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Lowry, Laurence Stephenlocked

(1887–1976)
  • Mervyn Levy
  • , revised by Julian Spalding

Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887–1976)

by Ida Kar, 1954 [with his painting Piccadilly Gardens]

Lowry, Laurence Stephen (1887–1976), painter, was born on 1 November 1887 at 8 Barrett Street, Stretford, in Manchester, the home of the industrial revolution. He was the only child of Robert Stephen McAll Lowry (1857–1932), an estate agent's clerk, and his wife, Elizabeth (1858–1939), daughter of William Hobson, a member of a Manchester firm of hatters. His mother regarded herself as socially superior to her husband, and his failure to earn enough money to keep her in the style which she felt she deserved may have been at the root of her increasing self-imposed isolation, and her growing disappointment with her son, who, nevertheless, remained devoted to her. Lowry later refused a knighthood, proposed in 1967 by the prime minister, Harold Wilson, on the grounds that he did not see the point of it now that his mother was dead. She was an accomplished pianist and Lowry, who shared her love of classical music, kept her piano in his sitting-room, though he could not play it himself.

Lowry began his education in 1895 at Victoria Park School in Rusholme, Manchester. When he was fifteen there were heated family arguments about what career he should follow. Since childhood he had been interested only in drawing, and wanted to continue. This distressed his mother, who considered it a useless pursuit and beneath his station in life. The outcome was a compromise. In 1904 he began work with a Manchester firm of accountants, and in 1905 he started to attend evening classes at the Manchester Municipal School of Art. His teacher, Adolphe Valette, a Frenchman, was an exponent of the post-impressionist style. He exerted a profound influence upon the young artist, by teaching him the importance of drawing and observing atmospheric effects. He also demonstrated to him that being an artist was not just a job but a highly professional calling.

In 1910 Lowry became a rent collector and clerk with the Pall Mall Property Company in Manchester, in whose employ he was to remain until his retirement on full pension in 1952, by which time he had risen to the rank of chief cashier. The fact that for almost fifty years he was in a ‘nine-to-five’ job was the most closely guarded secret of his life, for the good reason that he had a horror of being thought of as a Sunday painter. He lied to Sir John Rothenstein, then director of the Tate Gallery, London, claiming that he had never had to work for his living because his mother had left him an ample inheritance. Not until after his death in 1976 was the truth made public.

After ten years as a student at Manchester, Lowry began attending evening classes at the Salford School of Art at the Royal Technical College, where he remained for a further five years. It was about this time (c.1915) that he ‘discovered’ the industrial scene. 'One day he missed a train from Pendlebury, and as he left the station he saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill … he experienced an earthly equivalent of some transcendental revelation', was how Sir John Rothenstein described it in Modern English Painters (2, 1976), based on his discussions with the artist. This was almost certainly a lie too, or rather a dramatic over-simplification. Lowry tended to let his interviewers believe what they wanted to believe and Rothenstein was interested particularly in the spiritual inspiration of art. The evidence of Lowry's work suggests that he did not have a single ‘visionary’ experience. Instead his subject matter grew naturally and methodically out of his observations of life around him. Nevertheless, there was an aspect of his work which could be called ‘spiritual’. He confided to close friends that he often found himself looking at a scene as if he were an outsider, cut off from it. The high viewpoints from which his pictures are seen reflect these ‘out-of-body’ experiences.

Lowry occasionally made thumbnail sketches of scenes he had witnessed on his rounds as a rent collector, but these were rarely if ever used literally. His paintings are, rather, an imaginative re-creation of the industrial scene, made at night, after supper. He often worked until 2 a.m., always by artificial light. It is remarkable that he produced such a huge body of work.

It is often thought that Lowry tended to repeat himself. However, familiarity with his work reveals that each painting is different and about something new. Over the years his style changed considerably, becoming increasingly expressive of his personal feelings. In 1939 he painted an anguished portrait of himself (Salford Art Gallery) with red eyes and a violent stare, which expressed his suffering at his mother's death and his troubled experiences working as a fire-watcher during the war. In the late 1940s and 1950s he produced a sequence of seascapes in which each has nothing in it but an empty white sky, a horizon, and a few low, rippling waves. Few artists have ever managed to capture such a complete feeling of emptiness. Lowry once had a dream that one day the tide would not turn, but just go on rising. These sea paintings were an evocation of that. Like so many of his pictures they are about death as a background to life.

During the 1960s and 1970s Lowry peopled his white canvases increasingly with single figures often drawn from his macabre imagination, such as tramps, drunks, bearded ladies, and people with deformities. However freakish they may appear, there is always a liveliness about them—a sense that they are kicking back. After his death a small group of rather beautiful but essentially private drawings were discovered, showing buxom young girls wearing men's clothes and being tortured with whips or knives. He never married, but had a sequence of obsessional friendships with young women, many of whom appear to have been called Anne. Shelley Rohde, who wrote a biography of the artist, unearthed quite a lot of information about these shadowy figures.

Lowry's public reputation as an artist began in 1930, when the Manchester City Art Gallery purchased An Accident (1926). In 1934 he was elected to the Royal Society of British Artists. But the major event of his life was the chance discovery of his work by the art dealer A. J. McNeil Reid of the Lefevre Gallery, London, who in 1938 noticed some of the artist's paintings on the premises of James Bourlet & Sons, picture framers. Reid instantly recognized the importance of this work and in 1939 gave Lowry his first one-man exhibition. In 1948 he moved to The Elms, the bleak house at Mottram in Longdendale, Cheshire, where he lived until his death. He was awarded an honorary MA (1945) and LLD (1961) by Manchester University. He was elected an ARA in 1955 and an RA in 1962. In 1965 he received the freedom of the city of Salford, and in 1967 the General Post Office issued a stamp reproducing one of his industrial scenes. In 1975 the universities of Salford and Liverpool conferred upon him the honorary degree of DLitt.

As a man Lowry was an eccentric in the grand tradition. Tall in build, he cared nothing for appearances, and in the 1970s frequently wore the mackintosh and cap in which he had painted his celebrated Self-Portrait of 1925 (Salford Art Gallery). He collected Pre-Raphaelite drawings and paintings and at his death possessed a notable group of female portraits by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His recreation was listening to music, especially Donizetti and Bellini.

The main collection of Lowry's work—over 150 drawings and paintings—is owned by the Salford Art Gallery. A selection is regularly exhibited at the Lowry, the major new concert hall and gallery in Salford named after the city's most famous artist. There are portraits of him by Mervyn Levy (pencil, 1961, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry) and Olwyn Bowey (oil, 1963–4, Tate collection). There is a bronze bust (1967) by Leo Solomon in the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Lowry died on 23 February 1976 at Woods Hospital, Glossop, Derbyshire, following an attack of pneumonia, and was buried on the 27th in the southern cemetery, Manchester.

Lowry is a unique figure in British and, possibly, in world art. No other artist caught so completely the new townscape the industrial revolution created, with its horizons of smoking chimneys and streets teeming with people. He lived long enough to see the factories he loved bulldozed to make way for car-parks and offices. As this happened they faded from his art, leaving only solitary figures isolated on a field of white. He realized that the industrial landscape is not dark, but light. The light from overcast skies not only banishes all shadows but also reflects back from the often wet pavements, with the result that the figures and buildings stand out against a misty haze. Lowry used this to express both his sense of loneliness and his love of life.

Sources

  • S. Rohde, A private view of L. S. Lowry (1979)
  • A. Andrews, The life of L. S. Lowry (1977)
  • M. Levy, The paintings of L. S. Lowry (1978)
  • M. Levy, The drawings of L. S. Lowry (1978)
  • T. Marshall, Life with Lowry (1981)
  • J. Spalding, Lowry (1979)
  • J. Spalding, Lowry (1987) [exh. cat., Cleveland Art Gallery, Middlesbrough]
  • M. Leber and J. Sandling, L. S. Lowry (1987)

Archives

  • V&A NAL, miscellanea
  • Salford Museum and Art Gallery, letters to Mr Timperley and Mrs Timperley
  • V&A NAL, corresp. with Bernhard Baer
  • V&A NAL, corresp. with Geoffrey Bennett
  • V&A NAL, letters to D. Carr

Likenesses

  • L. S. Lowry, self-portrait, pencil drawing, 1920, NPG
  • L. S. Lowry, self-portrait, oils, 1925, Salford Art Gallery
  • Elliott & Fry, half-plate glass negative, 1927×9, NPG
  • L. S. Lowry, self-portrait, oils, 1938, priv. coll.; on loan to NPG
  • Elliot & Fry, half-plate glass negative, 1945, NPG
  • I. Kar, bromide print, 1954, NPG [see illus.]
  • I. Kar, bromide print, 1954, NPG
  • I. Kar, film negative, 1954, NPG
  • T. Truefitt, two bromide fibre prints, 1959, NPG
  • M. Levy, pencil drawing, 1961, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry
  • O. Bowey, oils, 1963–4, Tate collection
  • Tillotsons Newspapers Ltd, group portrait, bromide press print, 1964, NPG
  • J. S. Lewinski, bromide print, 1965, NPG
  • L. Solomon, bronze bust, 1967, RA
  • S. Samuels, prints, 1968, NPG
  • S. Tonkiss, bronze bust, 1971, NPG
  • P. Thompson, bromide print, 1973, NPG
  • R. Birch, selenium-toned bromide print, 1975, NPG
  • D. Moore, bromide fibre print, 1975, NPG
  • S. Samuels, double portrait, colour print, 1975 (with Samuel Tonkiss), NPG

Wealth at Death

£298,459: probate, 29 June 1976, CGPLA Eng. & Wales.