L. S. Lowry

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Lawrence Stephen Lowry (November 1, 1887 - February 23, 1976) was an English artist born in Rusholme, Manchester. Most of his pictures depict Salford, where he lived and worked for over thirty years.

Lowry is famous for painting scenes of life in the industrial districts of northern England during the early 20th century. He had a distinctive style of painting and is best known for urban landscapes peopled with many human figures ('matchstick men'). He tended to paint these in drab colours. He also painted mysterious unpeopled landscapes, brooding portraits, and the secret 'marionette' works (the latter only found after his death).

He is widely misperceived as an amateur and naïve 'Sunday painter'.

Contents

Biography

Lowry was born the only child of Robert Stephen, an Irish-born estate agent, and Elizabeth (née Hobson) a concert pianist and piano teacher in the middle class suburb of Victoria Park in Rusholme. His family called him 'Laurie'. It was a difficult birth and his mother, who had been hoping for a girl, was uncomfortable even looking at him at first. Later she expressed her envy of her sister Mary, who had "three splendid daughters" instead of one "clumsy boy".

After Lowry's birth his mother's health was too poor for her to continue teaching. She is reported to have been gifted and respected. She was an irritable, nervous woman who had been brought up to expect high standards by her stern father. Like him she was controlling and intolerant of failure. She used illness as a means of securing the attention and obedience of her mild and affectionate husband and she dominated her son in the same way.

Lowry had an unhappy childhood. At school he made few friends and showed no academic aptitude. His father was affectionate towards him but he could not gain the approval that he craved from his mother. When he reached school-leaving age his vocation was not obvious but an aunt noted that he had been good at drawing ships so in 1903 his parents enrolled him in private art lessons with Reginald Barber although his father was completely indifferent towards the illustrative arts. A year later, at seventeen, he started work as a clerk with a Manchester chartered accountant. From 1905 he attended evening classes at Manchester College of Art studying classes in freehand drawing, light & shade, preparatory antique and, when his aptitude became apparent, life studies under Pierre Adolphe Valette. He was employed as a clerk for the General Accident Fire and Life Assurance Company in 1907 and he started private art clases with the American portratit painter William Fitz in the same year.

In 1909 his father's business failed and the family had to move to a smaller house at 117 Station Road, Pendlebury, an industrial suburb to the northwest of Salford. Lowry became a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company in 1910. It is at this time that he he took up painting seriously and his sketchbooks were filled with images from the streets and homes that he visited for his day job. In 1915 he started evening classes at Salford School of Art under Bernard D Taylor and the stylised human form that became his trademark began to emerge. Taylor encouraged him to use the white backgrounds that would come to be one of his trademarks. In 1928 he stopped attending art school.

He first exhibited in 1919 with two paintings at the Annual Exhibition the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts and showed widely throughout the 1920s although his work was often dismissed as amateurish and childlike. In 1921 he exhibited his work in the offices of the Manchester architect Roland Thomasson and sold his first picture, a pastel entitled The Lodging House. He entered paintings in the Paris Salon, with the New English Art Club (from 1927 to 1936, in Dublin, Manchester and Japan.

Lowry illustrated The Cotswold Book written by Harold Timperley in 1930 and he held a solo exhibition of drawings at the Round House gallery at Manchester University. The book was published in 1931.

In 1938 Alexander J. McNeil Reid saw several of Lowry's paintings awaiting framing at James Bourlet & Sons Limited (now the transport division of Sotheby's auction house). He inquired after the artist and in 1939 the Reid & Lefevre Gallery, London held a one-man exhibition of his paintings. That exhibition sold sixteen paintings including one to the Tate Gallery (for just £15). It came as a very pleasant surprise to Lowry, who said that the show gave him more pleasure than anything else in art. The Reid & Lefevre Gallery showed 15 solo exhibitions of his work between 1945 and 1979.

He first exhibited at the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts (MAFA) in 1932, was elected a member in 1934 and continued to exhibit there annually until 1972. In 1936 Salford City Art Gallery bought its first Lowry painting from the MAFA exhibition; it was A Street Scene painted in 1928. The city held its first one man show of his work in 1941 and opened a permanent collection of his work in 1958. He became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1934. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Show in 1932 and was elected an Associate in 1955 and a full Royal Academician in 1962.

Lowry and some other members of the Manchester Arts Club formed a sub-group called the Manchester Group, which exhibited at the Midday Studios, Moseley Street, Manchester and elsewhere in the city until 1956.

Retrospective exhibitions of his work include those at Salford City Art Gallery as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain, Manchester City Art Gallery in 1959 and at Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield in 1962. In 1965 the Arts Council curated a touring retrospective exhibition that ended at the Tate Gallery in 1967 and the Royal Academy, London held a posthumous tribute in 1976.

His father died in 1932 leaving debts and his mother, who had been subject to neurosis and depression, became bed ridden. Lowry's mother had always been a very important figure in his life and now he had to care for her. He painted from 10 pm to 2 am after his mother had fallen asleep. He frequently expressed regret that he received little recognition as an artist until the year that his mother died and that she had never been able to enjoy his success. From the mid 1930s until at least 1939 Lowry took annual holidays at Berwick-upon-Tweed. With the outbreak of war Lowry served as a volunteer fire watcher in Manchester and accepted an invitation to become a war artist. In 1953 he was appointed Official Artist at the coronation of Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.

With the death of his mother in October 1939 Lowry became depressed and neglected the upkeep of his house to such a degree that the landlord repossessed it in 1948. He was not short of money and bought The Elms in Mottram-in-Longdendale, Cheshire. Although he considered the house ugly and uncomfortable he stayed there until his death almost thirty years later. In his new home he employed a housekeeper, Mrs Swindells, who ensured that he and his home were adequately maintained. She would cook his breakfast and leave a supper for him.

Lowry retired from the Pall Mall Property Company in 1952. During his career he had risen to become chief cashier but he never stopped collecting rents. The firm had supported his development as an artist and he was allowed him time off for exhibitions in addition to his normal holiday allowance. It seems, however, that he was not proud of his job; his secrecy about his employment by the Pall Mall Property Company is widely seen as a desire to present himself as a serious artist but the secrecy extended beyond the art world into his social circle.

Margery Thompson first met him when she was a schoolgirl and he became part of her family circle. He attended concerts with her family and friends, visited her home and entertained her at his Pendlebury home where he shared his knowledge of painting. They remained friends until his death but he never told her that he had any work except his art.

In the 1950s he regularly visited friends at Cleator Moor, Cumbria (where Geoffrey Bennett was Manager at National Westminster Bank and Southampton (where Margery Thompson had moved upon her marriage). Lowry painted pictures of the bank in Cleator Moor, Southampton Floating Bridge and other scenes local to his friends' homes.

He befriended the 23-year-old Cumbrian artist Sheila Fell in November 1955 and supported her career by buying several pictures that he gave to museums. In 1957 an unrelated thirteen-year-old schoolgirl called Carol Ann Lowry wrote to Lowry at her mother's urging to ask his advice on becoming an artist. He visited her home in Heywood, Greater Manchester some months later and became a family friend.

He was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from the University of Manchester in 1945, and Doctor of Letters in 1961, and given freedom of the City of Salford in 1965. In 1975 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Salford and the same degree by the University of Liverpool. The art world celebrated his 77th birthday (in 1964) with an exhibition of his work and that of 25 contemporary artists who had submitted tributes to Monk's Hall Museum, Eccles. The Hallé Orchestra also performed a concert in his honour and Harold Wilson used Lowry's painting The Pond as his official christmas card. Lowry's painting Coming out of school was the stamp of highest denomination in a series issued by the Post Office depicting great British artists in 1967.

He died of pneumonia at The Woods hospital in Glossop on 23 February 1976 aged 88. He was buried in Chorlton Southern Cemetery, Manchester next to his parents. He left his estate to Carol Ann Lowry.

Lowry never married although he had several young female friends. He claimed never to have "had a girl [friend]". He said that he lived for his mother and that all he wanted was her smile or a word of praise from her. His father was indifferent to his artistic activity and although Lowry believed that his mother did not understand his painting, "she understood me and that was enough". Elizabeth Lowry never did appreciate her son, however.

He may have had high-functioning Asperger's Syndrome but this remains a contentious diagnosis that is not shared by those that knew him personally.

He was a secretive and mischievous man who enjoyed stories irrespective of their truth. His friends have observed that his anecdotes were more notable for their humour than their accuracy and in many cases he set out deliberately to deceive. His stories of the fictional Ann were inconsistent and he invented other people as frameworks upon which to hand his tales. The collection of clocks in his living room were all set at different times: to some people he said that this was because he didn't want to know the real time; to others he claimed that it was to save him from being deafened by their simultaneous chimes.

The contradictions in his live are exacerbated by this confusion. He is widely seen as a shy man but he had many long-lasting friendships and made new friends throughout his adult life. He was contrary and could be selfish but he was generous and concerned for the well-being of his friends and of strangers. It may be as Sheila Fell has said: "He was a great humanist. To be a humanist one has first to love human beings, and to be a great humanist one has to be slightly detached from them."

In later life he grew tired of being approached by strangers on account of his celebrity and he particularly disliked being visited at home in this way. Another of his unverifiable stories had him keeping a suitcase by the front door so that he could claim to be just leaving; a practice he claimed to have abandoned after a helpful young man insisted on taking him to the station and had to be sent off to buy a paper so that Lowry could buy a ticket for just one stop without revealing his deceit.

Works

During his life Lowry made about 1000 paintings and over 8000 drawings. The lists here are some of those that are considered to be particularly significant.

Paintings

  • 1906 Still life — a bowl of fruit for the first evening classes.
  • 1912 Portrait of the artist's mother
  • 1910 Clifton Junction Morning
  • 1917 Coming from the mill — early exemplar of what has become known as the Lowry style.
  • 1919 Frank Jopling Fletcher — portrait demonstrating that Lowry's stylisation was a choice and not a consequence of any lack of skill.
  • 1922 A manufacturing town — archetypal Lowry industrial landscape.
  • 1922 Regent Street, Lytham — pastoral scene in sharp contrast to A manufacturing town.
  • 1925 Self portrait — a large-nosed young man (he would have been 38 years old) in a large flat cap.
  • 1926 An accident
  • 1927 Peel Park, Salford — an art gallery and museum that Lowry particularly liked and that held Salford's excellent collection of his work before the opening of the Lowry Centre.
  • 1927 Dwellings, Ordsall Lane, Salford — the first Lowry painting to be bought by the Tate Gallery (from his first London show in 1939).
  • 1928 A Street Scene — the first Lowry painting to be bought by Salford City Art Gallery.
  • 1928 Going To The Match — a crowd heading for a rugby match.
  • 1930 Coming from the mill
  • 1934 The empty house — an isolated house in grounds.
  • 1935 A Fight
  • 1935 The fever van
  • 1937 The lake — an environmental nightmare against an industrial background.
  • 1938 A head of a man — it has been suggested that this red-eyed man might be a portrait of Robert Lowry (who would be much older than the portrait suggests) or a form of self-portrait.
  • 1940 The bedroom – Pendlebury — his late mother's room.
  • 1941 Barges on a canal
  • 1942 Blitzed site — a man stands amidst the bombed ruins.
  • 1943 Britain at play — huge busy urban scene.
  • Going To Work — painted as a war artist.
  • 1945 VE Day
  • 1946 The Park
  • 1947 Iron Works
  • 1950 The Pond — used as a christmas card by Howard Wilson in 1964.
  • 1952 Industrial Landscape – Ashton under Lyne
  • 1953 Football Ground — fans converging on Bolton Wanderers's old football ground Burnden Park; painted for a competition run by the Football Association it was later renamed Going to the match and was bought by the Professional Footballers Association for a record £1.9 million in 1999.
  • 1955 A young man — a haunted youth stares at the viewer.
  • 1956 The Floating Bridge — one of a pair owned by The City of Southampton, where the bridge operated until 1977.
  • 1957 Man lying on a wall — note the gentle joke that the man's briefcase bear the initials 'LSL'.
  • 1957 Portrait of Ann — a fiction.
  • 1960 Gentleman looking at something
  • 1961 River Wear at Sunderland — one of Lowry's favoured holiday destinations.
  • 1962 Two people
  • 1963 The sea — typically understated seascape.
  • 1965 Industrial Scene
  • 1967 Tanker entering the Tyne

Drawings

  • 1908 Head from the antique — very acurately observed.
  • 1914 Seated male nude — realistic rendition with no trace of 'matchstick men'.
  • 1919 Robert Lowry — the artist's father.
  • 1920 The artist's mother
  • 1931 Pendlebury scene
  • 1957 Woman with beard
  • 1958 The Elms — Lowry's house in Mottram.
  • 1961 Colliery, Sunderland
  • 1969 The Front, Hartlepool


Collections

Lowry's work is held in many public and private collections.

The largest collection is held by the City of Salford and displayed at the Lowry Centre.

The Tate Gallery, London owns 23 works.

The City of Southampton owns The floating bridge, The canal bridge and An industrial town.

MOMA, New York

Memorials

A £100-million art gallery called "The Lowry" centre was opened in Salford in 2000. Much of his work is displayed there, and his body of work is being re-assessed there in a series of exhibitions. X-ray analysis has revealed hidden figures under his drawings - the 'Ann' figures.

Two years after his death, Mancunian duo Brian and Michael hit number one in the UK pop chart with their only hit, the Lowry tribute Matchstalk Men And Matchstalk Cats And Dogs.

To mark the centenerary of his birth the City of Salford Ballet Company were commissioned to create a ballet in his honour. The Simple Man was performed in 1987.

References

  • Allen Andrews, The Life of L.S.Lowry, A Biography, (Jupiter Books, 1977)
  • Hilda Margery Clarke, Lowry Himself, (Southampton: The First Gallery, 1992)
  • Julian Spalding, Lowry, (Dutton, 1979)
  • Michael Howard, Lowry – A visionary artist (Acatos, 1999)
  • Michael Leber & Judith Sandling, LS Lowry, (London: Phaidon)
  • Michael Leber & Judith Sandling, Lowry's City: A pianter and his locale, (London: Lowry House, 2001)
  • Mervyn Levy, The paintings of LS Lowry – Oil paintings and water colours, (1975)
  • Tilly Marshall, Life with Lowry, (London: Hutchinson, 1981) ISBN 0091440904
  • David McLean, LS Lowry, (London: Medici Society, 1978)
  • Shelley Rohde, A Private View of L.S. Lowry, (London: Collins, 1979)
  • Shelley Rohde, The Lowry Lexicon &ndash an A-Z of L.S. Lowry, (Lowry Press, 1999)
  • Doreen Sieja, The Lowry I knew, (Jupiter Books, 1983)

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