‘I can’t do a cat yet. The only way I can do a cat is by doing a very bad dog and then in a way decapitating it and it becomes a cat’ – L.S. Lowry
Lawrence Stephen Lowry was born on November 1, 1887 in Old Trafford, Manchester, United Kingdom. He is one of the most famous British painters of the 20th Century. His paintings are instantly recognisable due to his characteristic style, which at times verged on the naïve style of painting and often features figures that have since been dubbed as ‘matchstick men’.
He was born to R.S.M. Lowry and Elizabeth Hobson, a middle-class couple in Manchester. His father worked in an Estate Agents, whilst his mother was the daughter of a Master Hatter and was also an accomplished pianist. Lowry left school at the age of 15 and began working as a clerk in a Chartered Accountant’s office. In 1905 he began to attend evening classes at Manchester Municipal School of Art and later at the Salford School of Art, being unable to afford to attend full-time. He would continue to attend part-time art classes of some sort until 1925, sometimes five nights a week. His father was quite negative about Lowry’s interest art and did little to encourage his son down this path. In 1910, Lowry became a rent collector for Pall Mall Property Co, Manchester and subsequently gained the position of chief cashier, a position he would keep until his eventual retirement in 1952.
Despite being in full-time employment for such a large amount of his life, Lowry’s output as an artist was great and could rival many full-time artists. He was known as something of a loner, who did not mix socially a great deal, instead spending the majority of his free time either engaged in his art or looking after his parents. The fact that he was not a full-time artist was something of an embarrassment to him. It appears this was due to a fear the artistic establishment would dismiss him as a ‘Sunday painter’ and mere amateur. His relationship with the art world was always uneasy with a seemingly contradictory desire to be accepted, whilst also wishing to be unique and outside of the labelling and genres most artists and their work receive. In an interview in 1951, Lowry said,
‘My whole happiness and unhappiness were that my view was like nobody else’s. Had it been like, I would not have been lonely, but had I not been lonely, I should not have seen what I did’.
It is my view that lonely in this context should refer to his position in the art world, rather than lonely per se.
Nevertheless, Lowry was not a total outcast. He first exhibited in 1921, in the offices of the Manchester architect Roland Thomasson. As a result of this exhibition, he sold his first painting, ‘The Lodging House’. In 1925 he exhibited with the Manchester Society of Modern Painters and from 1927 until 1936 he regularly exhibited with the English Art Club. More significantly, he had work accepted on a consistent basis by Salon d’Automne in Paris between 1928 and 1933. He sold further works during this time, including to both the Manchester City Art Gallery and to the Tate Gallery in London. However, in 1932 his father died and as a result much of Lowry’s time became taken up with caring for his ageing mother whom he was totally committed to. She would eventually die in 1939 causing a profound effect on Lowry. Days after her death he painted ‘Head of a Man With Red Eyes’, a self-portrait, showing himself emotionally on the edge.
In contrast to this, his artistic career was finally gaining some fame and notoriety, for he was given his first one man show in 1939, at Le feure Gallery, London. As a result of this show, he sold 16 paintings, including a further one to the Tate Gallery. He was given another one-man show two years later at Salford City Art Gallery. Despite this, he continued to live a quiet and relatively secluded existence. It was not until 1952 that he finally retired from his job, on a full pension. His relationship with women was a curious one. He never married and never seemed to have had relationships with women in the normal sense. He did have strange friendships with a few women, with whom he became semi-obsessed and painted some disturbing pictures of them.
Between 1966 and 1967, the Arts Council of Britain did a touring retrospective of his work. In recognition of his contribution to British art, he was offered a Knighthood in 1970, an honour he refused. In his final years, Lowry painted much less. He died on February 23, 1976 at Woods Hospital, Glossop, of pneumonia.
The vast majority of Lowry’s paintings share themes relating to scenes in the industrial North of England. Almost always outdoors, they are often made up of a backdrop of chimneys and dark, rectangular buildings with some sort of event or incident going on in the foreground. Lowry’s painting style appears relatively simplistic at first glance. He used only six basic paints, mixing these together to form other colours as necessary. His application of this paint was to almost paste it onto the canvas, using no medium or diluting agent. The white he used was lead-based, and as a result is no longer available due to safety reasons, but it is another of the characteristics of his paintings. After criticism that his paintings were too dark, he began using vast amounts of white as a background. It was Lowry’s opinion that the colour of this white would improve with time as it became more creamy and cracked and it would only be after his death that the colours in his pictures would mature to their maximum potential.
Lowry showed the skill of a draughtsman in his pictures by expertly arranging the composition of his paintings around one vanishing point, that would usually be located somewhere off-centre, and making good use of the golden ratio. The incidents in his pictures would often be the location of the vanishing point with the rest of the painting put into relation with it. It seems that Lowry was obsessed by events that in some senses were mundane, but which could, when they occurred, disrupt the ambivalence and banality of everyday life. Some good examples of this are ‘An Accident’ (c.1926), ‘A Quarrel’ (c. 1935), ‘The Arrest’ (c.1927) and ‘A Fight’ (c.1935). He painted several pictures relating to football such as ‘Going to the match’ (c.1931) and was extremely fond of laboriously painting seemingly thousands of figures teeming across his canvases.
Work in the North of England was also a theme and he painted pictures such as ‘Coming from the mill’ (c.1917-18), another picture also named ‘Coming from the mill’ (c.1930) and ‘Returning from Work’ (c.1929). Inspite of this, Lowry attracted some criticism from some left-wing political artists who claimed that he never explored what they considered the important aspects of lower-class workers’ lives, and never painted any of them ‘at work’. However, this overlooks the fact that Lowry’s purpose never appears to have been to politicise his subject matter, but rather take a more objective stance. The point-of-view never interferes with the action and we as the viewer are removed from it to the position of observers. The figures in the paintings are famous for their simplistic appearance and apparent lack of complexity. But again, this is an underestimation of Lowry’s ability. If one examines any of his figures, one finds that anatomically, their stance and movement is perfectly portrayed. Lowry also drew a lot of dogs into his pictures, incidentally, most of which consisted of a couple of blobs of black, but which were imbued with a great deal of personality. Beyond these themes, Lowry also painted several pictures of the sea, consisting of just that, with a pale blue sky in the top part of the canvas, and the sea in the lower, divided by a slight line on the horizon. These seascapes are often overlooked, perhaps as they are less easily accessible.
On April 28, 2000, The Lowry was opened in Salford Quays, Manchester. At the heart of the building is a gallery devoted to Lowry’s paintings and drawings with other facilities relating to art and creativity also within The Lowry, including two theatres and other gallery space. I would recommend anyone who has the chance to go and visit and see some of Lowry’s work to do so, (it is free by the way).
Some images of Lowry’s paintings can be found at: http://lslowry.homestead.com/