A closer look at three works that reveal how, as his circumstances changed, Lowry’s emphasis shifted from landscapes to the individual while his city scenes took on a more carefree quality
On 4 May 1909, L. S. Lowry and his parents, Robert and Elizabeth, moved from Manchester’s affluent Victoria Park to 117 Station Road, Pendlebury, a four-bedroomed Victorian semi-detached villa in the countryside beyond the city. He was 21 years old at the time.
After enjoying a comfortable childhood, Lowry had started work in 1903 at the age of 16; his father’s financial affairs had become increasingly difficult, meaning he was expected to contribute to the household. He studied part time at Art College in the evenings, but his dream of becoming a professional artist seemed to have all but disappeared.
The family initially disliked their new surroundings and loss of social standing, so much so that Elizabeth Lowry began to withdraw from society until she became a bed-ridden invalid who required nursing night and day from her long-suffering only child.
‘My ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map because nobody had done it, nobody had done it seriously’
Despite these inauspicious circumstances, Lowry would later acknowledge the move to Pendlebury, seen in the picture above, as the source of his artistic inspiration: ‘I had lived in the residential side of Manchester — a very nice residential side — and then I went to live in Pendlebury, one of the most industrial villages in the countryside mid-way between Manchester and Bolton... Vaguely in my mind I suppose pictures were forming, and then for about thirty-odd years after that I did nothing but industrial pictures.’
Indeed, the subject matter for his art was identified in a kind of epiphany while looking at the Acme Spinning Mill, lit up against the skyline. Lowry resolved that ‘my ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map because nobody had done it, nobody had done it seriously’. It would nevertheless take another 30 years for the artist to be given his first one-man show in London.
Throughout the 1930s, Lowry honed his unique vision of the industrial landscape of Manchester and Salford, taking every opportunity to record his surroundings and the people who he saw in his everyday life, sketching constantly by day, and painting all through the night.
He successfully submitted pictures to a number of exhibitions throughout this decade — at the New English Art Club and Royal Academy in London, and at Salford and Manchester Academies, until an important breakthrough came when his work was discovered at his London framers by a director of Lefevre Gallery, A J McNeill Reid. This led to his first London one-man show there in the autumn of 1939, and he exhibited regularly with the gallery until his death in February 1976.
The Second World War gave Lowry the opportunity to record the city in peril. Too old for active service, he became a fire watcher and his pictures of the devastation gave a new dimension to his unique vision of the city.
Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976), Tuesday Morning, Pendlebury, 1947. Oil on panel. 18¼ x 10⅛ in (46.3 x 25.7 cm). Sold for £212,500 on 25 November 2015 at Christie’s in London
Painted in 1947, two years after the end of the war and while Lowry was still working as Chief Cashier of the Pall Mall Property Company in Manchester, Tuesday Morning, Pendelbury features St. Mary’s Church, which would be demolished in 1964. His first known topographical sketch from this spot dates from 1913, and it was a subject that he would return to continually right up until the 1960s.
Here, small groups comprising a woman and her dog, and a mother and her child, are wandering down the alleyway towards the viewer; while in other examples, the street can be a busy and heavily populated thoroughfare.
In one notable example from 1960, Man Walking, only a solitary figure is present while a smoking chimney has replaced the church. As in a number of works of this important subject, the artist used his favourite landmarks and cast of characters to indicate a shift in the industrial landscape and its population — as the city responded to the needs of the post-war population and buildings were demolished, Lowry’s characters dwell in an increasingly pared down landscape with barren trees and brooding skies.
Lowry began to enjoy success in the years that followed the war, with his commissions including an exhibition during the Festival of Britain in 1951, recording the Coronation in 1953 and even producing a postage stamp. With retirement from the Pall Mall Property Company in 1952, he was able to paint regularly and the freedom to travel at his leisure stimulated another source of inspiration for his work.
He never owned or learned to drive a car, so his preferred mode of transport was the train. As well as presenting the opportunity to study people at close quarters, the train window provided Lowry with a vantage point from which to view the world and its inhabitants — just as he had once sat at the upper window of the Technical College to gaze down on and record his subjects as they bustled to the mills and factories.
Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976), The Railway Platform, 1953. Oil on canvas. 18 x 30 in (46 x 76.5 cm). Sold for £1,650,500 on 25 November 2015 at Christie’s in London
In The Railway Platform, painted in 1953, the artist observes a crowd of people: friends meeting and greeting each other, a dog nuzzling its owner’s leg, people conversing in small animated groups, while others read a newspaper, or turn to chat. For such a large crowd to be captured, and for a vignette of the mill and smoking chimneys to be glimpsed beyond the station walls, it was necessary for the artist to employ an unusually long format.
Pictures of railway stations are very rare in Lowry’s output, although a small number of paintings of Paddington station exist. This is surprising since they provide such a rich opportunity to record the fascinating patterns produced by a crowd. The station here is clearly Pendlebury on the Bolton Road, only half a mile from Lowry’s home. The jagged awning was in reality a distinctive frieze in yellow brickwork, one that is still visible today even though the station was decommissioned in 1960.
In the early 1950s, the artist was still very focused on the industrial north, and here the railway station keeps Lowry’s people in the Manchester suburbs. As for the artist himself, he is poised to travel to other areas of the British Isles, with the resulting landscapes and seascapes from the North East coastline, Cumbria, the Lake District and South Wales featuring increasingly in his work from the late 1950s onwards.
Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976), Park and Steps, 1954. Oil on canvas. 14 x 10 in (35.6 x 25.4 cm). Sold for £386,500 on 25 November 2015 at Christie’s in London
While this period saw the destruction of much of the architecture that had provided Lowry with his best-known subject matter, it also provided him with a new impetus. In the years following his retirement, Lowry produced some of his most iconic paintings, including The Funeral Party, Lake Landscape and The Pond.
His paintings of city life took on a lighter, brighter and more carefree quality during this period, and he began to concentrate on the individual rather the urban landscape around them. Lowry’s locale also moved, to the parks and coastlines as his interest turned to people at play.
Despite Lowry being quoted as saying, ‘I never do a jolly picture’, Park and Steps, from 1954, is an undeniably optimistic painting. The work fits squarely into the post-war period of regeneration when the artist found inspiration in the open parks that bordered the grimy industrial landscape. Looming factories and terraced houses have been replaced by openness, while the pale, almost ethereal outlines of the factories and billowing chimneys in the background are barely industrial in form.
‘People think crowds are all the same. But they’re not, you know. Everyone’s different’
Whereas Lowry often towers over the action, pulling the viewer over the rooftops and beyond into the drama below, with Park and Steps the park is seen from below and Lowry has used the full width of the canvas to create a stage-like setting with steps that invite us into the scene.
When asked by Edward Mullins about his fascination with crowds, Lowry replied, ‘People think crowds are all the same. But they’re not, you know. Everyone’s different. Look!... That man’s got a twitch. He’s got a limp. He’s had too much beer. That woman, she’s angry with her child. Those two have had a row... It’s wonderful, isn’t it, sir? The battle of life: that’s what it is. The battle of life.’
In Park and Steps, all the elements that make a great Lowry painting are present and correct: scurrying adults, awkward children, mothers with prams, accompanied by the familiar, slightly absurd pipe-cleaner dogs. But as with the best of his paintings, one or two figures in particular will catch the viewer’s attention.
Our eyes turn to the young girl sitting on the steps. Is she sulking, exhausted, or just lonely? ‘All my people are lonely,’ Lowry once said. ‘In creative work you let all the cats out of the bag, you know, what your disposition is like (and I live entirely by myself, used to live with my parents). It all comes out. I have never been away — not really. I’m not married — I live by myself and I keep myself to myself. I have one or two friends, but not really. Your art is bound to come out in the work, you can’t keep it in.’
Main image at top: L.S. Lowry on a hill overlooking a Lancashire town, circa 1960. Photograph: Tony Evans/Getty Images