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.
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|
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!|
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|
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