“I believe that every human creature is an island, and I feel that I can best give voice to this belief by taking single figures and presenting them as solitarily as I possibly can” (L.S. Lowry, quoted in exhibition catalogue, The Loneliness of Lowry, Kendal, Abbott Hall Art Gallery, 2010, p. 10).
The wide red-rimmed eyes of Lowry’s Boy in a Yellow jacket stare vacantly out from the canvas and, like every great portrait, the work quickly draws into question the identity of the sitter and their relationship to the artist. Looking at images of Lowry as a young man and other self-portraits he made throughout his career, it is clear that this is to an extent the artist himself, although Lowry was certainly not this young when he completed the work at an age of 47 or 48. Although only a few of these works are recognised by him as self-portraits, each has remarkably similar features such as the fringe squared off on the left. Just as Lowry’s industrial landscapes and street scenes are not depictions of specific locations, his portraits are not of particular individuals. The series of heads he completed during the late 1930s are actually strange composite portraits that are both self-portraits and depictions of everyday Salford men that Lowry passed on the street; elderly men, the homeless, workers at the mills, or in this case, a young boy.
Lowry began to paint these rather dark and melancholic portraits in the mid 1930s following the death of his father in 1932. His mother, whose illness kept her bed ridden from 1932 until her death in 1939, was solely under his care. Given his full-time employment with the Pall Mall Property Company in Manchester, this left only night and the early hours of the morning for him to paint. Exhausted, isolated and grief-stricken, Lowry’s work from this period is arguably the darkest in his oeuvre and yet also the most human.
'He was a vulnerable person, but almost in a masochistic way' (A. Kalman, L.S. Lowry: Conversation Pieces, London, 2003, p. 24).
These studies of himself are achingly lonely, whilst being dark and sinister. The boy in the yellow jacket appears incredibly vulnerable with his wide concerned eyes and lightly furrowed brow, however the glassy grey vacuous gaze, the slight red sockets and the white grey sheen of his skin are startlingly unnerving. The discomforting quality is heightened by the boy’s slightly peculiar proportions, the head slightly too big for the shoulders gives the impression that he is leaning outwards. X ray research undertaken at The Lowry, Salford, in 2004 has shown that Lowry had originally intended to depict a slimmer neck and changed the location of the collar, this would have emphasised the odd proportions even further.
His composite self-portraits give an insight into the artist and his personality. There is no vanity in these paintings, nor a sense of the artist as the creator. Using himself as a compositional building block, Lowry has warped his reflection for emotional effect. This process is indicative of the German Expressionists and artists such as Van Gogh, the latter of whom Lowry would have had the chance to study at his retrospective in Manchester Art Gallery in 1931. Andras Kalman, when discussing Boy in a Yellow Jacket, compared Lowry’s portraiture to that of Amadeo Modigliani; he believed that Lowry was far more interested in the painting itself than the resemblance to the sitter (ibid., p. 61).
When describing a similar composite figure Man with Red Eyes, 1938 Lowry said 'I was simply letting off steam . . . it started as a self-portrait. I thought, "What's the use of it? I don't want it and nobody else will." I turned it into a grotesque head. I'm glad I did it. I like it better than a self-portrait. I seemed to want to make it as grotesque as possible. All the paintings of that period were done under stress and tension and they were all based on myself. In all those heads of the late 30s I was trying to make them as grim as possible. I reflected myself in those pictures' (L.S. Lowry, quoted in ibid., p. 71).