and commercial success, the work was originally owned by Lowry’s friend and notable patron, Monty Bloom. Bloom discovered Lowry’s work by chance the year before, in 1957, when he turned on the television to watch the Nine O’Clock News. He caught the end of the preceding programme, which happened to be John Read’s BBC film on Lowry. Bloom referred to the experience distinctly: ‘It was so accidental. I got the last ten minutes of that film. For some reason or other, these were the first paintings that had ever moved me. I was born in an industrial area, which probably had something to do with it. I wanted one’ (M. Bloom, quoted in, The Life of L.S Lowry, London, 1977, p. 103). By the mid-1960s, Bloom owned around 100 of Lowry’s works, with 60 of them hanging on his walls. In The Red Bridge, we find all of Lowry’s industrial iconography that Bloom found so compelling. Depicted from an elevated viewpoint, as is typical of Lowry’s oeuvre, the church, the bridge, the mills and the chimneys punctuate the composition. The heightened perspective enables the viewer to make out the subtle suggestions of more people and buildings far in the distance, conjuring the notion of an endless industrial plain. This vantage point, that Lowry chose so frequently, is seemingly impossible. The artist is observing from somewhere that is ostensibly nowhere, adding to the panoramic boundlessness of the scene.
The red bridge itself is placed across the middle of the work, effectively bisecting it to create two works in one. Lowry revisited the subject of the bridge again in 1959, featuring a crowd gathering around what is most likely a travelling Punch and Judy show. In the present work, the figures in the lower half go about their daily lives, going to work, cycling, or walking their dogs. Their movement is framed by the bridge, the fence on the left, the pit heap on the right and the bottom edge of the painting, composing a work within a work. The activity in the foreground contrasts the relative stillness of the upper half of the work, which is characterised by monumental, almost palatial, mills and chimneys that puff out pale blue smoke against an eerie white sky. White was an extremely important colour for Lowry. He enjoyed the way the colour would recede or ‘go down’ over time, becoming darker and yellower to transform into the exact hue that he wished it to be. The Red Bridge evokes this striking use of white, which has indeed faded to vividly represent the hazy smog of an industrial world. Mervyn Levy insisted upon the meticulous thoughtfulness behind Lowry’s pieces: ‘And if we consider for a moment the question of Lowry’s ‘composition’, I think we must see him at his greatest as an architect. His pictures have the strong, firm, securely interlocking qualities of architecture. Nothing is superfluous, everything has its place and its purpose in the scheme of the construction. Everything balances, though not in any dull, symmetrical sense. The whole edifice is firm, solid, like a well-constructed building’ (M. Levy, The Paintings of L.S. Lowry, Oils and Watercolours, London, 1978, p. 25).
Like many of Lowry’s paintings from the 1950s, The Red Bridge is what the artist himself would describe as a ‘composite’ landscape. It has been recognised that Lowry rarely painted specific places. Instead, he preferred to construct scenes from sketches in his notebooks or from his own recollections, creating what have become known as his mindscapes or dreamscapes. As Clark and Wagner point out ‘each landscape is a patchwork construction – a set of motifs that are both distant and palpable, observed and invented, real and made up’ (T.J. Clark and A. Wagner, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, London, 2013, p. 110). The Red Bridge appears as a diverse amalgam of various places visited or imagined by Lowry and a unique trace of the artist’s memory that was so embedded in the Northern consciousness. This aspect of Lowry’s artistic process became particularly pertinent after the Second World War. In the late 1940s and 1950s, England was still recovering from the devastating effects of the war and the subsequent damage to its industrial infrastructure. By the end of the 1950s, when The Red Bridge was conceived, the Northern landscapes that had become Lowry’s artistic obsession were disappearing. However, Lowry had spent previous decades imprinting enough material into his imagination to regenerate these industrial vistas onto a canvas and, in turn, inscribe them onto our history. Works like The Red Bridge have come to epitomise an image of England’s industrial legacy, making Lowry the key figure in transforming the North into a subject of artistic veneration.