Tuesday, 26 July 2011

L.S. Lowry paints Coming from the Mill A.D. 1930

'Daily Express is right! Taint bin same since War' (Love on the Dole, 1933)

1913 - the year Manchester-based physicist Niels Bohr formulates the Bohr model and suffragette Emily Davison is killed after running in front of the King's Horse at the Epsom Derby - is also the peak year for British cotton cloth production, co-inciding with the end of Britain's 'imperial century' (1815 - 1914). On 28th June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire is assassinated in Sarajevo by a Yugoslav nationalist. The event sparks a Great War between Europe's empires, the first to use modern machinery on the battlefield to such a large extent. As the young men of Britain's industrial towns and cities are marched to the trenches of the Western Front, women are put to work in the factories (proving how easy it is to operate the machinery that would soon be making more and more male workers redundant in the years to come).

Whilst Manchester had had its peaks and troughs, the inter-war years are a period of steady decline. In May 1926, the TUC announced a general strike 'in defence of miner's wages and hours' which was to last nine days. The Wall Street Crash of October 1929 signalled the start of a global period of depression which would last until the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1930, Salford's L.S. Lowry painted Coming From the Mill, his first of many oil paintings depicting Britain's industrial north and what Howard Jacobson has described as 'scurrying humanity'. To appreciate the painting's visual representation of movement and the relationship between people and the urban environment, we should read from Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole (1933), with its main character Harry Hardcastle,

proceeding, via by-streets, to fall in with a great procession of heavily
booted men all wearing overalls and all marching in the same direction ... the
air resounded with the ringing rhythmic beat of hobnailed boots ... an
entrancing tune, inspiring, eloquent of the great engineering works where this
army of men were employed ... Three huge chimneys challenged the lowering sky;
three banners of thick black smoke gushed forth from their parapets, swirling,
billowing, expanding as they drifted, with 'imperturbed pace' to merge
imperceptibly into the dirty sky. A docile row of six smaller chimneys thrust up
their steel muzzles like cannon trained on air raiders. Tongues of flame shot
up, fiery sprites, kicking their flaming skirts about for a second then diving
again as instantly as they had appeared. An orange glow reflected dully on the
wet slates of the foundry.

In Coming From the Mill we see people on their way home from work in the shadow of an imposing, industrial skyline. Lowry's 'matchstick men' have been described as 'naive', the works of a 'Sunday painter' but there can be few of these which now fetch up to £5.6m at auction. Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson has written about the proud, provincial loneliness of L.S. Lowry, a painter whose works are now kept on display in a purpose-built art gallery and theatre complex on Salford Quays named in his honour. Lowry is to Manchester what Gaudi is to Barcelona, what Mucha is to Prague and what Klimt is to Vienna. There can be few examples of a closer relationship between an artist and his city.

After leading a long-running campaign of civil disobedience and a boycott of British goods in India, Mahatma Ghandi visited Britain in 1931 for talks with the British government. During his stay, he visited a cotton mill in Darwen and was well-received by the unemployed workers on whom his policies were perceived to be having such a devastating effect. He also visited C.P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, at his sister's home in Bognor Regis. Manchester was going through its own form of non-violent resistance in this period. The Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout of April 1932 (a year which also saw the construction of Sunlight House) is celebrated in the song 'The Manchester Rambler' by Ewan MacColl, one of the event's organisers. Rambling in Derbyshire was a popular past-time amongst Manchester's left-wing activists. Away from the factories and the slums and the poverty of industrial Salford, the Derbyshire peaks must have seemed an idyllic escape, at for those who could afford the train fare. In Love on the Dole, Greenwood has Harry's sister fall in love with a Marxist who takes her rambling in Derbyshire with his friends from the Labour club, but she feels herself to be 'greatly inferior' to them:

It was as though they belonged to a different species. Somehow she identified them as people who could afford pianos and who could play them; people who lived in houses where there were baths. Their conversation, too, was incomprehensible. When the talk turned on music they referred to something called the 'Halley' where something happened by the names of 'Baytoven' and 'Bark' and other strange names. They spoke politics, arguing hotly about somebody named Marks. Yes, they were of a class apart, to whom the mention of a pawnshop, she supposed, would be incomprehensible. Suppose they saw her home; her bedroom! She blushed, ashamed.

Published in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany with over 17,000,000 votes (43.9%), Love on the Dole is set in Hanky Park, an industrial district of Salford, and documents the human scale of the Great Depression. Whilst it can be interpreted in many ways, not least as a forerunner of Coronation Street (offering a window into the lives of a working class community in the back-to-back terraced streets of Salford) or a literary accompaniment to Lowry, it is perhaps best read as an example (perhaps the only example) of 1930s Manchester modernism. After resigning as a clerk and signing as an engineering apprentice for seven years, Harry Hardcastle soon realises that machinery is making skilled operatives more and more dispensible:

Remember the installation of that new automatic machinery previous to the wholesale dismissal of Billy Higgs's generation? At that time it had held no significance for him except that it had meant promotion; it was merely newer and more up-to-date machinery whose functions were marvellous, whose capacity was manifold and infinite. The screw-cutting lathe that needed only the assistance of a hand to switch on the current: that could work, ceaselessly, remorselessly, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week without pause for meals; a Thing that fed itself, functioned with mathematical precision, 'could do anything except talk', as someone had put it.
The novelty of such machinery was gone now; they were commonplace, established; their predecessors were antidilluvian. They made of inexperienced boys highly skilled men. And the latest boys knew of nothing else; were as to the manner born.
Every year new generations of schoolboys were appearing, each generation pushing him and his a little closer to that incredible abyss of manhood and the dole.

Such fears were nothing new. They echo the Lancashire Loom Breakers Riots of 1826, over a hundred years earlier. But whilst previously rich and poor had co-existed, modern transport developments now allowed the inventors and industrialists who profitted from the efficiency of the new machinery (at the expense of the people whose jobs they were superseding) to quit the city for suburban and rural areas on the outskirts. The theme of all the rich folk moving away from 'Millionaire's Mile' on Eccles Old Road haunts Love on the Dole like memories of World War I. Modernity is represented as bringing prosperity to the few and widespread misery to the masses of newly unemployed.

In 1934, Manchester City won the FA Cup for the second time and work was completed on another of Manchester's most iconic buildings, Central Library. Ten years after an ineffectual General Strike, the Jarrow March of 1936 was a reminder of rising inequality and mass unemployment. 1936 also saw the abdication crisis of Edward VIII and the coronation of his brother as George VI (events represented recently in the film The King's Speech), and the start of a football season, 1936-37, in which Manchester City won their first league title. Painted in 1937, the same year as Picasso's Guenica and George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, L.S. Lowry's The Lake is a bleak indictment of the industrial revolution and the ideas of human progress upon which Manchester was seemingly built. Jacobson has described it as 'apocalyptic'. These were uncertain times - despite scoring more goals than any other team in the division, reigning champions City were relegated in 1938 - but there was widespread relief when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from negotiations in Munich with Nazi Germany, France and Italy, declaring a settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem and an agreement which he believed represented 'peace for our time'.

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