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Sotheby’s to Auction Four Important Works by L.S. Lowry

The work of L.S. Lowry (1887-1976) holds a special place in the heart of the British public and Sotheby’s sale of 20th Century British Art on Wednesday, 26 May 2010, will present four exceptional works by the much celebrated British master. The pictures come from three different private collections and have never been seen on the auction market before. With a combined pre-sale estimate of £920,000-1,480,000, the four paintings are instantly recognisable as Lowry compositions as they incorporate all of the signature elements of the artist’s greatest works. They cast him as an observer of humanity – in all its moods.

Frances Christie, Director, Sotheby’s 20th Century British Art, said: “Lowry is one of Britain’s most recognisable artists and we are really excited to have four works that have never been seen at auction before and which represent such different aspects of his style and subject.”

Lowry’s canvases have been at the forefront of the 20th-century British art market since the 1960s. Born in Stretford, on the outskirts of Manchester, Lowry was a curious character who was completely dedicated to his art. His drawings and paintings on the whole are inspired by Salford and the surrounding areas – particularly Pendlebury – where Lowry lived and worked for well over 30 years. Famous for his scenes of daily life within the architectural framework of the industrial urban areas of northern England in the early part of the 20th century, his highly acclaimed canvases show chimneys, mills, church spires and back-to-back terraces alongside stylised figures and a lack of weather effects. From the earliest stages of his career, these panoramic industrial landscapes were at the heart of his work and they remain the images most frequently associated with him. Successful throughout his lifetime, Lowry was elected an R.A., his works were widely exhibited throughout Britain and he was appointed the official artist at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Furthermore, a stamp of one of his paintings was produced by the General Post Office and he was presented with an O.B.E., a C.B.E., a C.H. and a knighthood, all of which he refused.

A Street Brawl, signed and dated 1933 and estimated at £300,000-500,000, displays an intensity in its presentation of incident and, as a result, the work pulses with life (lot 42). Like all great Lowry compositions, the present work captures a moment. A fight has broken out just outside a building, with the protagonists and their interlopers the focal point of the composition. Elsewhere, the rest of the street just looks on, signifying that such an event is commonplace in their day-to-day lives. The three men propping up the wall on the left – masterfully observed – provide a perfect counterbalance to the hub of activity around the fight. The mill that dominates the vista appears again and again in Lowry’s paintings throughout his career. However, it is the people who lived in these areas that captivated the artist. He recalled, “…The buildings were there and I was fascinated by the buildings…But I was fascinated by the people who lived and worked in them…an industrial set without people is an empty shell…it’s as dead as mutton. It had to be the combination of the two – the mills and the people…“

In A Protest March, signed and dated 1959, Lowry deploys a very effective and startling viewpoint (lot 43). The lack of sky or vista adds to a claustrophobic atmosphere, with the figures moving toward the viewer at speed. The painting, estimated at £300,000-500,000, is unusual for Lowry in that it has a political element, made more apparent by the contemporary dress of the marching figures, unlike the locals looking on who are dressed exactly as the artist had been presenting his figures for decades. The artist’s acute observation of type and age ranges from the well-intentioned intellectual supporter of the cause (front row centre) to the unmistakable swagger and menace of the thug (front row left), to the less serious hangers-on at the back. The locals seem magnificently disinterested with only the children showing a momentary curious awareness of the march.

In contrast, the third work in the group of four pictures depicts a solitary Man Walking (lot 44). Estimated at £120,000-180,000, it shows a lone figure standing in the middle of a winding road, bordered on each side with high brick walls, with industrial buildings looming behind them. These architectural elements tower above the figure that, from his mode of dress, looks out of place in his smarter attire and with the accoutrement of an umbrella. The red gate at the centre of the composition provides a splash of colour and possibly a clue to the man’s point of destination. More tellingly, with this detail Lowry reminds the viewer that many of the small towns which had become fully industrialised in the nineteenth century had often grown from small rural communities. By 1960, when Man Walking was painted, Lowry’s reputation and recognition had grown exponentially over the previous twenty years, based almost exclusively on the popularity of his industrial landscapes, which he had continued to produce to satisfy demand. His own interest was shifting away from this subject, towards paintings that were more about the people who had previously filled his street scenes, but extracted from their settings and investigated as individuals. It is possible that there is some autobiographical factor at play here, in the figure of man standing and looking at the dominating buildings of industry before him, but with the option of turning and walking away to pursue a different path.

The final painting in this series of works by the artist is Street Scene with Mill, estimated at £200,000-300,000 (lot 45). It includes the classic features of the Lowry industrial scene, the mill with its domed tower, the chimneys, the factory gateway, and the rows of buildings, all brought to life by the addition of a crowd. By the 1950s, the artist was producing some of his most skillfully composed crowd scenes. Painted in 1959, the oil on canvas shows figures heading in all directions, and a small crowd gathers around some unidentified incident in the middle distance. The composition of each group is skillfully varied. Lowry intersperses the composition with women and children as points of colour to help manoeuvre the viewer around. Lowry often makes someone notice our presence and here we are hailed by the figure that waves to us from the right-hand side.

Image: The Street Brawl by L.S. Lowry
(est. £300,000-500,000). Photo: Sotheby’s