Alex. Reid & Lefevre, London Private Collection, London A.J. Thompson (acquired 10 March 1982, Sotheby’s London) Estate sale, Lowry: The A.J. Thompson Collection, Sotheby’s London, 25 March, 2014, lot 11, Private Collection, London
Possibly Wellington, The New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, 8 November 1939 – 4 May 1940 Salford, Art Gallery, Paintings and Drawings by Laurence S Lowry R.B.A., 1 – 31 October 1941, no. 11 Sunderland, Sunderland Public Art Gallery, Industrial Street Scenes by L. S. Lowry R.B.A., 31 September – 13 October 1942 (unnumbered catalogue)
During the 1930s, Lowry travelled extensively around Britain and at some point in the middle of the decade, he reached Thurso, the most northerly town on the British mainland. With dramatic views across the Pentland Firth towards the Island of Hoy, as well as to the distant cliffs of Dunnett Head in the North East, Thurso is poised at the frontier of Scotland, the last port of call before the Orkney Isles. In true characteristic style however, it was not the panoramic vistas which grabbed Lowry’s attention. Instead, he was drawn unequivocally to the distinctive architecture of Shore Street in the north east corner of the town, just one street behind the breathtaking coast line. The castle-like tower on the north side of the street dates to 1687 and was thought to be the Thurso turnpike where old stage coaches used to start. Its fairy tale turret coupled with the irregularly sloping roofs would have instantly appealed to Lowry’s instinct for compositional arrangement and the street is the clear source of inspiration for the marvellous setting of the present work.
Executed in 1938, Street Musicians belongs to a small corpus of work painted in the mid to late 1930s that capture a very different sense of place that Lowry experienced north of the border. He also stopped off at Wick, a small town along the coast, south east of Thurso and there are two wonderfully evocative oil paintings Old Houses at Wick (1936, Private Collection) and Steps at Wick (1937, Private Collection) which draw specifically on his stay there. In Street Musicians, a jovial jig-like atmosphere permeates throughout the canvas as the central figures turn instinctively towards the cluster of musicians in the background. A holiday spirit has embraced all the local inhabitants, except, perhaps, for the elderly figure in the bottom right corner, scuttling away from the untimely interruption to her peace and quiet.
It is significant that a drawing executed in 1936 recording the architecture of Shore Street (fig.2, The Lowry, Salford) could hardly be more different; the architectural silhouette mirrors that of Street Musicians however, the street is almost devoid of life – Lowry wrote to his mother from Thurso: ‘yesterday Sunday the town was like a city of the dead, so quiet…’ (Lowry, quoted in Shelley Rohde, L.S. Lowry, A Life, Haus Publishing Ltd, London, 2007, p.183). Yet Street Musicians feels authentically upbeat and it is a testament to the artist’s extraordinary ability to distil decades of collective experience and observation that he was able to draw out appropriate details of incident and character witnessed in different locations across different decades and fuse them into such a compelling visual image. Indeed, the holiday mood is contagious and it is not surprisingly that A.J. Thompson selected Street Musicians as the first painting by Lowry to enter his collection.