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Lowry, L S

Category: Artist and sculptor

self portrait

Laurence Stephen "L.S." Lowry (1 November 1887 – 23 February 1976) was an English artist born in Stretford, Lancashire.

There appears to be a belief that Lowry was self taught as an artist, but this is incorrect.  Although he worked his entire life for the Pall Mall Property Company in order to provide himself with a steady income, he had an artist's training.  As a young man, for example, he took private art lessons in freehand drawing in the evenings. Lowry retired from the Pall Mall Property Company in 1952, but the firm had supported his development as an artist and allowed time off for exhibitions in addition to his annual leave. He also secured a place at the Manchester School of Art, where he studied under the French Impressionist artist, Pierre Adolphe Valette.

Lowry
I cannot over-estimate the effect on me of the coming into this drab city of Adolphe Valette, full of French impressionists, aware of everything that was going on in Paris.

 

Lowry is famous for painting scenes of life in the industrial districts of North West England in the mid-20th century.

He developed a distinctive style of painting and is best known for his urban landscapes peopled with numerous puppet or doll like human figures. He also painted mysterious unpopulated landscapes and brooding portraits. 

Much of Lowry's early years were spent in a leafy Manchester suburb, but in 1909, due to financial pressures, the family moved to the industrial town of Pendlebury. Here the landscape comprised textile mills and factory chimneys rather than trees. Lowry later recalled:

 

"At first I detested it, and then, after years I got pretty interested in it, then obsessed by it...One day I missed a train from Pendlebury - (a place) I had ignored for seven years — and as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill ... The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out... I watched this scene — which I'd looked at many times without seeing — with rapture..."

 Unknown to his friends and the public, Lowry also produced a series of 'erotic' works which were not seen until after his death. The paintings depict the mysterious "Ann" figure, who appears in portraits and sketches produced throughout his lifetime -  his feminine side.

There are numerous people who have ventured to place interpretations upon these works, here is just one example:

  Pigtails and pyramid dresses.........

These strikingly geometric compositions depict young women constrained into bizarre, restrictive costumes, their soft flesh turned into machinery by impossible clothing.

Their bodies are corseted in tube-like contraptions; their collars rise, cutting into their cheeks and faces. Sometimes an enormous Edwardian bow rises, concealing their faces.

There is a degree of sexual fantasy behind these works - why else hide them away? But that is not their most interesting aspect. In creating these images, he ventured into areas where the human body becomes mechanised; where women, modified by male fantasy, turn into efficient machinery.

Nobody at the time would have thought of Lowry as occupying the forefront of artistic fashion. But in private, he was doing exactly that. He seems, more and more, like a rather interesting artist.

maybe Lowry was trying to tell
us something about himself
spiritually..........

When these works were exhibited at the Art Council's Centenary exhibition at the Barbican in 1988, art critic Richard Dorment wrote in the Daily Telegraph that these works "reveal a sexual anxiety which is never so much as hinted at in the work of the previous 60 years."

But do they?  Maybe Lowry understood his symbolism better than his critics, and had no wish to disclose this.

The group of 'erotic' works, which are sometimes referred to as "the mannequin sketches" or "marionette works" are kept at the Lowry Centre and are available for visitors to see on request. Some are also brought up into the public display area on a rotation system. A number of commentators have indicated that they show signs of repression and trauma and indeed his life tends to bear this out.  The trauma may have opened the door.

Lowry himself openly admitted he was a lonely or perhaps more correctly a solitary man - a recluse.  He never married, although he did have women friends who were just that – friends.  These friendships were deep and long lasting, but were not sexual.  At the age of 88 he said that he had "never had a woman".

 

Repression is an interesting subject and one often finds its roots in either religion or the family.   Lowry’s mother was:

......an irritable, nervous woman brought up to expect high standards by her stern father. Like him, she was controlling and intolerant of failure. She used illness as a means of securing the attention and obedience of her mild and affectionate husband and she dominated her son in the same way. Lowry maintained, in interviews conducted later in his life, that he had an unhappy childhood, growing up in a repressive family atmosphere.  Lowry's father, Robert, was a withdrawn and introverted man whom Lowry once described as "a cold fish" and "(the sort of man who) realised he had a life to live and did his best to get through it."

Industrial Landscape,  Chalk and pencil on paper,  1934

Lowry was born on 1 November 1887. It was a difficult birth, and his mother Elizabeth, who hoped for a girl, was uncomfortable even looking at him at first, later describing him as a "clumsy boy".  In effect it was his childhood that sowed the seeds of trauma and repression.

His father died in 1932, leaving debts. His mother, subject to neurosis and depression, became bedridden and dependent on her son for care. Lowry painted after his mother had fallen asleep, between 10pm and 2am, or, depending how tired he was, he might stay up for another hour adding features. But these works were ‘damning self-portraits’ – showing a level of distress that is quite palpable.

Head of a Man, 1938 by L. S. Lowry.

When Lowry started to command large sums for the sale of his works, he purchased a number of paintings and sketches by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Lowry's private collection of works was chiefly built around Rossetti's paintings and sketches of Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris, and notable pieces included Pandora, Proserpine and a drawing of Annie Miller. In an interview with Mervyn Levy, Lowry explained his fascination with the Rossetti women in relation to his own work:

I don't like his women at all, but they fascinate me, like a snake. That's why I always buy Rossetti whenever I can. His women are really rather horrible. It's like a friend of mine who says he hates my work, although it fascinates him.

 

After his mother's death in October 1939, he experienced both grief and relief.  But the War loomed and hung over the country like a pall.  After the outbreak of war Lowry served as a volunteer fire watcher and became an official war artist in 1943. 

Without his mother's influence, Lowry neglected the upkeep of his house to such a degree that the landlord repossessed it.

Eventually he bought his own house "The Elms" in Mottram in Longdendale. Although he considered the house ugly and uncomfortable, he stayed there until his death almost 30 years later.

There he wove a fantasy world, a world peopled with little creatures that he created on canvas that were there for company but did him no harm.  His paintings depict that world, but he also lived in that world.  It was a world of ‘no time’, for example, the collection of clocks in his living room were all set at different times.  In the end he was unable to distinguish between the 'fantasy world' and the everyday world.

I call it a fantasy world, but to Lowry it clearly seemed real and he appears to have been 'there' rather than 'here', whenever he painted.

Lowry Museum
Lowry carefully composed his pictures in a painting room at home and took great care over placing each figure. Late in life he would sit before a canvas or board on his easel and not know what was going to be in the painting until he started working. He called them "dreamscapes".

Lowry  drawing

His friends observed that his anecdotes were more notable for humour than accuracy. His stories about the fictional Ann were inconsistent and he invented other people as frameworks on which to hang his tales.

All this may lead one to believe that he was reclusive to the point of being unsociable, but the opposite was true.  Lowry wove this fantasy realm as a protection against hurt.  He was actually sensitive and very kind.

Lowry had many long-lasting friendships. He bought works from young artists he admired and maintained ongoing friendships with some of them. He befriended the 23-year-old Cumbrian artist Sheila Fell in November 1955, for example, and supported her career by buying several pictures that he gave to museums. Fell later described him as:

A great humanist. To be a humanist, one has first to love human beings, and to be a great humanist, one has to be slightly detached from them.

Once you have been hurt or traumatised, you tend to build walls of protection, but it does not mean that behind those walls you are not kind, or longing to reach out for friendship.

 

As Lowry’s celebrity grew in the late 1950s, he grew tired of being visited by strangers, but he was too shy and kindly to simply tell them to go away.  Instead he kept a suitcase by the front door so that he could claim to be just leaving, a practice he claimed to have abandoned after a helpful young man insisted on taking him to the railway station and had to be sent off to buy a paper so that Lowry could buy a ticket for just one stop without revealing his ploy.  His fame had little effect on him, he refused numerous offers of honours and preferred to travel round his home town by bus.

Lowry died of pneumonia at the Woods Hospital in Glossop, Derbyshire on 23 February 1976, aged 88. He was buried in the Southern Cemetery in Manchester, next to his parents. He left estate valued at £298,459, and a considerable number of artworks by himself and others to a friend - Carol Ann Lowry [no relation].

References

 

Lowry - portrait of the artist's mother
Lowry - portrait of the artist's father

 

Paintings and galleries

During his life Lowry made about 1,000 paintings and over 8,000 drawings.

  • The Lowry - A large collection of Lowry's work is on permanent public display in the Lowry, a purpose-built art gallery on Salford Quays named after him. The gallery houses 55 of his paintings and 278 drawings – the world's largest collection of his work – with up to 100 on display.
  • The Tate Gallery - in London owns 23 works.
  • The City of Southampton -  owns The Floating Bridge, The Canal Bridge and An Industrial Town.
  • MOMA, in New York  - also has his work.
  • The Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu in Christchurch, New Zealand has Factory at Widnes (1956) in its collection. The painting was one of the gallery’s most important acquisitions of the 1950s and remains the highlight of its collection of modern British art

Documentary

Clark Art - 1957 BBC Lowry Documentary - a marvellous documentary with footage of Lowry at work on his paintings

Website

A very comprehensive collection of Lowry's paintings can be found, all with dates at this website The Works of  L S Lowry Online gallery

Observations

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