The Art of Industry

Eagley Mills, Bolton. Two of these mills are still standing, I watched the others being demolished from the windows of my classroom in the old Eagley schoolhouse in the late 80's (the stone building just above the mill on the far right.

Eagley Mills, Bolton. Two of these mills are still standing, I watched the others being demolished from the windows of my classroom in the old Eagley schoolhouse in the late 80's (the stone building just above the mill on the far right.

Although my medium is photography, the industrial landscape has been portrayed by painters since the start of the industrial revolution. Often this has been a glorification of the factories and industries, presumably because the wealthy industrialists were paying for the paintings. 

Illustrators were probably somewhat busier than the artists though. Pretty much every enterprise had an impressive, hugely exaggerated image of their works created for use on their letterheads and other correspondence, while idealised, paintings of their mills would have adorned the company offices and boardrooms (something I still see today in some companies, but it's normally an aerial photograph).

Looking through my book collection, I found a number of examples from my hometown of Bolton, and further examples have been found on the internet. I'm not qualified to offer analysis or critique, just examples of the genre.

Sunnyside Mills, Bolton. I photographed the tower on the right hand side in 2016, just before it was demolished in 2016.

Sunnyside Mills, Bolton. I photographed the tower on the right hand side in 2016, just before it was demolished in 2016.

Atlas Works, Bolton, one of the last wrought ironworks in the country when it closed in the early 80's. This is a typical illustration of that era which greatly exaggerates the size of the place.

But beyond the commissioned illustrators who produced somewhat romanticised versions of reality, actual artists were at work also. Staying in Bolton, a painting I know from my childhood is 'Bolton From Queen's Park'. There are several versions online, and I can't remember which is the most accurate rendition, but I'll go with this one. Bolton was a typical mill town, although larger than most and home to over a hundred cotton mills, bleachers, dyers, foundries, engineering works, and until the 1920's, a steelworks not far from the Town Hall. This landscape was a veritable forest of chimneys which Samuel Towers depicted from Queen's Park. Like many northern towns, the skies only cleared during the annual wakes week holidays when the factories shut down and the fires in the boilers and furnaces were extinguished as the townsfolk headed to the coast and countryside for their holidays (if they were lucky!)

Bolton From Queen's Park, Samuel Towers (1862-1943)

Bolton From Queen's Park, Samuel Towers (1862-1943)

Of interest in this particular context is Edwin Butler Bayliss, an artist from a wealthy manufacturing family in the west midlands who left the family business in his twenties to pursue an artistic career. His inspirations was the bleak industrial landscapes around the area known as the Black Country near the Tipton area of Birmingham.

Tipping the Slag, Edwin Butler Bayliss (1874-1950)

Tipping the Slag, Edwin Butler Bayliss (1874-1950)

Maybe the best known exponent of the genre is the Mancunian artist LS Lowry. While not strictly studies of the industrial landscape, his impressions of northern life very much featured the industrial landscape of northern England as a backdrop. These landscapes were not intended to be accurate, they were composite, impressionistic, representations of Lancashire and Manchester that Lowry witnessed on his rounds during his day job as a rent collector. Despite the almost childlike simplicity of the paintings, Lowry had been educated in art by the impressionist Adolphe Valette at the Manchester School of Art. However, it was while he was studying at the Royal Technical College in Salford that his interest in the industrial landscape developed.

"I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I tried to paint it. All the time I tried to paint the industrial scene as well as I could. It wasn't easy. I wanted to get a certain effect on the canvas. I couldn't describe it, but I knew when I'd got it. Well, a camera could have done the scene straight off. That was no use to me - I wanted to get an industrial scene and be satisfied with the picture"

It's with this that I can empathise. While the Lancastrian industrial 'scene' is now vastly different to that of the 1920's, that desire to record it in a way that says something personal to you is something I am deeply familiar with, even if my medium is the camera and not the brush, paint and canvas. Actually, the bigger challenge now is often finding some industrial landscape. Most of our urban landscape is now more likely to be a retail landscape or a distribution landscape - the visual differences between identikit portal frame sheds are often barely perceptible to the human eye, and certainly not interesting to photograph (although I do have a few project ideas that capitalise on this generic blandness).

 

A River Bank, LS Lowry