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Modern & Post-War British Art

7 Things You Need to Know About L.S. Lowry

By Sotheby's
Celebrated painter L.S. Lowry is lauded for his depictions of inner-city life in Northern England. Following the sale of his work A Cricket Match in Sotheby's Modern & Contemporary British Art sale, a further work – David Lloyd-George's Birthplace, Manchester – features in the upcoming sale, Recollections of Places Past Property from the Estate of Sir John and Lady Smith on 9 July.

L. S. Lowry (1887-1976) was one of the most popular British artists of the 20th Century. He is best known for his busy, city scenes, set in the industrial area of north England he inhabited. Walking past factory gates and smoke stacks was, for Lowry, an everyday activity.

A lifelong bachelor, Lowry was a solitary figure who has gone down in art history as an English eccentric, in the manner of William Blake or Stanley Spencer. When he left his house, he’d always have a black tie on, for example: for the simple reason, he said, that "it saves choosing between colours".

A few months after his death, aged 88, a major exhibition of his work was held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The queue for tickets regularly extended along Piccadilly, and the show became the most visited ever at the RA by a 20th-Century artist.

More recently, Lowry was the subject of a large retrospective, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, at Tate Britain in 2013.

L. S. Lowry, 1964 (b/w photo)
L.S. Lowry, 1964. Photograph by Jorge Lewinksi © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth/Bridgeman Images.

1. An only child, Laurence Stephen Lowry spent his first years in the leafy outskirts of Manchester. His family were middle class, but his father – an administrator in an estate agent’s office – was beset by money problems. The Lowrys would be forced to move to the harsher area of Pendlebury, where views were dominated by imposing factories and cotton mills.

Despite childhood dreams of becoming an artist, economic reality meant LS had to get a job at 16. According to an anecdote in his biography, A Private View of LS Lowry by Shelley Rohde, visitors to the family home had to ‘spread butter on [their] bread, then scrape it off again, so there was just the merest taste on each slice’.

2. Lowry never became a full-time artist. He worked as a rent collector until his retirement, aged 64, devoting himself to art only in his spare hours. Between 1905 and 1925, he took evening classes – in painting and drawing – at the Manchester Municipal College of Art and then the Salford School of Art.

3. He is renowned, above all, for his scenes of England’s industrial north, complete with factories, smoking chimneys, red terraced houses, and workers en masse. "My ambition," he said, "was to put the industrial scene on the map because nobody [before] had done it seriously".

4. Due to their small, spindly form and naif appearance, the figures in Lowry’s cityscapes are commonly referred to as ‘matchstick men’.

It has sometimes been used as a charge against him that they all look a bit similar and lack individuality. One might argue, however, that that is precisely the point: the figures perfectly capture the factory worker’s monotonous, regimented, slightly dehumanising existence.

5. Lowry was a lover of football and watched his favourite team, Manchester City, in numerous matches over the years. He featured football in his pictures too – though his focus tended to be on fans at, or on their way to, a stadium rather than the game itself. A fine example is his painting from 1953, Going to the Match, which the Professional Football Association bought for £1.9 million at Sotheby’s in 1999: at the time, the record price paid for a work by Lowry at auction.

"My ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map because nobody before had done it seriously".

There’s generally a sense of warmth and collegiality about the crowds in such scenes. However, the industrial landscape can always be seen lurking in the background: as if as a reminder that, once the weekend is over, these same people will be back in the factories and mills working.

6. Lowry had his first solo show in 1939, at London’s Alex Reid & Lefevre gallery, at the time one of the most prestigious spaces in Mayfair. It was from this exhibition that Tate Gallery bought the first of the 23 paintings by Lowry it currently owns: Dwelling, Ordsall Lane, Salford.

Many honours came the painter’s way after that, including being named a member of the Royal Academy in 1962. Lowry would turn a knighthood down later that decade, explaining to the UK’s then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, that "all my life I’ve felt most strongly against social distinction of any kind".

In 2000, a purpose-built arts complex was opened in the artist’s name (three miles from Pendelbury) in Salford Quays: The Lowry contains the world’s largest collection of his paintings.

7. The Second World War marked a turning point for the artist. During the Blitz, he volunteered as a firewatcher on the roof of Manchester department stores. Once the War was over, he increasingly turned his back on the city and took to depicting seaside resorts in the north of England, where day-trippers and holiday-makers can be seen enjoying a jolly time.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Lowry went on to paint seascapes and rural landscapes without human presence. Some of the former are so empty as to border on abstraction, consisting simply of an expanse of water, an expanse of sky, and a horizon line in between. These works are about as far removed as one can imagine from Lowry’s bustling, urban scenes of old.

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