06 April 2013

Lowry's ordinary home and amazing gallery

Laurence Lowry (1887–1976) was born in Stretford Lancs. In 1905 the teenager was a student at the Manchester Municipal College of Art, where he studied under the French Impressionist artist Adolphe Valette. Valette also put Lowry in touch with current artistic developments in Paris.

By 1915 Lowry was studying at the Salford School of Art. It was here he mastered industrial landscapes and began to establish his unique style. Lowry eventually became famous for painting scenes of life in the industrial north­ of England of the early C20th. His distinc­tive paintings were best known for dullish cityscapes, and match-stick humans and animals. One of his favourite districts to paint was Salford, an area he knew very well. 

Coming Out of School, 1927,
35 x 54 cm,

Often times his images were crowded with people, but they were rushing and isolated individuals, not people having a wonderful time. In 1939 John Rothenstein, then Director of the Tate Gallery, visited Lowry's first solo exhibition in London, saying: 'I stood in the gallery marvelling at the accuracy of the mirror that this to me unknown painter had held up to the bleakness, the obsolete shabbiness, the grimy fogboundness, the grimness of northern industrial England”.

In 1948 Lowry had enough money to buy a modest home in Mottram, Greater Manchester called The Elms. It was not the most attractive house in the world, but as he had always remained single, there was never any need to move to a nicer place. The dining room was his studio and most of the wall space was covered with paintings and drawings completed during his time there. Now that the home has been given Listed Status, the new owners plan to restore the staircase which winds up the centre of the house and has lots of intricate detailing. An original cast iron stove, original doors, window shutters and floorboards will be renovated and the fireplace will move back from the lounge back to its original location in Lowry’s bedroom.

The Elms, Mottram 
in Greater Manchester 

In the 1950s, the artist liked to spent his holidays at the Seaburn Hotel up in Sunderland, focusing on scenes of local ports and coal mines. And he holidayed often in Berwick Upon Tweed. He must have really loved the northern industrial scenes.. since he painted them often. In fact while Lowry composed many of his northern views as imaginative reconstructions of different places, some were named after specific streets. Art dealer Richard Green noted that Coronation Street 1957 is the same street in Salford after which the famous, eponymous TV soap opera was named three years later. Was this life copying art or art copying life?

Lowry often befriended and bought works from young artists he admired, including James Ish­erwood whose works hung on the Mottram studio wall. He supp­orted other young careers by buying several pictures that he gave to museums. But the paintings he bought for his own pleasure were not contemporary. When the money started to roll in for his own works, Lowry purchased a number of works by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 –1882). How strange that an artist who painted stylised, lonely people in tough northern cityscapes should be particularly inspired by a sensual Victorian Pre-Raphaelite.

The Fever Van 1935
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Lowry died in 1976 aged 88, just a few months before an important and successful exhibition of his work was held at London's Royal Academy. The artist was buried in Manchester, leaving a very large estate, valued at £300,000 plus many works of art. Since then, a col­lection of Lowry's work has been put on permanent public display in a newly built art theatre and gallery complex, The Lowry, on Pier 8 Salford Quays Manchester. The complex contains 2,000 square metres of gallery space displaying 400 of Lowry's paintings plus other artists' work. It was all collected by Salford Museum and Art Gallery from the 1930s on, but the works didn't move into the new Manchester complex until it opened in 2000.

Amongst the other gall­eries that have since organised retrospectives of his works, Tate Britain Millbank is showing Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life from June-October 2013. The Tate exhibition has 38 of his best loved works, starting from his 1934 works.

The Lowry theatre and gallery complex 
in Salford Quays, Manchester

Lowry, in his own time and since, has divided the critics into two camps. Supporters believed his paintings were authentic images of modern life, the only works to truly address the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the shabby northern half of England. The detractors believed his works were untutored, repetitive, ugly, naive and lazy.

In discussing the painting The Rival Candidate (1942, Art Gallery of Western Australia), Kitty Hauser adds some facts from Lowry's life that may have explained his unique style. Firstly the only person whose approval he craved was his highly controlling, bed-bound mother who had loathed giving birth to her only child. To repay his mother, Laurence had nursed her day and night from the time she had become a widow in 1932 until she died in 1939. Secondly Lowry worked as a rent collector for 42 years,  a lonely position which may have accounted for the detached way he painted his busy scenes. If he had time for painting, it was only at night or on weekends.

Michael Howard wrote Lowry: a Visionary Artist, showing how the painter's apparent naivety was a deliberate mask to a complex character.  Carol Ann Lowry, the painter's unrelated adoptive god daughter, was one of the several young girls Lowry befriended, and who helped to fuel his artistic fantasies. Lowry's extensive library held a series of his obsessively reworked erotic paintings; this was not what Howard had expected from the northern heritage industry's favourite icon.


Andrew said...

I have seen prints of his work and liked them, but I never knew who he was.

Hels said...


That is so true.. How often do we pass a building, painting or piece of applied art that looks familiar and even attractive, but we cannot put a name to it.

I would recognise a Lowry at 100 metres away, in the dark. Ditto a Tissot. But sometimes a blog will prove its worth by giving information that has otherwise been elusive.

Mandy Southgate said...

Love Lowry! I remember when I first came to know of him. It was 1978 when the Brian and Michael track "Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs" came out. Lowry was somewhat of a local hero in my part of town anyway and I imagine his accent would have been very close to my family who all have Lancashire accents. When I was in my teens I discovered Status Quo and their track "Pictures of Matchstick Men". Naturally I knew exactly who they were talking about. I must try see the exhibition, especially as I don't actually think I've been to the Tate Britain. (The Tate Modern is more up my alley, especially with my love of surrealism).

Deb said...

I know you like Antiques Roadshow. It was on this show that I saw my first Lowry sketches, on cigarette packets of all things. You can find that episode, taped in Oldham, on line.

Hels said...


I wonder if knowledge of the Lancashire landscapes and familiarity with the Lancashire accents really did give locals a better insight into Lowry paintings.

In the years spouse and I lived in London and the Home Counties (in the 1970s), we probably viewed Lowry paintings as if we were outsiders.

Hels said...


Thank you! People say that Lowry drew scenes in pencil on whatever he had at hand eg cigarette boxes, envelopes and serviettes. It sounded a bit urban-mythy to me, but according to the Antiques Roadshow, those random serviette sketches are now worth big money.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, At first these paintings strongly suggest pictures by Brueghel with their many figures brightly dressed. Then the looming, ominous backgrounds come to the viewer's notice. It is interesting that in the second example you show, even the church takes on the same forbidding mien as the factory in the first one.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


The comparison with Brueghel is a very interesting one. Unlike many artists who "polished up" their noble, royal or wealthy sitters' portraits and genre scenes, both these artists painted ordinary working people going about their normal business.

I love Batoni's grand tour paintings, but I don't fool myself that those young men did nothing but swan around ancient sculpture in immaculate silk outfits all their lives.

John Tyrrell said...

The permanent Lowry exhibition at Salford Quays is well worth a visit. I seem to remember that the video you can watch there provides a fascinating description of Lowry's house at the time of his death - including the pictures of the beautiful pre-Raphaelite women hung on the walls of his bedroom.

For me one of the most fascinating of his pictures is "The Match", a portrait of the crowd going to a football match after work on Saturday when football was still a working class game. I think the FA paid about £1 million for it, but at the moment it is on show at Salford I am told.

Hels said...


Agreed. I know The Match (1953) and feel comfortable that it fits well in Lowry's normal oeuvre.

I would have loved to have seen the video about the house RIGHT at the time of the artist's death. Lush, sexy pre-Raphaelite women may have seemed strange since a] Lowry had no women in his own life and b] the Pre-Raphaelite works seemed to be sooooo different from Lowry's own style

John Tyrrell said...

There was a dark side to Lowry, as I think his self portrait indicates - but I am no psychoanalyst, so I will leave it there.

Hels said...


There was something definitely strange about a self-declared virgin whose social life revolved around a pre-adolescent girl who was not his relative.

Did you see his previously hidden drawings of constrained females? Beautifully drawn, but nasty content, I think.

John Tyrrell said...

I think I did, but they obviously did not make a lasting impression on me! I am not sure if that is a good or a bad thing, or maybe it is just that my memory is getting very bad.

Perhaps it is just as well that Dr Johnson was not an artist.



Hels said...


First the teeth go, then the arthritic joints and finally the memory :( Middle age is a shocker!

I say to the students "sorry I have forgotten. Now who is that lovely young man who left Australia to polish his art skills in Paris, married an English artist, travelled in the middle east and came home to paint Edwardian Melbourne?" Someone always remembers.

Hels said...

I have added a note about Berwick-upon-Tweed because of the "Lowry Trail" in that town. Most of the trail's information boards stand on the town's walls, appropriate since he made _many_ visits over the last 40 years of his life.


Hels said...

Claire Masset wrote "The Art of Industry" in Discover Britain Magazine, Jul-Aug 2013. A nice analysis of Lowry's paintings, as social documents and as powerful works of art.

The Weekend Australian said...

Kitty Hauser noted that for a long time, the paintings of British artist LS Lowry have been “popular but unfashionable”. Reproductions of his works, with their instantly recognisable figures in industrial settings, sold well for decades; he was even the subject of a chart-topping song in 1978. The Tate, however, reportedly kept its Lowries in the basement. In 2013, Tate Britain tried to bring him into the fold through an exhibition curated by TJ Clark and Anne Wagner.

Hels said...

Thank you. I added the reference right away.