Dark satanic mills

Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context. 

3 July 2013


The English painter, L. S.  Lowry, is famous for his myriad paintings of relentlessly working-class streetscapes populated by matchstick factory hands and overshadowed by dark satanic mills.

Born at Stretford in Lancashire, Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976) lived all his life in or near the cradle of the industrial revolution in the Manchester area of north-west England.

His paintings, such as “The Pond”, “The Fever Van” or “Huddersfield”, have always seemed to present a visual counterpoint to the sociological lucubrations of Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels on England’s industrial working-class –  an aesthetic concretization of Marx’s “Capital”, for instance, or of “The Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844” by Engels. Engels himself was a Manchester businessman.

Most people must surely have assumed, therefore, that Lowry was able to create his paintings on the basis of, at the very least, a deep empathy with the cloth-capped environment he depicted so vividly and with such apparent feeling.

What a surprise, therefore, it was to read the following letter by reader Mary Stableford in the London Guardian on 2 July 2013:

As a teenager, in the 1940s, I asked L. S. Lowry why he didn’t help poor people, rather than just painting them…He said he believed the working class were quite happy as they were, and that there was ‘no need to interfere’ with them….”

Lowry did his painting mainly at night after his day’s work. In his day job he worked as rent collector for a property company.

Which may go some way to explaining the discrepancy between his aesthetics and his politics.

After all, rent collection is not a profession which is generally associated with the political left.

On the other hand, maybe Lowry had a point.

Although people were generally poor in working-class parts of Britain in the period (1918-1939)  between the first and second world wars when Lowry did a lot of his painting, this poverty was counterbalanced, to some extent, by widespread solidarity. Millions of people lived in insalubrious mice-ridden back-to-back terrace houses of the kind that Lowry often featured in pictures such as his “Hillside in Wales“, but when they were in trouble, often because they had run out of money, neighbours often mucked in to help them out, giving them food and clothing and generally trying to buck up their morale.

After the second world war (1939-1945), however, public authorities wanted to modernise the country’s war-damaged and ageing infrastructure, including its housing stock, so local planners were often given carte blanche to demolish the old rows of terrace houses and decant their occupants into flats in soulless new tower blocks. The new accommodation had better bathrooms and kitchens than the individual houses people had left, but many of those forced to move into the tower blocks felt they were bleak and isolating. The old spirit of solidarity was inevitably destroyed when large close-knit communities that had lived for generations in the terraced streets were broken down into the much smaller groups transplanted to separate floors in the new blocks.  Whereas previously people had been able to meet their neighbours by walking along the streets of terraces, popping in and out of each other’s homes as the fancy took them, now they were confined to floors containing groups of perhaps four to six flats. People living on diffferent floors rarely saw their neighbours, except in the lifts, and the socialising habits that had held the old communities together died away.

Perhaps this is what Lowry foresaw when he warned against “interfering” with the way the working-class lived.

Works by Lowry can be seen at the Lowry Centre in Salford (Lancashire),  at Manchester City Art Gallery, at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and at the Tate Gallery in London.


 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)

2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Capitalism in practice  (4 July 2012) 

5.Ladder  (21 June 2012)

 6. A tale of two cities (1)  (6 June 2012)

 7. A tale of two cities (2)  (7 June 2012)

 8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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