Daily Herald, 12th October 1961

One of the most remarkable aspects of A.J. Thompson’s collection is that it contains both of Lowry’s only known depictions of London’s iconic and instantly recognisable landmark, Piccadilly Circus, offering us a rare glimpse into the artist’s relationship with Britain’s capital city. This unusual subject matter, combined with Lowry’s distinctive clarity of vision, makes these paintings two of the most compelling and important in his oeuvre.

Fig. 1, Exhibition catalogue for L.S. Lowry’s first solo show at Alex. Reid & Lefevre Ltd, London.

Although Lowry’s first solo exhibition in London did not take place until 1939, his work had been shown in the capital since the early 1920s, through Daisy Jewell of James Bourlet & Sons, at the time not only London’s pre-eminent framers and shippers, but also exhibition organisers supreme and entertainers of the art world’s greatest collectors. At Jewell’s instigation, Lowry’s work had been included in exhibitions at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, the New English Art Club, the Royal Society of British Artists and at the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin. It was Jewell who also introduced Lowry’s work to A.J. McNeil Reid, of Alex. Reid and Lefevre Ltd, in King Street, St James’s, who having seen a painting that Jewell had deliberately propped up by a chair in her office, immediately offered to give Lowry a show. The success of this exhibition (fig.1) was a turning point in Lowry’s career, not only resulting in several sales to notable collectors, but also attracting a significant number of reviews in the press. As Lowry noted: ‘Looking back, I don’t know what I would have done, if I’d not had that show…’ (Lowry quoted in L.S. Lowry: A Selection of 36 Paintings, Crane Kalman Gallery, London (exhibition catalogue), 1979, unpaginated). The Lefevre Gallery continued to represent Lowry when it re-opened after the War, giving him solo exhibitions every two years for the remainder of his life. In 1952 Andras Kalman gave Lowry a show in Manchester and was to continue to put on regular exhibitions when he moved to London’s Old Brompton Road in 1957. As a result, Lowry had not one, but two of London’s leading galleries representing him in his later years.

Fig. 2, L.S. Lowry, Lord Attenborough and J.P. Hodin at the opening of Lowry’s exhibition at the Crane Kalman Gallery, November 1966.Photograph by John Bignall. Reproduced courtesy of the Crane Kalman Gallery

Lowry was a frequent visitor to London, travelling to Cricklewood to visit his ‘Aunt Lowry’ until she died. He would call in at Bourlet’s in Nassau Street to see Jewell: ‘They made a strange sight: Lowry so shy and so untidy, Miss Jewell, with her auburn hair plaited into ear-phones round her head...’ (Shelley Rohde, L.S. Lowry, A Biography, The Lowry Press, Salford, 1979, 1999, p.159). Lowry would visit Lefevre, where he met other contemporary artists of the day, such as Edward Burra, a similarly unique ‘visionary artist’ who defied categorisation. Although he was characteristically modest and would have shied away from the attention of his private views, he did make exceptions and was photographed laughing at the opening to the Crane Kalman exhibition in 1966 with the art critic J.P. Hodin and collector Lord Attenborough (fig.2). Lowry was also drawn to London for the music and for theatre – although in the middle decades of the 20th century, Manchester gave London a good run for its money on both accounts. Lowry obviously enjoyed the buzz of the city and delighted in taking his friends out in London: Sheila Fell remembered: `In London, I saw Lowry frequently, we went to plays, opera and the ballet ...’ (Sheila Fell quoted in L.S. Lowry, Royal Academy of Arts, London (exhibition catalogue), 1976, p.39), and his friend and protégé Pat Cooke had fond memories of how `We would often go to the Festival Hall; he [Lowry] enjoyed string quartets ... after the concerts, or the theatre, we would walk all the way back to the Little Acropolis off the Tottenham Court Road where I would have a Greek dish and he would have lemon sole and chips...’ (Shelley Rohde, op. cit., p.252).

Fig. 3, L.S. Lowry, Coronation Procession in the Mall, 1953. © Crown Copyright: UK Government Art Collection

Despite his regular sojourns to the capital, Lowry focused on painting the familiar northern environment where he lived, and vistas of the city of London are unusual in his oeuvre. Lowry himself noted: ‘...I did almost no work in London except one of St Luke’s Church, Old Street. I’d been told it had the ugliest spire in the world. So naturally I had to go and look at it. I’ve done one or two things of the Thames as well’ (Michael Leber and Judith Sandling, L.S. Lowry, Phaidon, 1995, p.69). All in all, the body of London scenes seems to amount to little more than half a dozen paintings, most of which were made from the 1950s onwards: the two Piccadilly works (lots 10 and 15), The Thames from Whitehall Court (1957, Private Collection), Greenwich Reach towards Deptford Power Station (1959, National Maritime Museum, London), On a Crowded Station Platform, Paddington (1962, Private Collection) and Coronation Procession Passing the Queen Victoria Memorial (fig.3, 1953, Government Art Collection), made in his role as one of the official artists for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

Fig. 4, L.S. Lowry, Our Town, 1943© Rochdale Art Gallery, Lancashire, UK/The Bridgeman Art Library© The Estate of L.S. Lowry. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2014

Both Piccadilly paintings, like many of the London views, were commissions, arranged through Lefevre: the first from the founder of a British Film distribution and production company in 1959, and the other commissioned by a private collector a year later. As such, Lowry was perhaps more topographically correct than he is in his views of Manchester, which are more ‘composites’ of various buildings. The architecture, even the advertising billboards, are remarkably accurate, with Sir Alfred Gilbert’s iconic statue Eros, which forms part of the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain commemorating Lord Shaftesbury’s philanthropy, at the centre of the composition, in its original location at the junction of Regent Street, Piccadilly, Haymarket and Shaftesbury Avenue, before it was moved when Piccadilly underwent reconstruction in the 1980s.

L.S. Lowry with Sheila Fell at Fell’s solo exhibition, Queen Square Gallery, Leeds, November 1965© Gilchrist Photo Services, Leeds

At first glance, the Piccadilly paintings seem untypical for Lowry. There are few cars or modern buildings in his wider oeuvre, let alone billboards with the well-known brand names. Yet on closer inspection, these paintings reveal a familiar `Lowry view’. The larger Piccadilly painting is, in fact, very similar in conception to his large industrial landscapes such as Our Town (fig.4, 1941, City of Rochdale Art Gallery). The slow-moving traffic of cars, vans, taxis and red double-decker buses, even the attire of the people, indicate that the scene is set at a time much earlier than the painting’s actual date of execution. It is a view remembered, not seen. And then there is Lowry’s incisive observation of the people: the bustling figures hurrying to their destinations are familiar characters from Lowry’s northern subjects, albeit here hurrying to their shops or offices, rather than to the mill or home to a nearby tenement. Signs of industry – the mills and chimneys of Lancashire - are here replaced by signs of commerce: billboards selling Guinness, Bovril, Schweppes, Gordon’s Gin, Wrigley’s and Coca Cola. Perhaps this work is not so far removed, then, from Lowry’s usual urban image, but here there is a modern twist. Tom Rosenthal, interviewing Lowry in 1961 for the BBC’s Third Programme, asked the artist why he chose Piccadilly, to which the artist responded: `I have painted industrial scenes for very, very many years – about thirty years I should think really – and I got it into my system ... Piccadilly to me looks well rather like any other place. It’s not like parts of London which are very distinctive. I think Piccadilly Circus looking form the angle I took it from looks rather like anywhere else except for the statue of Eros in the middle’ (quoted in T.G. Rosenthal, L.S. Lowry the Art and the Artist, Unicorn Press, Norwich, 2010, p.17). These works, then, are not simply a view of Piccadilly Circus, but a distillation of Lowry’s experience of the capital formed over several years of regular visits as well as his own unique vision of the industrial and mercantile city in a wider sense. And yet he still has the uncanny knack of capturing the essence of the place: if you stand at Piccadilly today, despite the reconstruction of the 1980s, you still find the ingredients of Lowry’s rendition of this quintessential London landmark. If you look long enough, a single figure will eventually emerge from the crowd, from the body of the city itself: isolated against the flow, they become an individual – not a ‘matchstick man’ but a human being with a fully-fledged story.

A view of Piccadilly Circus, London, October 28, 1959 © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lowry: The A.J. Thompson Collection

25 MARCH 2014 | LONDON