This article first appeared in The Press on 13 October 2004
Laurence Stephen Lowry painted Factory at Widnes in 1956, at which time he was Britain's most famous living painter. Lowry's fame increased in that year as he became the subject of a BBC television documentary, though his work had already been popular in British homes and schools as reproductions since the end of the war. If appreciation for his individualistic painting style was widespread, there was also fascination with L.S. Lowry the artist, who had projected in the press the image of a lonely recluse.
Though Lowry was less reclusive than his public persona, such an image was not without basis. A gangling figure with strong features and thick, cropped silvering hair, always dressed as if ready for the office, Lowry was a teetotaller who never married, and never owned a car, a television or telephone. In his brick house in Mottram-in-Longdendale near Manchester he surrounded himself with clocks, all set at different times. He was also intensely private, and throughout his life studiously kept friends unaware of each other.
A greater fiction he maintained was that he had never worked at anything but his art, while in fact he had been in paid employment since his teens, having retired in 1952 on full pension after 42 years with the same company - as a rent collector and clerk. Sensitive to opinions that might regard him as anything but a serious painter, Lowry guarded jealously his slowly-wrought success. It was not until his death that the public learned of the artist's unique industrial vision having been developed as he traversed Manchester on foot as a rent collector, committing wry and sundry observations to notebook or memory before their working into paintings in evenings and on weekends.
As with Lowry himself, Factory at Widnes seems intended to remain enigmatic. Wrought with great confidence and painterly skill, its formal qualities are tight and flawless. It is a carefully constructed image of balance and restraint. Anchored by strong horizontals and verticals - black chimneys surrounded by white industrial haze - the painting's focal point by the distant factory gates is strengthened by selective use of concentrated colour. Three comic bowler-hatted figures head nonchalantly towards the imposing distant towers and factory, suggesting an unfolding yet oddly impenetrable story that almost certainly reflects Lowry's characteristic impish sense of humour.
The iconography of this work is typical of the artist, with elongated industrial chimneys and human figures who are almost shorthand notations, dwarfed and somewhat dislocated by their surrounds. While L. S. Lowry is known best for his expansive vistas with multiple towering chimneys and crowds moving in rhythmic patterns, Factory at Widnes is a more sparse and elegant composition, in its formality surprisingly reminiscent of work by Lowry's modernist contemporary Ben Nicholson - though London art world manners and sophistication are completely absent here.
Lowry's view of the absurdity of human nature was a key inspiration. Those who knew him recorded his fascination with accidents for the people they attracted, patterns they formed, and the atmosphere of tension. Lowry had an individual turn of mind that found cripples comic, and managed his painted world - with its images of human oddity and suffering - like a Greek god or a puppet master, without sentiment.
Widnes, the setting for this particular miniature drama, is located on the Mersey between Liverpool and Manchester, and is a place where apart from major industry, little else worthy of mention has ever happened. An early postcard of the town shows a mass of chimneys pouring heavy clouds of dark grey (and the droll legend ‘With Compliments from the Smoke'). The birthplace of the giant ICI chemical company, Widnes in the 1850s had 6,500 people working in the chemical factories alone. For every ton of soda produced, there were two tons of alkali waste, leading eventually to the burial of the local ancient Widnes and Ditton marshes, and the description of the town in 1888 as "the dirtiest, ugliest town in England". When Lowry painted this work in the 1950s, 45 major factories still existed there - today its principal attraction is a museum of the chemical industry.
One of Lowry's friends, gallery owner Tilly Marshall, recalled recently the painter's particular feelings for Widnes, in that ‘he did think of the town as a place where nothing happened ... I do remember it was quite often used jokingly when we were not to be doing anything exciting in an afternoon. "Are you doing anything this afternoon Mr Lowry?" "Ooh I might go to Widnes Mrs Marshall" he would reply.'
It is tempting to believe Lowry also knew Widnes as one of those places where anyone famous who has ever been there becomes thenceforth mentioned in connection with it forever. One such person, whose visit is still recalled, was (a very young) Charlie Chaplin, who performed at Widnes' Alexandra Theatre before he hit the big time. Another who played there was Stan Laurel, before heading for America and meeting up with Oliver Hardy. For Lowry, whose own humour was irreverent and slapstick, and who had a known affection for Chaplin's art, the possibility that he could be mischievous enough to allude to these well-known comics in his work is real. Though somewhat on the wane, all three in the 1950s were still in the British public eye, with Chaplin having been exiled from America in 1952 for his political views, and Laurel and Hardy having made three recent British tours.
Having developed his work outside the fashionable circles of artistic critical debate, Lowry was comfortable in placing himself within the world of popular culture, a position from which he was almost certain to offend refined aesthetic taste. The contrast at this time between L. S. Lowry and the leading names of the London art crowd (Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson) is great. Lowry is fascinating for his ability to live and work by his own dictates. A long-term result, however, is that even today, many art critics and historians have difficulty knowing exactly where to place him.
As with the best humorists, and with the best of Lowry's paintings, serious notes are being sounded here. Far more than a highly-aesthetic jibe at Widnes for its tedium, the painting seems also a wistful reflection on popularity and impermanence, of passing humanity in a man-made, constructed world. "Will it last?" was one of Lowry's regular catchphrases, as part of a recurring fixation with the long-term value of his work. For me, this carefully considered work is one of Lowry's most beautiful and interesting. Admiration is only strengthened by an appreciation of its and the artist's enigmas, so the verdict on his question from this quarter is a resounding yes.
British Painting 1930-1960
An exhibition of British Painting from New Zealand public collections organised by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council
L. S. Lowry’s vision of manufacturing England saw his canvases filled with factories, tenements, steeples and smokestacks, and typically rhythmic, spilling crowds. Factory at Widnes is one of Lowry’s least populated industrial landscapes, and one of his tightest, most minimal constructions; an unexpectedly deserted space within his brimming tribute to the waning industrial north.
Factory at Widnes was seen in London in 1956 by the prominent Christchurch architect and arts supporter Heathcote Helmore, who arranged for it to be shown at the 1957 Canterbury Society of Arts exhibition, from where it was purchased. Lowry was at that time Britain’s most famous living artist. (Above ground, 2015)
I go into the Gallery. Haven’t been there in a while. Building closed. It was open to begin with. Civil Defence HQ in the weeks following the shock that laid the city low and who knew glass could be so strong, so resilient? Then the Gallery closed. It was cordoned off, behind wire netting. Something was going on in there. Someone said something had cracked in the basement. Someone said they needed to insert a layer of bouncy forgiving rubber beneath glass and concrete, ready for any future slapdown.
City of Shadows and Stories
If cities are the ground into which we plant stories, the soil of Ōtautahi – later Christchurch – is undergoing a protracted tilling season. Five years is a long unsettlement in human terms; on a geological (or indeed narratological) scale, time moves more gradually. Christchurch exists today as a rich aggregation of narratives, propping up physical edifices of crumbling stone and cardboard.
It's where we live: the encrusted surface of a molten planet, rotating on its own axis, circling round the star that gives our daylight. Geographically, it's a mapped-out city at the edge of a plain, bordered by sea and rising, broken geological features. Zooming in further, it's a neighbourhood, a street, a shelter – all things existing at first as outlines, drawings, plans. And it's a body: portable abode of mind, spirit, psyche (however we choose to view these things); the breathing physical location of unique identity and passage.
For many passers-by, Christchurch art Gallery is identified by its dramatic glass façade—the public face it presents to the world. but De-Building is an exhibition that offers a very different view. bringing together the work of fourteen artists from new Zealand and farther afield, this group exhibition draws inspiration from the working spaces gallery-goers seldom see: the workshops, loading bays and back corridors; the scruffy, half-defined zones.
Prominent Christchurch painter Bill Sutton was an influential teacher from 1949 to 1979 at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts. Sutton has chosen here a restricted palette – ochre, brown and black – to portray this aged wooden façade under streetlight glare, with a reflected neon glow of red.
The Manchester Private Hotel, already rundown when Sutton painted it in 1954, was a somewhat disreputable boarding house on the corner of Manchester and Southwark Streets on the outskirts of central Christchurch. Belonging to a series of paintings that Sutton made depicting old, inner city buildings, it conveys the imprint of memory and the local past.
(Above ground, 2015)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi The Drawbridge, Plate VII (second state) from the series Invenzioni Capric di Carceri
Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s The Drawbridge is one of sixteen plates from a folio of prints depicting imaginary prisons that has repeatedly haunted and inspired writers, artists and architects for over two and a half centuries. Three of Piranesi’s Carceri engravings, for example, were included in Alfred H. Barr’s exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936.
First issued in 1749–50, but attracting little attention to begin with, the series was republished with heavily reworked plates in 1761, yielding darker, more detailed and more resolved prints that brought an attendant increase to their public reception and acclaim. (Above ground, 2015)
Many artists have depicted this city’s urban spaces, including Ivy Fife, who studied at the Canterbury College School of Art from 1920 to 1931 and taught there from 1936 until 1959. Fife’s studio apartment was in the nearby St. Elmo Courts, from where the bird’s-eye view was painted.
Fife also captured the clamour of Christchurch’s railway station on Moorhouse Avenue during the new Queen’s royal visit. Opened in 1877, the station had been a handsome structure, but by 1954 its Venetian gothic arches were under lean-to additions and its brick warmth covered in paint. Demolition came five years later; its replacement, a landmark modernist building, was itself demolished after the Christchurch earthquakes.
(Above ground, 2015)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, son of a Venetian stone- mason and master builder, trained in architecture and stage design before moving to Rome and training there as an engraver. Producing many picturesque Grand Tour views of Rome, he was hugely influential on the classical revival in European architecture. In Rome in 1755 he befriended the visiting architect Robert Adam, who praised Piranesi in a letter to his brother in London:
'[S]o amazing and ingenious fancies as he has produced in the different plans of the Temples, Baths and Palaces and other buildings I never saw and are the greatest fund for inspiring and instilling invention in any lover of architecture that can be imagined.'
(Above ground, 2015)
James Fitzgerald moved from England to Auckland in 1903, and then twenty years later to Christchurch, where he established his own commercial art studio. His watercolour view captures Christchurch’s Cathedral Square at its most architecturally cohesive and complete. Many will remember the United Service Hotel at left, built in 1884–85, demolished 1990; fewer will recall the neoclassical Bank of New Zealand building at right, designed in 1866, demolished 1963. While it is possible to lament our general cultural attitude to architectural heritage, it is also difficult to imagine anything here, even if it had been protected, as capable of surviving the 2010-11 earthquakes that hit the city.
(Above ground, 2015)