Art of the Industrial Age

By Jo Phillips

One of the most interesting periods in history for many was the period of the Industrial Revolution. It began in the UK in the early 1800s with Europe following on a little later. The coming of the machine age had massive repercussions changing the daily life of all in every sector of society. Important inventions were born, with the advances obtained from the creation of the multi-spinning machine, which greatly optimized textile production, added to the great leap in commerce with the invention of the steam engine, which promoted the improvement of transportation routes, the technology of mass production and distribution began, almost completely replacing manual labour. Yet there is one area less often discussed from this seismic change: The Arts. The invention of the camera for a start meant art had a different purpose, find out more here in Art of the Industrial Age

Main Image David Mach, The Temple at Tyre, 1994, Installed in Leith, Edinburgh.

The world of art had begun its change before the camera came along and before industry changed the world. Modern art started it’s probably fair to say, with the Impressionists, Paris-based artists from the early 1860s but also seen in the work of Britain by John Constable in around 1813–17.

But with the birth of the modern possibilities of manufacturing, say for example paint, that could be mass-produced and sold in tubes as before it had to be mixed daily by the artist.

With all these changes and modernism, Artists began to question what was the purpose of art. The movements like Impressionism paved the way for art in the modern era. This group of artists represented the world, painting impressions of what they saw in poetic, colourful and expressive images. Fauvism, Dada, Cubism and the Ready Mades by the artist Marcel Duchamp all impacted the world of this creativity. But it was an invention that was the death nail of painted portraits landscapes and even war images that changed everything.

The invention of photography via the camera was the first catalyst. History began even before the introduction of photography. Cameras evolved from the camera obscura, (a darkened room with a small hole or lens at one side through which an image is projected onto a wall from a second hole).

Frenchman Louis Daguerre is usually cited with the invention of the camera in 1839 and gave his name to the first popular form of the photograph, the daguerreotype.

Whilst in the UK William Henry Fox Talbot 1834 developed his method of ‘photogenic drawing’, and then the following year successfully recorded a negative image onto sheer waxed paper sensitized with silver chloride allowing Talbot to produce multiple positive images from the one negative. 

Suddenly artists whose living relied on capturing a ‘moment’ on canvas via oil, obviously over days or weeks were out of work. Because the camera could capture a moment in a moment. And so the subjects of paintings began to reflect a new devotion to science and progress. The rapidly changing landscape inspired some to paint and integrate the joy of the industrial world as inspiration

Alongside this, the ability to create items like cast iron allowed for the manufacture of long beams at a reduced cost. Glass thanks to technical developments made it possible to produce sheets of up to 2.50 x 1.70 meters. Along with cement came a little later and influenced the architecture of the modern world. And it was this visual of cityscapes encased in modernism that influenced one such artist who looked at industrial capabilities as beautiful.

Robert Delaunay lived in Paris between 1900 and 1940, and embraced the changes. Best known for his paintings the Eiffel Tower Series. His ode to the modern world, coming alive before his very eyes.

As Delaunay wrote in his journal, the Eiffel Tower was the

“barometer of [his] art,”

A symbol of Paris and its success as a modern haven. Delaunay saw the Eiffel Tower as the pride of France as the country stepped boldly into the modern age.

So he painted a series of it, his first series between 1909 and 1912 and a second series between 1920 and 1930. Also painted the picture “In honour of Bleriot” which was a dedication to the French Aviator Louis Bleriot who made the first aeroplane flight across the English Channel in 1909.

This new optimism for modern life was expressed in many different ways and artistic traditions

Joseph Fernand Henri Léger February 4, 1881 – August 17, 1955, was a French painter, sculptor, and filmmaker. His boldly simplified treatment of modern subject matter has caused him to be regarded as a forerunner of pop art. Although often regarded simply as a cubist artist he also celebrated the modern world evolving around him partly because of the effect on him of the first world war

He produced many sketches of artillery pieces, aeroplanes, and fellow soldiers while in the trenches, and painted Soldier with a Pipe 1916

During a period of convalescence after a mustard attack by the Germans he painted The Card Players (1917), a canvas whose robot-like, monstrous figures reflect his experience of the war. As he explained:

I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimeter in the sunlight. It was the magic of light on the white metal. That’s all it took for me to forget the abstract art of 1912–1913“.

This started the beginning of his “mechanical period”, where painted figures and objects were characterised by tubular and machine-like forms.

Around the same period, the Italians launched Futrusim led by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909. On 20 February he published his Manifesto of Futurism on the front page of the Paris newspaper Le Figaro.

Among modernist movements, futurism was extremely vehement in its denunciation of the past. Italy was weighted down by its historical culture so in his Manifesto Marinetti stated

we will free Italy from her innumerable museums which cover her like countless cemeteries. We declare…a new beauty, the beauty of speed. A racing motor car…is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace’. (A celebrated ancient Greek sculpture in the Louvre museum in Paris.)

The Italian futurist artist Antonio Sant’Elia lived a short, violent life. He was born in 1888 in Como, Lombardy, and at age 19 became a draftsman. In the next nine years, he created dozens of architectural drawings and schematics illustrating a Città Nuova, the ‘New City’ and penned the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture. Sant’Elia was killed in the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo, in World War 1, cutting short his industrial vision of modern life. Although it is fair to say that his monumental towering, interconnected urban plinth drawing appears in science fiction films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.

This group which included the likes of  Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini and more proposed that art should celebrate the modern world of industry and technology, not unlike not just French artists but also some Russian, German, USA, Spanish and British artists as well as many other countries Alongside, the industrial world inspired writers, musicians, architecture, theatre, ballet poetry and sculpture.

For example Alexandra Alexandrovna Exter a female Russian-French painter who through her work explored dynamic movement via the quality of her colour balance. She went on to utilise her talents with stage design for Alexander Tairov at Kamerny Theater, she collaborated on Aelita, a science fiction film and she helped with the Soviet Pavilion’s International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts.

Some even used technology to help them achieve ‘better’ artwork. Edgar Degas, took advantage of photographic techniques, superimposing plates in order to compose with them the sketches pre his paintings.

Yet there became a flip to the movement and from an unexpected person and place. Not a famous Artist based in the cosmopolitan art world of Paris but a self-taught artist from Lancashire North England.

Laurence Stephen Lowry (LS Lowry)  1887 – 1976 was an English artist whose drawings and paintings mainly depicted Pendlebury, Lancashire and Salford all industrial cities at the time. Initially criticised as an amateur by the establishment, his ‘matchstick men’ paintings become not just popular but were, post his death, seen in a very different light.

Nearly always paintings from outside, of urban landscapes and seascapes (it is lesser known he also painted portraits) his distinctive style used only a few colours with stick-like people.

Ultimately he was best known for his mill scenes and industrial landscapes, with workers going to and from the factories. Painted mid and at the end of the industrialised period of history in areas where most of the populace worked 12-hour days 6 days a week in these grim establishments.

Image with thanks The Lowery

Pendlebury, where he lived from the age of 22 was not an area with established tall green trees but a skyline of smoke, smog and steam produced by the various factories in the area. One such establishment was Acme Spinning Company’s mill.

After missing a train from his local station he noticed around the factory huge black rows of yellow-lit windows that stood up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out its workers at the end of the day and he watched the scene…This was the starting point and he said of his work:-

“My ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map, because nobody had done it – nobody had done it seriously.”

Although not a political painter or even social commentator it is hard to look at bend-over, emotionless figures in rather monotone scenarios and not think he was highlighting the hard-working lives of the people of these mega-industrial cities. The faceless and nameless figures trekking to and from the monotonous firebreathing dragon-like buildings

Look closely at a painting and you may well see a bunch of flowers in a vase in a window of a home, these often tiny elements highlight a tension in his work; the area may be grim to others but beautiful to him. Therefore not so different to the colourful explosions of Robert Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower series, in emotion. Although it is fair to say Lowry’s paintings of this period see Britain not in a climate of excitement but in the beginnings of industrial decline.

The Salford Museum & Art Gallery had been a long-standing collector of the artist’s work which was transferred to The Lowry on its opening in April 2000. with the Lowry being named after the artist Laurence Stephen Lowry.

The Lowry is a registered charity committed to using visual and performing arts to enrich people’s lives. They present audiences with a diverse programme of theatre, opera, musicals, dance, music, comedy and visual art as well as events and activities to expand the horizons of audiences and artists alike.

Today, The Lowry provides critical and curatorial analysis of the artist’s work and seeks to raise his profile as an artist of international stature.

There are artists working today that carry on with these motifs bringing a new take to the theme albeit coming from different angles.

No stranger to excess or scale, renowned Scottish sculptor David Mach RA will reveal a series of maquettes for several ambitious, new monumental pieces in his exhibition Heavy Metal with sculpture specialists Pangolin London.

David Mach, Caryatid Easy maquette, Photo by Duncan McGlynn

Many of the works presented in this new show highlight the artist’s ongoing obsession with shipping containers. Considering them to be one of the world’s most important inventions, intrinsic to much of his work.

Render for Mach, Edinburgh Park, Courtesy of the Mach, Edinburgh Park and Dixon Jones

Renowned for his controversial and extravagant use of materials, often inspired by everyday objects, Heavy Metal explores Mach’s ideas and obsessions charting his development from sculpture to architecture and probing the tension between the two disciplines.

After all these years I still don’t like the isolation of the studio. I prefer to build installations and to work as publicly as possible as a kind of sculptural performance artist. I’ve built works in shopping centres, parks, streets and car showrooms as often as I have in galleries or museums. I enjoy the challenges of trying to manipulate unorthodox materials…preferably in vast quantities in the face of an ever-mounting but still beatable bureaucracy”.

David Mach RA

Interestingly the growth in the world of photography has not slowed over time. Used for everything from portrait fashion to social change it’s as readily available to all via our phones. But it does have a social consciousness and is often used as is art to help many a cause, to bring attention to issues like heath. For example;-

Two businesswomen from Chorley and Manchester have launched the MastectoME beauty project, a campaign dedicated to empowering women who’ve undergone a single or double mastectomy, through styling, makeup and illustrative body art. The concept, designed by makeup artist Anya Pogodzinska and photographer Alison McMath, utilises their experience in the photography and cosmetics industry to create magnificent visual masterpieces of women, to celebrate life and find beauty and uniqueness in everyone.

Alison and Anya are passionate about creating a memorable experience for women, which is completely free. It involves personalised body art and styling, by artist Anya Pogodzinska, followed by a tailored photoshoot, themed according to the women’s personal stories and favourite colours, while being adapted to their level of comfort. The women receive a beautiful print as a memento of their day, enabling them to feel more beautiful and confident about themselves.

The project which started in February 2022, has received tremendous support – from those participating, their family, friends, and the public. Anya and Alison are on a mission to transform and photograph more than 40 women from all over the country who have signed up to participate, from Folkstone to Glasgow, after the project was shared on a Facebook page called Flat Friends.

Debbie and Claire

Anya and Alison estimate it will take about two years to photograph the 40 women and hope to continue their work through fundraising. They donate their time and resources for free and have launched a JustGiving page with the aim of raising £10,000 to cover the costs of materials, hair styling and makeup products, printing, transport, refreshments, studio running costs and marketing. Anything above this amount will be donated to a breast cancer charity.

The Industrial Revolution is a story of the great hope of a changing mechanised world one that would be seen by so many as progress and modernism. For others, it was hell with factories pumping out grim waste that ended up creating smog, hiding green rolling landscapes. At the same time, however, it did provoke artistic groups to bring about massive shifts in the very way we perceived art and its role in exploring not just our world but the emotions that go with it.

This mechanical world may well seem far from human but it did bring about a very new consciousness of human creativity when it came to the arts and in a day and age when the industrial revolution is long gone its impact still feels as relevant as ever.

Heavy Metal Wednesday 25th January – 25th March 2023
Pangolin London, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG

Find out more about LS Lowery at website Here

Currently showing Match on display here 

Permanent LS Lowry exhibition Here 

And opening soon Venture Arts: Narratives Here 

Visit The Tate Modern and Tate Britain for many images from this period.

MastectoME beauty project

If you enjoyed reading The Art of the Industrial Age why not read An Industrial Read Here

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