CREATIVE COMMONS: Attribute, non commercial, no derivs.
KEYWORDS: art, painting, sculpture, gallery, picture, landscape, portrait, photography, surreal, abstract, artists, photo, photograph
L. S. Lowry - his life and art
Laurence Stephen Lowry was 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, Manchester. The family nicknamed the boy 'Laurie'. Lowry's birth had been difficult difficult and Elizabeth, who had been hoping for a girl, had difficulty bonding with him at first. Later she spoke of her envy envy of sister Mary, who had "three splendid daughters" instead of one "clumsy boy".
Small wonder then that Lowry grew into a shy, reserved, awkward boy who lacked social skills.
After the birth Lowry's mother's health was poor a
and she had to give up teaching. Contemporary accounts describe her as a gifted pianist and a respected tutor. Privately she was said to be and irascible and highly strung woman who had been brought up by her strict father to expect from those around her the high standards
he set for herself . Like her father she was domineering and intolerant of failure. She used illness as a means of manipulating her mild and affectionate husband and she controlled young Laurence her son in the same way. Lowry had an unhappy childhood. At school he made few friends and showed little academic aptitude. His father was affectionate towards him but he could not gain the approval that he craved from his mother.
L. S. Lowry - Art studies
On reaching school-leaving age Lowry had discovered no obvious vocation his vocation but an aunt, having noticed he had a talent for drawing the ships docked on the Manchester Ship Canal, in 1903 persuaded his parents to let him enrol for art lessons with a well known teacher, Reginald Barber, despite his father's complete indifference towards the creative arts. A year later, aged seventeen, he started work as a clerk with a firm of chartered accountants in Manchester. From 1905 he attended evening classes at Manchester College of Art studying freehand drawing, light & shade, preparatory antique and, when his aptitude became apparent, life drawing under Pierre Adolphe Valette. By then he was working as a clerk for the General Accident Fire and Life Assurance Company. In 1907 and he started private art classes with the American portrait painter William Fitz.
In 1909 his father's business failed and the family had to move to a smaller house at 117 Station Road, Pendlebury, a suburb of Manchester. (To avoid confusion here it must be pointed out that Manchester and Salford are twin cities, taking their different names from Church of England parishes that in the industrial revolution outgrew their boundaries an merged along with many surrounding villages an hamlets into a vast, urban sprawl.) Lowry became a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company in 1910. It is at this time that he began painting seriously and his sketchbooks were filled with images from the streets and homes that he visited for his day job. In 1915 he continued his studies in evening classes at Salford School of Art under Bernard D Taylor and the stylised human form (commemorated in the folk song Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs) that became his trademark began to emerge. Taylor encouraged him to use the white backgrounds that would come to be one of the signature features of his paintings. In 1928 he stopped attending art school.
Exhibiting and recognition
Lowry's work was first exhibited in 1919 when he had two paintings at the Annual Exhibition of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts and showed widely at exhibitions in the north of England throughout the 1920s His work was often dismissed as amateurish and childlike by critics. 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), and was also shown in London, Dublin, and Japan.
Lowry was asked to illustrated A Cotswold Book written by H. W. Timperley in 1930, soon after he held a solo exhibition of drawings at the Round House gallery at Manchester University. The book containing twelve of his drawings was published in 1931.
In 1938 the attention of Alexander J. McNeill Reid, a director of the Lefevre Gallery in London, was attracted by several Lowry canvases which were awaiting framing at James Bourlet & Sons Limited (now the transport division of the renowned Sotheby's auction house). He inquired after the artist and in 1939 a one-man exhibition of Lowry's work was held at the Lefevre Gallery. Sixteen painting were sold at that exhibition including one to the Tate Gallery. Lowry was delighted with the result a in later years said the show gave him more pleasure than anything else in art. The Lefevre Gallery showed 15 solo exhibitions of his work between 1945 and 1979.
In 1936 Salford City Art Gallery bought its first Lowry painting from the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts (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. Lowry was on his way to being recognised as the painter who chronicled working class life in the coal and cotton towns throughout the tears of the great depression. He became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1934 having first been exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Show in 1932. In 1955 he was was elected an Associate of the Academy and a full Royal Academician, a fellow in 1962.
Retrospective exhibitions of his work include those at Salford City Art Gallery as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain, the Manchester City Art Gallery in 1959, the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield in 1962, and at the Stone Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1964. In 1965 the Arts Council curated a touring retrospective exhibition that ended with a six-week show at the Tate Gallery in 1967. The Royal Academy, London held a posthumous tribute in 1976. To the present day he continues to be exhibited around the world, his paintings sell for millions of pounds and prints of his work are widely available and always popular.
Recently the city where he lived most of his life and did his best work honoured him by naming an arts centre after him. The art gallery of The Lowry Centre features a permanent exhibition of Lowry's work. The centre is sited in Salford Quays, an urban regeneration scheme on the site of the old docklands where some of Manchester and Salford's worst slums and most deprived people once were found and where Lowry drew the sketches for many of his paintings.
L. S. Lowry - A man alone.
Robert Lowry, the artist's father died in 1932 leaving debts. His mother, who had been subject to neurosis and depression, became bed ridden following her husband's death. Elizabeth had always been a very important figure in Lowry's life even though their relationship had been cool and lacking the usual affection between mother and son. In the end he had to care for her and so the controlling, critical parent became the dependent. The new duty did not disturb Lowry's painting greatly, 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.
Always a solitary child, Lowry remained a loner throughout his adult life. It has been said that now he would have been diagnosed as autistic to some degree but the artist would have probably ridiculed the suggestion. Though he never married and as far as is known never had a girlfriend and he was not a socialiser, having few male friends, L. S. Lowry always said he had no need of company, his relationship was with his painting which filled his life.
From the mid 1930s until at least 1939 Lowry took annual holidays at Berwick-upon-Tweed at the eastern end of the English / Scottish border. He never had a companion with him and spent most of his time wandering around the town and its environs, painting and drawing. 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 even more solitary.He neglected the upkeep of his house to such an extent that the landlord repossessed it in 1948. Having become a very successful artist he was relatively well off and bought a house in Mottram-in-Longdendale, Cheshire. Although he pronounced his new home ugly and uncomfortable he stayed there until his death almost thirty years later. In his latter years he employed a housekeeper, Bessie Swindells, who ensured that he and his home were adequately maintained. She would cook his breakfast and leave a supper for him.
After World War 2, in the 1950s, Lowry took to spending holidays at the Seaburn Hotel in Seaburn, Sunderland, a large shipbuilding town in the county of Tyne & Wear, where he liked to paint scenes of the beaches, as well as nearby ports and coal mines. It is believed that the sea air appealed to him, as well as the industrial scenes that were very different from the dark satanic mills of Greater Manchester. Lowry is fondly remembered in the city as a kindly old man, always wrapped up in overcoat and scarf even at the height of summer, who kept himself to himself.
When he had no sketchbook with him, Lowry would often draw scenes in pencil or charcoal on cardboard panels torn from boxes discarded by local shops or on the back of scrap paper such as envelopes, serviettes, and cloakroom tickets and present them to young people sitting with their families nearby. Such serendipitous pieces are now worth thousands of pounds; a serviette sketch can be seen at the Sunderland Mariott Hotel (formerly the Seaburn Hotel).
L. S. Lowry - The final chapter
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. Being a Mancunian myself although of a later generation I offer the possibility that rent collectors were not popular people in a city where there was great poverty. Several people he collected rents from however have testified that he was a benign and helpful man and always willing to give leeway in cases of genuine hardship. It has even been reported that on some occasions Lowry paid client's rent himself if he thought they were deserving cases.
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.
The suggestion that he may have had Asperger's syndrome was always a contentious diagnosis and these friendships he made in later life when his creative powers were waning suggests his own assessment that he felt little need for friendships while his life centred on painting is nearer the reality of the man. The Asperger's theory is emphatically dismissed by those that knew him personally. Though they agree he was a reserved, solitary man all insist that among friends he was humourous and mischievous and 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. Other eccentricities also appear to have ben affectations, employed to bamboozle visitors. 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 life are exacerbated by this deliberate obfuscation. He is widely seen as a shy man but he had several close and long-lasting friendships and made new friends, though often transient friendships throughout his adult life. He was contrary and could be selfish but he was generous and reputed to be concerned for the well-being of not just of his friends but of of strangers. It may be as his friend, the artist 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 old age he grew tired of being approached by strangers because of his celebrity and he particularly resented being visited at home without forewarning. In one of his unverifiable stories he recounted keeping a suitcase by the front door so that he could claim to be just leaving if anybody arrived. He said he was forced to abandon this practice 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 the deception.
L. S. Lowry 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 had no living relatives and left his estate to Carol Ann Lowry.
Awards and honours
He was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from the University of Manchester in 1945, and Doctorate 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 newly created 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, Manchester. The Hallé Orchestra also performed a concert in his honour and Prime Minister Harold Wilson (1964 - 70, 74 -76) 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.