A painting such as David Lloyd-George’s Birthplace, Manchester is, therefore, not a-typical in any sense. One could easily argue, indeed, that is entirely typical, as an emotional emptiness suffuses all of Lowry’s painting. He is the master poet of isolation; it is his great contribution to 20th century British art and – as was the contention of the curators of his 2014 retrospective at the Tate – his great contribution to the European ‘painting of modern life’ across the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Lowry’s ambition was ‘to put the industrial scene on the map, because nobody had done it, nobody had done it seriously’ (L.S. Lowry, quoted in Michael Howard, Lowry: A Visionary Artist, Lowry Press, Salford 2000, p.81), something that the critic and curator Herbert Read found ‘quite extraordinary’, that ‘in an industrial country like this, no-one…no painter of any significance has ever taken the industrial landscape as a subject, and what you might call industrial art doesn’t exist.’ (Herbert Read on the BBC Third Programme, 26 November 1966, quoted in T. G. Rosenthal, L S Lowry – The Art and the Artist, Unicorn Press, Norwich, 2010, p.24).
The present work is the epitome of Lowry’s vision – a seemingly ‘straight-forward’ rendering of a non-descript backstreet that, through his masterful handling, becomes so much more profound and symbolic, full of emotion, both life-affirming and haunting. This humble ‘two up, two down’ has an almost anthropomorphic quality (there’s always something of a Magic Realism to his work) – the two windows and the basement vent forming a visual parallel with the stiff figures in his mill scenes who often stare back at us from within the crowds. The location of the windows in the centre of the painting is also very deliberate, enhancing this eerie sense of physical, human presence.
As the art historian T.J. Clark writes in his introduction to the catalogue for the Tate show, part of what makes Lowry a great artist is his “aesthetic honesty”, in which “stereotype cedes to limited fact” (T.J. Clark & Anne M. Wagner, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, Tate Publishing, London, 2013, p.61). David Lloyd George’s Birthplace, Manchester is a perfect example of this. Lowry seems to add nothing, but it’s what he takes away that matters, so that all we see is the smallness of the house itself, the funeral black of the door, the vase of dead flowers in the window and the street to the left where this tiny house is repeated, again and again. One doesn’t need to see a person to grasp the kind of life lived here. And whilst Lowry's technique always tries to mask its own dexterity, his use of colour is unerringly sophisticated as a conveyer of meaning – even more so when restricted, as it is here, to a palette so limited, so abstract. In Lowry's hand, even this artfulness acts to make the scene feel uncannily real, the buildings more solid, the streets colder and harder – a stripped down version of the 'truth' that feels even more real.
David Lloyd George’s life would have no doubt fascinated Lowry, even irrespective of the fact he had been born in the inner-Manchester suburb of Chorlton-on-Medlock, about a mile or so east of Lowry’s home in Pendlebury. After all, Lloyd George was a man of lower middle-class origins, like Lowry, who had first-hand experience of the life of the urban poor and yet who had risen to the highest office in the land, at a time when such things just didn’t happen to men such as he. (One wonders if a young Lowry, too, might have come across the many articles Lloyd George wrote for the Liberal Manchester Guardian.). His father had come to Manchester from Wales – via London and Liverpool – for the same reason everyone else was drawn to the city’s hard, unforgiving streets: work. Lloyd-George senior was a teacher at the Hope Street Sunday School in Salford, one of the many Sunday Schools that became an important part of working-class life in Manchester in the early 20th century – Lowry himself spending many an hour at a Sunday School as a child.
Unlike the Parisian ‘painters of modern life’ of the late 19th century, he is no sophisticated flâneur, slumming it amongst the working class. He is an active, integral participant in the world that he paints: Lloyd-George’s house on the corner of Hargreaves Street was exactly the kind of dwelling that Lowry would have visited on his rounds as a rent collector, a job that he held despite his increasing renown as an artist – as this was the source of his art. David Lloyd George’s Birthplace, Manchester was painted in 1958 – when Lowry’s reputation was approaching its height and thirteen years after the great statesman’s death, when his legacy as a ‘working class hero’ was assured and the welfare state he helped create was beginning to take full effect. A year earlier, the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had told Britons that they had ‘never had it so good’. Lowry’s painting is not only a moving elegy to times not-so-far in the past, when many Britons couldn’t have had it much worse, but also to the nearness of poverty and struggle, even in a seemingly affluent post-industrial society.
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