In 1916, artist British artist LS Lowry (1887-1976) looked out at the Acme Spinning Company’s Pendlebury mill and unexpectedly found inspiration. From that scene, Lowry painted The Mill, Pendlebury in 1943. It went on to hang in the Oxford rooms of Leonard D Hamilton, who played a key part in the discovery of the DNA structure and also of Manchester, until recently. Now, after 70 years of eluding the public eye, The Mill, Pendlebury is coming to auction at Christie’s on January 21st.
Lowry’s vignette shows a wintery, snow-covered Pendlebury. The Acme Spinning Company, England’s first cotton spinning mill to completely run on electricity, which opened in 1905 and was a major force in Manchester until it closed in 1959, looms large in the background. People walk dogs and families push prams as children play cricket giving viewers the sense of a bustling city on what might be a day of rest. ‘As I got to the top of the station steps I saw the Acme Spinning Company’s Mill,’ recalled Lowry of the scene he painted in 1943. ‘The mill was turning out hundreds of little pinched, black figures, heads bent down, as though to offer the smallest surface to the swirling particles of sodden grit, hurrying across the asphalt, along the mean streets with inexplicable derelict gaps in the rows of houses, past the telegraph poles, homewards to high tea or pubwards, away from the mill and without a backward glance. I watched this scene – which I’d looked at many times without seeing – with rapture’
The painting was purchased by Hamilton’s family shortly after Lowry completed it. Thought to have been a gift from Hamilton’s parents, the painting travelled with Hamilton to the US in 1949 when he moved to New York to work at the Sloan Kettering Institute. While working in New York, Hamilton’s involvement in the research of DNA was critical. In the late 40s and into the 50s, he developed and honed techniques to extract DNA from mammals, which he then provided to Maurice Wilkins. Hamilton’s samples, which Wilkins called ‘excellent’, were used by Wilkins, James Watson, and Francis Crick to discover the double helix structure of DNA.
Hamilton and his family were also well-known for an unusual reason: their brownstone home. In the late 1950s, the Hamilton’s were the only tenants of a block of brownstones headed for demolition that held out. After all the others were torn down, their brownstone stood alone and was dubbed the ‘loneliest brownstone’ in a Life photo essay titled ‘Vanishing New York.’ Their home would later become a main location in Vincente Minnelli’s Bells are Ringing (1960).
In August, Hamilton passed away at the age of 98 and soon, the painting that has surfaced and will head to auction. ‘What’s unusual about this is that it just doesn’t feature anywhere in the literature at all,’ said Nick Orchard, Christie’s head of modern British art, in The Guardian. ‘It is a lovely painting and a great composition. You’ve got everything you want in a Lowry … lots of people doing lots of different things, terraced houses, factories in the background. It ticks all the boxes for Lowry.’ The Mill, Pendlebury holds a pre-sale estimate of £700,000 to £1 million, so it might not top Lowry’s current auction record of £5.6 million (obtained by both The Football Match and Piccadilly Circus) but it is expected to be the star of the auction.