In 2014, Timothy Spall won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of the growling, uncouth genius in Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner. Now he returns as another much-loved British artist in Adrian Nobel’s stifling two-hander Mrs Lowry & Son.
In the new film Spall portrays a solitary figure torn between his ailing mother — played with a viperish intensity by Vanessa Redgrave — and an obsessive desire to create art. Here, Jessica Lack speaks to the London-born actor about the complex relationship between mother and son, how it informed Lowry’s art, and learning to paint like the greats.
The focus of Mrs Lowry & Son is the claustrophobic relationship between L.S Lowry (1887-1976) and his mother. What can you tell us about it?
TS: ‘I think you have to remember that as much as their relationship was abusive and dysfunctional, that was all there was. She was everything to him. As far as we know he never had an intimate relationship with a woman or a man, she was his emotional centre and his life. She was the supplier of that affection. He had been conditioned to be in thrall to her every desire and he came to rely on that, it became his natural state, and once she died everything changed. He never left his mother’s apron strings.’
Do you think that’s why there is a certain innocence in his paintings?
TS: ‘I think he remained an innocent, without being innocent, but I disagree about the innocence of his paintings, he absolutely knew what he was doing.’
Do you mean in the sense that he had a classical art education but then chose to paint in a naïve style?
TS: ‘In his early works, he’s teaching himself to be a draughtsman, and then there’s the influence of his teacher Adolph Valette (1876-1942), who encouraged that late Impressionistic style. There are Victorian-style portraits, which are very classical, and that well known self-portrait from the early 1930s, which was very typical for the time. Then his own style emerges, and that was because of his circumstances. He wasn’t a primitive. It is very difficult for someone who can paint, to paint like a child with honesty. Not everyone can do it and when you see with one stroke of a pen the whole character of a person, like a bent figure in the wind, that’s not luck, that’s someone working hard to be able to achieve it.’
Picasso said it took him four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.
TS: ‘Exactly — people would laugh in your face if you tried to equate the two. It would be preposterous to suggest Lowry was as skilful a painter as Picasso , he would have acknowledged that himself, but where Picasso ended up and where Lowry ended up is not that dissimilar. This is what makes him a great artist rather than a lucky artist. He knew how to do that, and he chose not to pursue a conventional mode.’
You mention his style changing because of his circumstances, are you saying it was the decline in the Lowrys’ social status that made him a great artist?
TS: ‘Once the Lowrys were brought down the social scale [by financial difficulties] and had to move from [the middle class suburb of] Victoria Park he found himself in this bleak environment. It was one he shared his mother’s dislike of — tramping those Salford Streets as a rent collector. But it was in those streets that he had his epiphany. All great artists need to find their own voice and he knew that too; he was searching for it. When he walked those streets, he saw the breaking down of the industrial world and this grim beauty and he said, “I’m going to paint that and devote myself to doing that”. He knew there was something in it. There is a deep artistic originality in Lowry that responds to the landscape.’
He wanted to paint the truth, not the romanticised version of the Industrial north...
TS: ‘Ah, but he didn’t. He didn’t paint these scenes literally, he looked at them, sketched them, thought about them, and then went back to his studio and made them up from his mind’s eye. They are representative of what goes on emotionally in him. Within that transformation there is a massive amount of his relationship with his mother. The tension between desiring to please her and being compelled to paint. There is beauty and bleakness, pain and isolation and that is what makes them original and brilliant and deeply important.’
Would you say he was revolutionary?
TS: ‘I’d say he was completely unique, and I think he is underestimated. The merchandise has put paid to that. You know what happens when artists become popular? People hate them. It’s a bit like writers going on about Dickens saying he was no good because he was popular and everyone loved him. Dickens not very good? He’s a complete genius! You might not like some of his sentimentality, but come on!
‘I think Lowry is really important. If he was French or Italian, or perhaps from a less hierarchical society we’d respect him more. Funnily enough his first success was in France in the late 1930s, they recognised what he was doing as being important.’
The film focuses on a 1930 picture called Sailing Boats, which Lowry painted for his mother recalling a day they spent at the seaside. We know he had a life-long fascination with the sea — was that because of their relationship?
TS: ‘Well, Sailing Boats is a way of connecting his mother’s romanticism with his paintings. It’s the breakthrough moment, when she actually gets it. He says, “I painted it for you, it’s there forever” — that day on the beach — and there is a slight chink of hope that she might understand why he does it.
‘Now when you look at his seascapes, particularly the late ones, which are grey, and very plain, there is this calmness and ominous quality. I think he saw in the sea the bleakness and elemental vastness that was in him.’
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What about the mysterious portraits of women he painted? Do you have a theory about where they came from?
TS: ‘They are very strange, aren’t they? And of course very personal. It’s like when Turner’s erotic portraits were found, which are also very beautiful, but they were never really meant to be seen, and yet they revealed his humanity. With Lowry they are a vital aspect of the artist and important in understanding the whole man.’
Many believed that Lowry refused a knighthood because he was a socialist, but the film suggests otherwise.
Timothy Spall: ‘He wasn’t [a socialist], evidently. I think he turned it down for two reasons: he didn’t want to be stigmatised by it and because his mother wasn’t around. He used to say it was great to be successful, but it didn’t mean much to him after his mother died.’
You learned to paint like Turner, and then like Lowry for the films. Do you have any insights from studying their techniques?
TS: ‘Well, Turner was the kind of artist who was born with a piece of chalk in his hand, he could never have been anything else. There was this powerfulness and skill. Lowry had to work at it, but there is precision and a simplicity in his work that requires incredible technique. There were similarities in many respects — they both had a compulsion to paint and were outsiders.’
Having played two great British artists, would you make it three?
TS: ‘I have to say I would love to have a go at William Blake, get to grips with that personality. What do you think?’
I’d like to see you portray James Gillray.
TS: ‘A satirist! Yes, I like Gillray, that’s an idea; a good one for these political times.’