A global archive of independent reviews of everything happening from the beginning of the millennium

For publication dates click here

Read our Copyright Notice click here

National Horseracing Museum entrance in 2011

The Fitzwilliam's portico is one of the best around

Renoir's La place Clichy, c.1880 (Fitzwilliam Museum), which was purchased by the great collector, Samuel Courtauld

Renoir's Head of Coco, 1908 (Fitzwilliam Museum). His treatment of hair is similar to that in paint in La Place Clichy



26 April 2014

The National Horseracing Museum's building appeal is now motoring and so in January and March I attended two auction house launches for it.

The first in January was at Christie's in King Street for a preview of its Impressionist/Modern Art sale and the second in March at the Jockey Club Rooms in Newmarket for the LOWRY The A.J. Thompson Collection sale.

The latter, much smaller, only showed six of the fifteen paintings for sale but had an eminently collectable Sotheby's catalogue.

The Jockey Club may be far from Lowry's Manchester but there is a connection. A.J. (Tony) Thompson (1945-2013) was born in Trumpington on the fringes of Cambridge and set up a waste recycling business in 1967. His enthusiasms were Lowry paintings and racing. Three of his successful horses - Salford Express, Salford City and Salford Mill - were named after Lowry's home town, not his. As a child he used to drop in to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to ask a curator about collecting coins and medals.

Fitzwilliam Museum

So proceeds of the preview have gone jointly to the National Horseracing Museum (with which I have had a small connection since 2007) and the Fitzwilliam Museum (with which I have had a tiny connection, on and off, since 1977 when the Master of Trinity, R.A. Butler, a Conservative minister for 30 years, mischievously asked us students, as he must have done to hundreds who came to the Master's Lodge, the innocent question: 'who shall I leave my Impressionists to, the Fitzwilliam or the National Gallery?' He married two Courtaulds in succession and many belonged to Lady Butler. He won the struggle with the government for those to be left in lieu of death duties to be allocated to the Fitzwilliam but it would have been a little harder without the evident opinions of the students who passed through the lodge. They really were phenomenal - as you came up the stairs and into the long room you saw Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Monet and more, beautifully lit as few museums can manage).

A.J. Thomson's achievement is no less in having assembled his collection.

Four painting are commented on here.

Two, The Hawker's Craft and Election Time, are from 1929. These dispense with the poor stereotype that Lowry (1887-1976) is about smokestacks and stick figures. The year before he developed the technique of painting on a white ground so in many paintings there is this great luminosity that comes from representing surfaces that would naturally be grey, such as pavements or water on an overcast day, as white or near white. This luminosity is much more striking when you see the painting themselves than in the more flat representations of postcards because, in this collection at least, there appears to be a glaze that enhances light reflection off the multiple base layers of white paint.

Architecture is not just about buildings; it is also about spaces. Handling of space gives and adds character. Lowry is very good with architectural space in the four canvasses. In The Hawker's Craft it is external space and in Election Time it is internal space. He is adept at creating central space opening outwards but well framed in which the personalities of the people, painted far from stick-like, have a stage to act on.

His distribution of people in both is very assured. Your line of sight of each of them is never obscured by another one. In The Hawker's Craft there is even a donkey with a seated cat looking at it and no dogs.

Election Time is curious. The catalogue writer or writers speculate that the meeting is taking place in a railway station. That looks about right. Addressing people in public was the near sole means of electioneering available in 1929. (In the era of R.A. Butler's tenure, Robert Rhodes James MP used to go to the Market Square in Cambridge and stand outside the Guildhall alone of a Saturday and declaim a bit to passers-by who sometimes joshed a bit back. It was very effective; people concluded he was a good egg).

Everyone seems much better dressed than now for election time and there is even a woman in the foreground wearing something like a red carnation.

Punch and Judy (1943) has the most character of the six but it is no match for Piccadilly Circus (1960) for setting. This is the one that had us initially gawping at it to see if it is recognisably the Circus of our childhood (the structure of the Circus stayed much the same till the eighties), to search for a smog and to wonder at the luminosity. There is a fog or mist, more like. The catalogue says it is painted more from memory than from sight and that the representation of the buildings and streetscape is quite accurate, which seems the case. The bustling flow of the crowd makes people more joyous than you might expect but it was quite a sartorially elegant time for women in central London, a long way in tone from post-war austerity.

This is also the painting that Thompson paid a record £5.6m for as recently as 2011.

Punch and Judy is a wartime scene and the catalogue says the depiction embodies hope. That is probably right but it also makes you uneasy which helps make it a great painting. It is emotionally charged.

The strong verticals of the steel posts, shorn of ornamentation, make for an interesting architectural composition, dividing space on one side without reducing light.

The Punch and Judy show conceals from us its faces, action and possible violence. For all the regular verticals elsewhere, this structure leans two ways, is at a different angle, possibly top-heavy and perspectively discordant.

Who is the woman in clogs walking off the scene above his signature with a baby with a deathly pale face like Edvard Munch's The Scream, both dressed in black?

Then there is the 'face' of the house looking on, with a solitary smoking stack which does complete the composition but at the cost of a little discordance.

Are all these signs of a conscious or unconscious turmoil within the artist?

What might happen to this beautiful England, with its familiar reassurance of church steeple, traditional buildings, benches and carefully framed urban space if something went wrong?

The people have a togetherness but a sheltering togetherness as the show holds them all relatively upright, even the dog. There is no possibility of the carefree joyousness of the much later Piccadilly Circus.

The rest may be social observation by the artist. There are no women with any shopping or parcels let alone foodstuffs. There are no men of fighting age. There are many children of school age but very few babies. There is only one dog. There are a few men who look hunched, old or of poor mobility.

One cannot be quite sure without seeing the canvas again. Reproductions of Lowry paintings, especially cropped, can be misleading. Detail of the ceiling has been omitted in the catalogue.

Nonetheless, this is the picture Lowry chose to be reproduced as a School Print after the war, presumably a little cropped to fit a standard format.

Was it chosen because it was hopeful? Or because it showed many children? Or because it was emotionally charged and reflected a time that would not return?

Contemporary Piccadilly Circus looking down Haymarket:
momentarily twilight pink (as taken, 30 December 2016)