Laurence Stephen Lowry, R.A. (1887-1976)
Laurence Stephen Lowry, R.A. (1887-1976)

St Luke’s Church, Old Street

Laurence Stephen Lowry, R.A. (1887-1976)
St Luke’s Church, Old Street
signed and dated 'L.S. LOWRY 1945' (lower left)
oil on canvas
24 x 18 in. (61 x 45.7 cm.)
Painted in 1945.
with Lefevre Gallery, London.
Matthew Haygarth, Prestbury.
Acquired by the present owner in 1972.
London, New English Art Club, catalogue not traced.
London, Crane Kalman Gallery, A Tribute to L.S. Lowry, December 1966 - January 1967, no. 14.
Accrington, Haworth Art Gallery, Paintings and Drawings by L.S. Lowry, R.A., September 1971, no. 52.
London, Royal Academy, L.S. Lowry R.A. 1887-1976, September - November 1976, no. 164.
Kendall, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Paintings and Drawings by L.S. Lowry, and graphics by John Nash, July - September 1979, catalogue not traced.

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Lot Essay

This is one of only a handful of sought-after paintings in which Lowry portrays London. Though less familiar with the London landmarks than those in industrial Manchester, interestingly he still chose a scene where small communities come together: a scene that was familiar for its inhabitants, even if not necessarily for the artist. Often painting from the perspective of an outsider looking in, the position of an unfamiliar on-looker is particularly pertinent here. The metropole was gaining some importance for Lowry around this time: it was in the London art scene that Lowry began to gain more widespread appeal, after being exhibited in a one-man show at Reid and Lefevre in 1939, his first major show in London.

St Luke’s Church has been a point of interest in Old Street since it was built in 1733, as one of fifty new churches planned by the government to cater for the growing urban population, though only twelve of these were ever completed. The obelisk spire was added to the design by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and was an unusual choice for an Anglican church, but one that drew Lowry’s attention. Lowry had read in novels by Sir Walter Besant that St Luke’s had the ugliest spire in the world, a point to which this painting was a strong and assertive rebuke. ‘And do you know I didn’t agree with that, and having to pass the church on the way to my aunt’s house I took a buff envelope out of my pocket and made a pencil sketch from which I made the painting; because I thought the spire was beautiful and I painted that picture to prove it’ (L.S. Lowry, quoted in G. Mellor, My Friendship with L.S. Lowry, R.A., The History of a Painting, private curculation).

At the time of painting, St Luke’s Church was an active community church, and rather unusually, received no bomb damage during the war. In the same year, Lowry painted St Augustine’s Church in Manchester where only the shell of the roof was left, rubble spilling out onto the streets. In 1964, St Luke’s was closed after being deemed unsafe to use. The roof was removed and it remained derelict and increasingly overgrown for over forty years. Passers-by in Lowry’s time would have heard a full congregation and a functioning community church. Today, onlookers may in fact hear the London Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal, as the church was taken over and restored to be their rehearsal space and home of their acclaimed music education programme. Though much of the landscape around the church has changed since 1945, St Luke’s is still a key landmark in the Old Street area.

Where Lowry’s portrayals of natural landscapes are often sweeping and rounded, in more urban pieces such as this he renders sharp points and strong edges to his buildings, often imposing in their height against the dwarfed figures below. Spires seem to have a strong significance for Lowry. In the war-stricken scene depicted in After the Blitz, a spire from a church in the near distance rises from the rubble of the foreground buildings, as though a sign of strength. Lowry was too old for military service during the second world war; he instead worked as a fire-watcher, further sharpening his powers of observation.

In the present work, Lowry depicts a wintery scene: the branches are bare of leaves, and the passers-by are decked in coats and hats. With Lowry’s characteristic combination of flake white, ivory black, vermillion red, Prussian blue and yellow ochre, the colour palette is true to Lowry’s established and celebrated signature style. The artist first became well-renowned for depicting bleak industrial scenes, but this painting shows a calmer, happier scene in lieu of smoking factories and queuing workers. Instead we see families, dogs, and figures on their way around the neighbourhood, and there is undoubtedly a sense of community around the streets pictured. Indeed, in Lowry’s post-war pictures, his figures and crowds were increasingly at play, rather than at work. A diminishing perspective shows a line of shops artfully disappearing into the background. The open gate of the churchyard occupies the centre foreground, acting as a welcome point to the passers-by around it. In 1945, this gentle depiction of everyday life would have been a nostalgic reminder of pre-war Britain.

The work caught the eye of the present owner, Gordon Mellor, when he began dining at the Whitethorn restaurant in Prestbury, where the painting proudly hung on the walls among works by other eminent British and French artists, including those of Gustave Courbet. After spending many months admiring its subtle colours, Mellor jokingly asked to purchase it from the owner, never dreaming that the owner had plans to retire and move away. He bought and collected the picture the very next day. Both Lowry and Mellor frequented the Manchester Club, so Mellor was able to inform the artist of his new proud acquisition, asking additionally whether he could make a signed and limited editioned print of the work, to which Lowry agreed, on the condition the artist could see the work once more. Mellor recounts ‘the painting was both heavy and to an extent fragile, so I wrapped it in a large eiderdown and placed it in the boot of my car. I carried it into his living room and placed the package on the table. I opened the eiderdown and waited while he studied for what seemed like an age and then he said in his gravely Lancashire accent, ‘“what a lovely eiderdown!”, We both laughed and then he said, “You have one of my best pictures there”’ (G. Mellor, My Friendship with L.S. Lowry, R. A., The History of a Painting, private circulation).


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