‘And he painted matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs…’ ran the lyrics of an unpleasantly mawkish song (which spent an unlikely three weeks at Number One in the spring of 1978), but while singer-songwriters Brian & Michael were paying tribute to LS Lowry, the critics were generally grudging. Now, at last, the Salford artist gets a big show at Tate Britain. Jack Watkins went along…
LS Lowry – the initials stand for Laurence Stephen – once explained his reasons for repeatedly turning down honours (he refused on five occasions between 1955 and 1976). “They offered me a knighthood and I wouldn’t touch it. I think it would be very degrading… I think it’s laughable. I’ve very strong opinions about honours. They are ten a penny. They are fifty a penny. I didn’t want it all. I was shocked. I’m not a socialist. I’m a good Conservative. But I didn’t want a title.”
The response was typical of a man who was a mass of contradictions, delighting in confounding the expectations of others. Lowry: the ceaseless painter of the working classes, who in reality came from a middle class family, fallen on hard times in a manner not dissimilar to Charles Dickens. Lowry: the so-called Sunday painter who, in his own words, was “a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week.” Lowry: the monosyllabic, parsimonious, meat-and-two-veg solitary who was also a secret aesthete, spending large sums to purchase the works of his favourite Pre-Raphaelite artists, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown.
The Tate’s new exhibition is the first to be held by a public institution in London since the artist’s death in 1976. It can also claim to be the first to explore Lowry’s connection with French art, arguing for his status as Britain’s pre-eminent painter of the industrial city. But Lowry’s work has been hugely sought after by collectors for years, and is capable of fetching sums soaring above £2 million at auctions. And he is hugely popular with the public. There’s a Salford art gallery in his name that does a rare trade in Lowry mugs and tea towels. It’s a mystery why it has taken the London art establishment so long to latch on. It couldn’t be anything to do with snobbery, could it?
One of Lowry’s great crimes in the eyes of the highbrow art set is that of accessibility. Unlike a lot of twentieth century painters, you get the drift of his work pretty quickly. It’s also true that throughout his entire career, his style and tone didn’t drastically alter. Mill Scene was painted in 1971, but the slender figures, bodies tilted against the wind, aren’t markedly different from those who populated his canvasses forty years earlier. The grey skies, prams and air of bored desolation of Town Centre in 1966 could have been done in 1936. In 1959, he painted Protest March, which had by his standards an unusual angle, showing a column of agitators from overhead in the manner of a film director’s crane shot. The marchers’ attire, though, could have been worn by Jarrow marchers of two decades earlier.
Yet Lowry’s simplicity is also his charm. Never belonging to any particular ‘school’, living his entire life in Lancashire – he disliked ‘abroad’ with its queer food – he is the ultimate people’s painter. If he pretended to be self-taught, though, that wasn’t strictly true. Born in 1887, in Stretford, Manchester, his father was an estate agent, and by the end of the 1890s, the family was wealthy enough to move to the city’s upmarket Victoria Park district. Lowry was already employed as an insurance claims clerk, and attending evening classes in drawing and painting, before a financial crisis forced the Lowry family to relocate to the more industrial quarters of Pendlebury, in Salford.
The most obvious parallel, in terms of theme, to be found in Lowry’s work is that of the French impressionists, with their delight in the commonplace and urban borderlands. Lowry not only saw a substantial exhibition of their material in Manchester in 1907, but also had as his tutor one Adolphe Valette, whose Post-Impressionist mastery of atmosphere and light can be seen in the Tate Britain show, with a spellbindingly beautiful work, York St, leading to Charles St, Manchester, painted in 1913.
It was once written of Valette that he could make Manchester ‘as dreamy in the mists’ as any of the Impressionists’ much loved recreations of gentle lamp-lit evenings in French cities, but such romanticised backdrops were never going to feature as part of his protégé’s repertoire. Lowry started exhibiting in an era when the country was beginning its slide into the Great Depression, and his work never really shed that dowdy air of clothes caps, brass bands and meeting halls. Even when he strayed south to paint Piccadilly Circus in 1960, he managed to make everyone marching though the neon-lit hub of West End entertainment look as if they were having a thoroughly miserable time.
Yet for Lowry, his familiar hunting ground around Pendlebury was, in its own way, if not beautiful, utterly fascinating. British landscape artists had elevated the hitherto lowly genre to new levels of critical esteem, but never had they tackled industrial subject matter. If industry did find its way into their art, it was in a picturesque setting. Some of the more perceptive critics spotted that ‘Beauty’ didn’t always have to arise out of soothing or comforting situations, and could also be found in scenes of human beings caught up in the repetitive toil of daily life in a northern industrial town. Still, hypnotic as Lowry can be, beauty is not, I don’t think, a word to be used when talking about his paintings: ‘grim’ and ‘atmospheric’ suit better.
My own favourite Lowry here, St Augustine’s Church, depicts the huge black edifice not as a welcoming place of worship and solace, but like some yawning great whale waiting to gobble up the parishioners. Lowry was often accused of repetitiveness, and of showing no interest in detailed human representation. He replied that his figures were symbols of his mood. “Natural figures would have broken the spell of my vision, so I made them half unreal.”
The trouble is that when standing in front of a gathering of the industrial town scenes, one Lowry can look very much like another, the artist favouring the front-on viewpoint, people in the foreground, clearly etched terraces and gardens next, and in background the smoking chimneys of the factories. White is the predominant colour, and any green is rendered a murky grey. Whether it’s children en route to school, or adults heading for work, they all move the same way. Sometimes the figures move left to right across the canvass, sometimes right to left. That just about sums up the difference. You’d be hard put to remember the names of these paintings or distinguish between them. Look closer and you will, in fact, spot how he did manage to achieve variety, but it’s not by much.
At least he was consistent in his bleakness. In the1950s and 1960s, Lowry painted seven huge urban panoramas of industrial scenes in northern cities and South Wales mining valleys. Ebbw Vale and Bargoed show the obliteration of the beautiful Welsh countryside. In Industrial Landscape, the people and terraced houses have shrunk ever smaller against the factory chimneys. The landscape has, by now, almost entirely been drained of colour. I like Lowry, though this show convinces me, for what it’s worth, that you couldn’t really call him a great artist – but he certainly knew how to create a vision of industrial hell.
Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is at Tate Britain to 20 October.
See www.tate.org.uk for more information.