‘I’m particularly fond of watching large ships coming in to the harbour, or being brought down river by tugs. I love the Tyne for that reason. It’s a wonderful river’.
From 1960 until his death in 1976 prolific artist L.S. Lowry frequently travelled from his home in Cheshire to the North East. He used the Seaburn Hotel as a second home and a base to explore the area, but when his usual room at the front wasn’t available he would occasionally book in at The Sea Hotel, South Shields.
The hotel is based on the seafront near the entrance to the river Tyne. He would sit for hours in the car park between the South Pier and the Groyne, sketching ships and tugs entering the river from the North Sea.
Lowry was fascinated by the relentless power of the sea and subject of one sketch was the Adelfotis cargo vessel who ran aground on the Herd Sands at South Shields in 1963. It’s exciting to think that Lowry was there sketching in the background.
Always Ready is a film I made in 2016 about the work of South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade, it features excellent archive footage of the Life Brigade’s brave rescue of the crew from the cargo ship. (Check the link below).
Lowry found a number of vantage points to watch the river Tyne – one was the Mill Dam where an episode was filmed of TV programme When the Boat Comes In, and today is where The Customs House theatre & arts centre stands.
From there he walked ten minutes up River drive to the bridge which overlooked the shipyards, a different picture today as the yards have been replaced by housing. On many occasions he travelled on the Tyne ferry between North and South Shields.
Lowry was drawn to buildings that were old, neglected or about to be pulled down, an oil from 1965 titled Old House in South Shields caught my eye as I recognised the building from a photo in South Shields Library archive. Sadly not there now, it was demolished and replaced by flats.
Old House in South Shields. Note the position of the windows and doorway.
The large house was set on The Lawe – a hill top over-looking the entrance to the Tyne. To get there Lowry would have walked from his favourite spot at the seafront up the steep bank.
With its strong connection to the sea, this area would have been attractive to Lowry, with the old Pilot steps and Watch House nearby and standing tall are two beacons – large brick pillars originally used as navigational aids for guiding ships into the river before the piers were built.
Derelict at the time Lowry was there, the house was originally a barracks for soldiers during the Napoleonic invasion scare, then used as a business man’s club and reading room by the gentlemen of the Lawe.
At the back of Lawe House was a large Roman Remains Park – today it’s a partly re-constructed Roman Fort. Being drawn to old neglected buildings Lowry may have wandered over and sat sketching among the ruins – or was just knackered and needed to rest after walking up the steep hill.
Gary Alikivi December 2021
L.S. Lowry by Michael Leber & Judith Sandling
L.S. Lowry in the North East published by Tyne & Wear Museums 2010.