Lowry is best known for his paintings of industrial cityscapes in the north of England. Later in his career, empty landscapes and seascapes to a large extent replaced these heavily peopled urban scenes, and he produced quirky and lonely images of grotesque figures on the fringes of society.
L. S. Lowry
Laurence Stephen Lowry was born on 1 November 1887 in Manchester, the only son of Robert Lowry, a clerk in an estate agent’s office, and Elizabeth Lowry (née Hobson), whose early success as a pianist did not materialise into the concert career she expected. His more distant ancestry was Irish. Although Elizabeth sent her son to Grafton House School for an expensive education, and in 1898 they moved to Victoria Park – a leafy private estate where some of Manchester’s wealthiest citizens resided – the family lived frugally and Lowry recalled this period as dismal.
In 1903, Lowry secured the job of clerk at Messrs Thomas Aldred and Son, Chartered Accountants. An uncle arranged for him to study drawing and painting after work with the artist Reginald Barber. From 1905 until 1915 he trained part-time at the Municipal College of Art, where one of his tutors was the French Impressionist painter Adolphe Valette. Lowry sought a new post in 1907, joining the General Accident Fire and Life Assurance Corporation as a claims clerk, and after he and other staff there were made redundant in 1910 he began work as a rent collector and clerk with the Pall Mall Property Company – a job he would keep until his retirement 42 years later.
As money was short in the Lowry household, with Elizabeth requiring medical care and help in the home and Robert failing to gain promotion, the family moved in 1909 to Pendlebury, an industrial village between Manchester and Bolton. Its mill chimneys and factory sirens dictated the path Lowry’s painting then took. ‘At first I detested it’, he said. ‘And then ... I got pretty interested in it and began to walk about. Vaguely in my mind I suppose pictures were forming, and then for about 30-odd years after that I did nothing but industrial pictures.’ Lowry attended further art classes from 1915 until 1925, now at the Salford School of Art, establishing his own personal idiom. These paintings record his surroundings, some depicting specific streets and others composite, semi-imaginary views. Many are densely populated with crowds hurrying home from the mills.
In 1921, works by Lowry were exhibited for the first time in public; none were sold, but the Manchester Guardian published a favourable review, describing his depiction of Lancashire as ‘done with the intimacy of affection’. By 1931 he had had his first one-man show in Manchester – a collection of 25 pencil drawings of Ancoats – and was participating regularly in exhibitions at the Paris Salon, the Salon d’Automne and the New English Art Club in London; he had been invited to show paintings at galleries in Scotland, Ireland and Canada. However, he still worked as a rent collector and lived with his parents.
On the death of his father in 1932, Lowry assumed full responsibility for his bedridden and demanding mother, caring for her willingly and waiting to paint until she was asleep. Many of the canvases of this period reflect his distress and exhaustion – desolate landscapes and savage portraits that he referred to as ‘horrible heads’. ‘I think I reflected myself in those pictures’, he later explained. ‘That was the most difficult period of my life.... she was very exacting. I was tied to my mother.... In 1932 to 1939 I was just letting off steam.... Yet, curiously, I did my best work then.’ Artistic recognition was slow in coming, but in 1932 Lowry had two pictures accepted by the Royal Academy and in 1934 he was invited to join both the Manchester Academy and the Royal Society of British Artists. Finally in 1938, at the age of 51, Lowry was ‘discovered’ by A. J. McNeill Reid, senior partner at London’s eminent Lefevre Gallery. The following January, the gallery mounted his first solo London exhibition, which was a success, garnering 27 reviews, 16 sales and a purchase by the Tate Gallery. In October, his mother died.
During the Second World War, Lowry became a volunteer fire watcher in Manchester and an official war artist. In spite of the hostilities, the Lefevre Gallery remained open for the majority of the war and gave him a shared exhibition in 1943, followed by a one-man show in 1945 that ‘put him well on the map’. Fourteen further solo Lowry exhibitions were mounted by the gallery between 1947 and 1976. During 1945 the artist for the first time made a profit from painting; a work of his was purchased by the Queen; and Manchester University granted him an honorary Master of Arts in recognition of his ability to ‘put on canvas the essential truth about the Lancashire people ... marked by a ruthless sincerity’.
Grieving for his mother and turning ever more to painting to fill the days after her death, Lowry moved from the family home in 1948. He settled at ‘The Elms’ in Mottram-in-Longendale, a village east of Manchester in the shadow of the Derbyshire Peak District. Four years later he retired from the Pall Mall Property Company. Away from the mills of Pendlebury and his routine of walking the streets of Manchester to collect rents, his subject matter altered. He had always been more interested in the people he painted than in their industrial backdrop; now he started to paint them as struggling single figures and distorted misfits. The critic Maurice Collis described these characters as ‘solitaries, unable to mix with their fellows and deeply afflicted by their isolation. They are the projections of his mood, ghosts of himself.’
In his private life, Lowry kept work and painting separate. Although he had long-lasting friendships, these were often compartmentalised, and he tested people’s sincerity with eccentric behaviour and contradictory comments. He never married, but from his art school days onwards had a succession of young female friends that included Margery Thompson, Pat Gerrard, Sheila Fell and Carol Ann Lowry. Rohde comments: ‘So great were their similarities, according to his reminiscences, that in the minds of those who heard him speak of them they merged into one being called Ann.... It seemed as if he were perpetually seeking an ideal; yearning to recapture, or perhaps discover for the first time, the personification of a girl who would remain forever young, forever innocent and vulnerable.’ Lowry produced around 20 pictures of the mysterious Ann, her dark hair pulled back off her face, her features stylised, the eyes outlined in black and the lips full. Shortly after his death, further drawings and paintings of the young girl image were found – some innocent, others erotic or violent. About 20 years later, art historian Michael Howard discovered yet more portrayals of Ann, this time as tortured figures hidden under the paint surface of other pictures.
In spite of the repression and depression Lowry endured, he emerged into the limelight of public success in the 1950s. High points include a retrospective at Salford City Art Gallery in 1951; the purchase of a work of his by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1952; an invitation to be an official artist at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953; and winning a Football Association competition with his painting Going to the Match the same year. In 1955, he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy and an exhibition of his work was held at the Wakefield City Art Gallery; in 1959 a full retrospective at Manchester City Art Gallery assembled over 100 works.
As the sixties dawned, Lowry was granted an honorary doctorate of law by Manchester University and in 1962 he was elected Royal Academician. Three years later he received the freedom of the City of Salford, and in 1966 to 1967 the Arts Council of Great Britain organised a travelling retrospective exhibition that included six weeks at the Tate Gallery. 1967 also saw the issue of a Lowry stamp from the General Post Office, reproducing the painting Coming out of School (1927). The artist was less receptive towards other honours, turning down an OBE in 1955, a CBE in 1960, a knighthood in 1967 and Companion of Honour twice. ‘All my life I have felt most strongly against social distinction of any kind’, he wrote to Harold Wilson in 1967. ‘I feel I must graciously decline this honour.’
In the late 1960s, Lowry announced his retirement and spent much of this time in the North East. At a Sunderland hotel, he painted for pleasure when he wanted to, and stopped if it became a grind. With his works in great demand and sold for considerable sums, the public and press found it hard to believe that he had chosen to stop painting. He had, however, discovered another way to earn money; he had realised that there was a strong market for prints of his works among customers who could not afford original paintings. It seems that Lowry – for so long indifferent to money except as an indication of artistic recognition – had decided to set aside funds to cover his death duties and protect his estate, left to Carol Ann Lowry, from dispersal.
Lowry died in Glossop of pneumonia following a stroke on 23 February 1976. Nine months after his death, the Royal Academy staged a 10-week retrospective that attracted a record 180,216 visitors – some 50,000 more than any previous twentieth-century artist’s show. Lowry’s total output included around 1,200 oil paintings and significantly more drawings; some put the figure at over 8,000. Since his death their value has escalated: in 2007, Good Friday, Daisy Nook sold in London for £3,772,000. The most significant testament to his memory is the Lowry, an arts centre and gallery in Salford Quays housing a large collection of his work, which was opened in the year 2000.