Monday, 25 April 2011

The Lowry Museum and Art Gallery in Manchester

I might have an art college background but what I could tell you about LS Lowry came more from pop music than an art history lecture... he painted matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs... a chart topping song in the 70s by Brian and Michael.

The Lowry Building in Salford Manchester

As I was in Manchester for a sunny Easter weekend my brother Noel and his wife Jennie brought me down to Salford Quays and pointed me in the direction of the ‘The Lowry‘ a cool £100m arts centre that housed the world’s most prestigious collection of his work. They meanwhile toddled off to the Lowry Shopping Centre for a cup of coffee. It seemed that half the stuff in Salford needed to have an attachment with the man’s good name.

Coming Home from the Mill – one of Lowry's iconic paintings

My initial thoughts standing outside the building were confusing as I felt it rather odd that this irregular stainless steel building at the side of the canal commemorated an artist who painted redbrick factories with smoke churning out of them. It just didn’t seem congruous. That said it was an impressive place inside and it wasn’t just a Lowry gallery either, it was a cafe/restaurant, theatre and exhibition space for other traveling shows. There were around 350 of his works on show and for two hours I wandered around getting to know this strange northerner, his life and his work. Like most artists he was a bit eccentric, but Lowry seemed to take things further purposely. His painting was a pastime, something he did after he finished his 9–5 work as a rent collector yet he managed to conceal this throughout his entire life. Why? I had to wonder why he didn’t go full-time after he had achieved some sort of recognition around the outbreak of World War Two. 

I didn’t realise he was Irish!!!! He was born the only child of a quiet Irish born father and a controlling, dominant mother who wanted a girl rather than a ‘clumsy’ boy. They called him Laurie – Laurie (Laurence) Lowry – can you believe that! Though his father was affectionate, he failed to get the approval he yearned from his gifted mother. Subsequently he had an unhappy childhood, made few friends at school and failed academically. At 17 he started work as a clerk for a Manchester chartered accountant and went to evening classes at the College of Art where he studied under Pierre Adolphe Valette and later in 1907 changed jobs and had private art lessons from an American portrait painter Willam Fitz. He must have had artistic talent to want to pursue it after a day’s work.

Two years later when his father’s estate agency business failed the family moved from the middle class suburb of Rusholme to the more industrial area of Pendlebury. That was a huge shock and it took him years to adjust to his new surroundings.

1912 was his first breakthrough year when he not only started his lifetime work as a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company but he also took up painting seriously, filling his sketchpads with images from the streets and homes he visited during his day job. It was to be the making of LS Lowry the artist and the inspiration that fired him. However it would be a further five years before he developed his trademark stylised human form, the matchstick man, under the tutelage of Bernard Taylor at Salford School of Art. His early work in this ilk was often dismissed as amateurish and childlike and that criticism I suppose is justified until you saw his draughtsman-like pencil sketches which show perfect neat figures drawn by a delicate hand. Like Vincent Van Gogh, a huge influence, and Pablo Picasso he had developed his own unique primitive style and a subject matter, the working class, industrial landscapes of Lancashire that inspired him.  

He finally retired from taking evening art classes in 1928 and I’m baffled why he chose to go there for so long particularly when he was considered temperamental and unsociable. Some critics think he had aspergers syndrome and indeed that hat fits with what I read of his life on the panels.

The Fight

His father died of pneumonia in 1932 leaving the family with considerable debt. His neurotic and depressed mother couldn’t cope and took to her bed with her son, the primary carer for seven years until she died aged 73. During this period he painted after she had fallen asleep. As fate would have it, 1939 would be the year he would get recognised by the wider art world with a successful exhibition in London. Sixty of his works sold including one bought by the Tate Gallery. Even then his mother was too ill and self obsessed to acknowledge her misfit son had finally arrived. Lowry was devastated by her death, dived into introspection and even considered suicide. With no family left, painting was his sole salvation; it helped him forget he was alone in a wretched world. This was a period when he painted a series of red-eyed and angry self portraits, lost interest in his landscapes and neglected himself and the family home, so much so that it was repossessed by the landlord in 1948. 

Lowry with Carol Ann
Halfway through the exhibition it suddenly dawned on me that Lowry was a single man, who never loved a woman, never mind had a wife. From what I was reading he befriended and nurtured young girls who had ambitions to be painters. Some were worryingly as young as twelve. One of the most famous, indeed the sole beneficiary of his £300,000 will plus paintings was Carol Ann Lowry. Aged 13 and 57 years his junior, she wrote to him in 1957, asking for artistic advice since they shared the same surname. They were not related however. He didn’t write back immediately but several months later he just happened to appear on her mother’s doorstep in Heywood, Lancashire and that started off a lifelong friendship. As with his rent collecting job, Carol Ann remained a secret and they shared an uncle-cousin, mentor-pupil shaped relationship. He paid her school fees, contributed to her rent and arranged for her Saturday morning classes at Rochdale School of Art. Did every little town in England have an art college in those days? 

During the last 20 years of the painter’s life his works sold for six-figure sums and were snapped up by royalty and respected art galleries. Lowry had become England’s best known 20th century artist and in 1968 he turned down a knighthood. Had his mother been alive he probably would have accepted but there was now no-one left to impress. Despite his celebrity status he remained a shy figure and a bit of a loner who became more withdrawn in later life and his paintings of seascapes and lonely people portrayed this.

The artist at work. His smock was his three piece suit!
The more I read about Lowry the more I liked him and the larger he grew in my estimation. His simple paintings reflected him. It never occurred to me until I read it on a panel that he only ever used five colours: flake white, yellow ochre, prussian blue, ivory black and vermilion red, all of which he applied directly from the tube. There were photographs and film footage of him at work showing him working at the surface of a painting, using the wrong end of a paintbrush, his fingers and even a nail. Sure enough when I looked closer at his oil paintings it was a mishmash of texture. Two things were more obvious to me however – his backgrounds were mostly the flake white he favoured and he painstakingly filled his industrial scenes with carefully placed figures so that they were full of life and activity.

The Cripples
There were paintings of seascapes on display that were not instantly recognisable as Lowrys and these I found rather bland. They appeared tired and sad and probably depicted an era in the artist’s life where he became a reclusive and lonely figure staring out vaguely at waves. Was he severely depressed in later life? There were some memorable landscapes that included the sea and had the trademark Lowry figures. I loved these.

He died of pneumonia in 1976 aged 88, just a few months before a major exhibition of his work was held at London’s Royal Academy. It drew 350,000 visitors, breaking all attendance records for a 20th century artist. The then president of the Academy Sir Hugh Casson, referred to him as ‘one of the greatest English painters of this century.’ If only his mother could have heard those words.

If only his mother could have seen the new award-winning Lowry Museum and Art Gallery I was in. Her misfit boy’s work was living on in the area he grew up in and lending his name to a transformed cityscape down by the canal. As I thought about leaving I wondered what difference his mother’s acceptance would have made to his art? I guess I’ll never know. 

The Match - a Bolton Wanderers home game in 1953
Today Lowry remains popular rather than important and wouldn’t be revered in artistic circles as highly as Turner or Constable. Personally I prefer his best work to both the The Fighting Temeraire and The Haywain. It’s wrong and too simple to assume Lowry was a naive painter. He consciously developed his famous ‘matchstick’ style and Manchester is a better place for it.


He painted Salford's smokey tops 
On cardboard boxes from the shops 
And parts of Ancoats where I used to play 
I'm sure he once walked down our street 
Cause he painted kids who had nowt on their feet 
The clothes we wore had all see better days 
Now they said his works of art were dull 
No room all round the walls are full 
But Lowry didn't care much anyway 
They said he just paints cats and dogs 
And matchstalk men in boots and clogs 
And Lowry said that's just the way they'll stay 

And he painted matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs 
He painted kids on the corner of the street that were sparking clogs 
Now he takes his brush and he waits outside them factory gates 
To paint his matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs 

Now canvas and brushes were wearing thin 
When London started calling him 
To come on down and wear the old flat cap 
They said tell us all about your ways 
And all about them Salford days 
Is it true you're just an ordinary chap 

Now Lowry's hang upon the wall 
Beside the greatest of them all 
And even the Mona Lisa takes a bow 
This tired old man with hair like snow 
Told northern folk its time to go 
The fever came and the good lord mopped his brow 

And he left us matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs 
He left us kids on the corner of the street that were sparking clogs 
Now he takes his brush and he waits outside them pearly gates 
To paint his matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs

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