They bustle with moving bodies, tightly packed between buildings with chimney stacks sprouting from them, standing upon cobbled streets washed with the artist’s iconic white paint. A dog or two is usually present.

The colour palettes vary; drab and depressing in one instance, vibrant and playful in another. As do the settings. In one moment we are spectators watching the faceless masses make their way to and from work; in another we dropped into a street scene, surrounded by tall brick buildings and the children that play in between them.

In LS Lowry’s paintings of the north, we’re never taken too far away from the industrial buzz of the factories and the winding city streets filled with his recognisable matchstick people. Yet, though we do not travel far, we still deeply believe that we know each and every corner of these early 20th century northern towns and cities.

Lowry remains one of Britain’s most beloved painters, not least for his kitsch painting style capturing everyday life in the early 1900s. Through his eyes, the impact of the industrial revolution is imprinted on the canvas. Lowry’s densely populated and smoke-filled scenes reveal the rugged nature of the places he called home: crowded and busy streets sitting under the gaze of industrial Britain tell us, if nothing else, that people were everywhere.

Oh, what we would give to be painted by Lowry’s brush.

A Socially Distanced Lowry

Having spent the last year staring in the face of endless national lockdowns and a pandemic that has seen our streets emptied of its bodies and its noise, viewing Lowry’s paintings is a strange experience. They once felt like windows into a time far removed from our own. Now we gaze upon them with a sense of despondency, patiently but cautiously waiting for our past sense of normalcy to return.

Separated from Lowry’s paintings by almost 100 years, the aches and pains of a global pandemic have revived our interest in depictions of people congregating en masse. In 1943, Lowry completed “Britain at Play,” one of his more immersive cityscapes.

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By Alex Stubbs: Arts Columnist.

Here we see a nameless town exuding energy. Life abounds in Lowry’s work here. People have flocked to the parks and onto the streets to socialise and play, whilst in the distance smoke belts out from factory chimneys, suggesting that work must still continue. If nothing else, we see the town at its most animated.

Lowry painted “Britain at Play” amidst one of the most devastating moments in history. The Second World War had been raging on for four years at this point, yet there is no indication in the painting that anything other than customary daily life was occuring. Lowry was looking backwards in time here, painting on his sense of nostalgia thickly. As John Berger writes, Lowry’s focus “on the minutiae of the everyday” was the catalyst that drove him to popular fame. Through his depictions of uneven streets and foggy skies, Lowry captured the reality of industrial life in the North of England in a way that was relatable to those living there.

Avoiding the subject of destruction and death that his contemporaries were exploring – Paul Nash’s “Totes Meer” comes to mind, as does Richard Eurich’s “Night Raid on Portsmouth Docks,” with its foreboding use of lighting painting a much different picture of the English landscape – Lowry’s cityscapes were tame in comparison. They reflected the simplicity of the man himself. “I’m a simple man,” Lowry said of himself, “and I use simple materials.” He had positioned himself as a modest artist painting honest pictures of the North. Essentially, Lowry painted what he knew best.

For whatever reason we continue to be drawn to Lowry’s work. His canvas, full of people in close quarters, reminds us that our age of social distancing and anxious social interaction is not here to last. Lowry’s “Britain at Play” reminds us of our own fears and uncertainties. Certainly, that isn’t easy to think about. For now, though, let’s continue to gaze into Lowry’s world. It may just help to settle our minds.

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