River Irwell from St Mary’s Parsonage, Manchester. Photograph courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council.

The British industrial city as we know it was the construction of the Victorian Age. Of course, its roots reach back into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the great statements of achievement, the vast Gothic town halls, the mercantile Exchanges ornamented with the language of ancient Greece and Rome, the factories themselves, immense and complex networks of buildings topped by their belching chimneys – these belong to the Victorian Age, an era that was still hanging on by its fingernails well into the twentieth century. Built on the proceeds of steel, coal, wool, cotton, shipbuilding or endless other materials and processes that were being traded to the world, they still stand proudly in towns and cities across Britain. Nowadays those grandiose designs can feel a little inappropriate, a mask, to modern eyes, for the truly dreadful conditions in which existed the workers whose labour built those fortunes.

In the early years of the twentieth century, to paint such lives with an element of truth rather than a nostalgic or moralizing gloss was a radical notion in Britain. Artists such as Sickert and his Camden Town contemporaries must have appeared magnificently avant-garde, following the example of the French painters such as Seurat, Manet or Caillebotte who had been treating the modern city and its inhabitants as the most fertile subject matter for decades. Yet for all their involvement, their works still retain that sense of artistic detachment which suggests the paintings are as much about the experience of painting a subject, rather than the subject itself. The ability to combine acute observation, skilful composition and, most crucially, human understanding of the shamefully shabby back streets and the lives lived therein would come together in the career of L.S. Lowry. Lowry was not of those streets by birth, his family belonging to the strata of the ‘respectable’ lower-middle class for whom the spectre of declining gentility was a true fear. Yet as the family homes shifted down the scale until they moved in 1909 to the distinctly down-at-heel Manchester district of Pendlebury, the young Lowry found himself becoming fully immersed in the real working class, both professionally and domestically. Their house was a terrace, mills and factories were near at hand, and by day, as a rent collector for The Pall Mall Property Company, he would tread the streets of the poorest districts in the city. As an unwelcome but at least acceptable visitor to these areas, Lowry was able to see without being seen, to gradually come to understand that a town, a neighbourhood, a street, even a crowded cobbled courtyard, was not simply the bricks and mortar, the cracked plaster, the peeling paint. These places were interdependent on the people who lived there, trapped by the hardships of life. The mills and works needed them to operate their machines, to feed the maw of heavy industry, but the people had few options in return in that pre-Welfare State world. If you wanted to eat, to pay the rent, to place a bet, to buy the smallest thing, one needed to work, and if the work was the mill, then so be it. Thus Lowry was a regular visitor to the underbelly of Manchester’s industrial world, seeing and remembering. As he would recount it later, the particular beauty of the light dimmed by endless coal fires and factory chimneys, illuminated by gas lights and the infernal glow of furnaces, would only gradually dawn on him, until one day he saw it as something that needed to be painted. Like so much of Lowry’s story, numerous versions of this epiphany exist, which one suspects were created partly from a desire to tell a good tale and partly to keep the curious at bay by giving them something that satisfied their expectations. Whatever the actual circumstances, Lowry had found the subject that would fill the early part of his career and which would yield some of his finest paintings.

Children, Sutherland Street, 1938. Image courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council.

Perhaps the reason Lowry’s paintings still fascinate us, almost a century after his earliest explorations of this subject, is that they carry an unmistakeable feeling of authenticity. Rarely do we see anything that smacks of nostalgia in its worst sense, that sepia-tinted world of ‘down our street’, the Hovis adverts. In Lowry’s paintings, the scenes are simply presented to us. Or so he might have us believe. Interviewed frequently once he became well known, we often hear that he just painted what he saw, that there it was in front of him. Rarely does he speak about the craft of the painter, yet the snippets of film of him at work suggest an incredible facility with paint and pencil. His compositions are deeply skilful, subtly shifting the eye of the viewer around, leading you where he wants you to go, absorbing the scene before you as surely as if you were there yourself. Maybe this is why Lowry feels so authentic, and yet again he leads us a merry dance. His paintings are often separated from drawings of the same view or subject by years, even decades, but comparison reveals Lowry’s illusion at work. For instance, turn now to lot 11, Street Musicians of 1938. A busy little scene unfolds of people in a street, whilst in the middle distance, the street band of the title play to a small group of figures around them. We can’t see a lot of detail of the performance, but that isn’t really terribly important, rather that the whole feels real. People come and go across the picture, some distracted by the events further away, others less interested. To the left, a woman in blue appears to have popped out of her front door to see what’s going on. It all feels quite close, very local, the slightly squat proportions of the buildings enhancing the mildly claustrophobic air of the street. However, in the extensive collection at The Lowry in Salford, we find a small pencil drawing entitled Shore Street, Thurso and dating from 1936. Whilst the setting is immediately recognisable, the scene itself is not. The street is almost empty. Rather than the thirty plus figures that fill the painting, here we have five. There is no hustle and bustle, there are no street musicians. Lowry has created the painting and given it life and drama as a director might choreograph the actors on a stage set. Now that we know he was not simply painting what was in front of him (as if we ever really believed that), does the painting feel less authentic? Now we know where it is set, does that help? After all, Lowry is about Manchester isn’t he? What was he doing in a small coastal town on the far north coast of Scotland? Why remove that information from the title of the finished picture?

Maybe it’s because when one starts to look at Lowry’s paintings, and I mean properly look, following the visual trails he sets for us, moving from group to group, figure to figure, incident to incident, we begin to realise that what is at the beating heart of Lowry’s painting is not the place but the people. By combining his acute observations and his ability to render them in paint, Lowry manages to create a completely believable image of a time and a way of life. He understood that whilst specific locations are important sometimes when they themselves dictate a certain way of behaving, mostly our lives are formed from small incidents which move like random atoms in the larger structures of our world that we cannot change. Usually we as individuals are little more than powerless in the face of these forces, and can often do nothing but observe. Like Lowry’s people, we mostly watch events happen to others, glad that we are not suffering that eviction, that street accident, or even that it is not us standing aimless in a town square in the middle of a working day, threadbare and jobless.

L.S. Lowry in New Cross, 1968. Image courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council.

You will, I’m sure, agree that this sounds rather bleak, yet when we look at the paintings again, they don’t feel quite so dark. Life as lived by those in Lowry’s paintings is harsh indeed, but it is tempered by green shoots of hope. The street band he drops into Street Musicians (lot 11) offer a distraction for those going about their day, the Punch & Judy (lot 8) show offers amusement for the crowd. Even in After the Fire (lot 2), where the crowds in the street gaze at the smouldering ruins of an enormous mill building, what will surely be an event that has some detrimental effect on their local economy seems to offer a spark of resistance in the face of the usually unbeatable leviathan of industry. Certainly plenty of people seem to have gathered by the pub to the right during their contemplation of the scene.

These apparent contrasts and incongruities are very much part of Lowry the man too. Like his art, things may or may not be what they seem. It can sometimes appear that everyone who knew him saw a slightly different version, and by skilfully keeping his friendships at arm’s length from each other, only at his funeral were they able to compare notes. To some he presented a homespun simplicity, a bluff, plain Northern man. He kept his professional life separate from his painting life, apparently worried that he would be thought a ‘Sunday painter’. To some of those who wrote about him he had an almost mystic air, to three brothers who remember him staying with their parents when they were small children he had an air of rebellion, subtly manoeuvring household fixtures such as mealtimes and menus to his own taste. Patron to younger artists, he was a regular visitor to London, touring exhibitions, seeing plays and concerts, but only venturing to paint the capital a handful of times. He admired the modernist absurdity of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, but he also revelled in bel canto opera, especially the work of Donizetti. The body of work he created in a painting career that lasted from before the outbreak of World War I to the mid-1970s has become itself a double-sided coin, on one hand instantly recognised and given popular, often simplistic, acclaim, on the other the subject of considerable debate amongst curators and academics.

If both the man and his work retain this elusive quality, perhaps we will never adequately be able to pin down the appeal of these haunting pictures of a past few now recall at first hand. Success came late to Lowry, his first London solo exhibition being in 1939 when he was already past fifty. By the time he became properly commercially successful in the 1960s, his urge to paint the mill scenes that had become his trademark had passed and with few exceptions the intense study of the earlier paintings of Manchester and its environs shifted as he travelled further around the industrial regions of Britain, the north-east of England and South Wales both inspiring great works, but paintings that were nevertheless quite different from those he had made in his obscurity, images he believed no one wanted to see, let alone actually buy. Painting for no one but himself, Lowry created the world of After the Fire (lot 2), Punch & Judy (lot 8), Election Time (lot 4) and others, a world that fused memories of people, places and incident into a language so striking that it still captivates us and shows no sign of abating.


Lowry: The A.J. Thompson Collection

25 MARCH 2014 | LONDON