“There were no records of it; we simply didn’t know it existed,” marvelled Nick Orchard, Head of Modern British & Irish Art at Christie’s auction house in London. Lowry became one of the most famous British artists of the 20th century, known for his brooding landscapes and distinctive matchstick-like men.
On Tuesday (21 January), Lowry’s lost masterpiece was the top seller in Christie’s Modern British Art sale, London. Expected to fetch between £700,000 and £1 million, the mysterious piece achieved more than double the high end of its estimate.
‘The Mill, Pendlebury’ depicts one of the first cotton spinning mills in England to be solely driven by electricity. The foreground is teeming with locals enjoying a well-earned day off whilst children play cricket, an unusual scene for Lowry who commonly painted serious industrial workers.
“It’s a classic, industrial landscape from a peak period in the artist’s career, the 1940s,” reviewed Orchard, “yet, two things about this painting set it apart…the atmosphere is relaxed, and people are interacting with each other rather than streaming en masse into work.”
Experts were completely unaware of the painting’s existence until its most recent owner, Dr Leonard Hamilton, passed away. Lowry himself gave the 1943 work to Hamilton’s parents when the family lived in Manchester. They passed it down to their son who then hung it in his bedroom while studying at the University of Oxford.
“Of course today we think ‘oh wow, a Lowry’ but in the 1940s he wasn’t represented by a major dealer or gallery,” explained Orchard. “He most likely would’ve only shown his work locally or maybe to people he knew.”
Hamilton later moved to New York, where he became a celebrated medical researcher who played a crucial role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. He had fondly hung the painting in his office where it remained undetected until last year.
Reflecting on the unexpected discovery, Orchard added “this is a remarkable discovery. What makes it special is the way it connects such a distinguished artistic figure with such a distinguished scientific one.”