One of Britain’s most popular artists L.S. Lowry is best known for painting working class life and finding beauty among dirty buildings, chimneys, factories – the everyday
‘When I was 22 we moved from the residential side of Manchester to Pendlebury, an industrial suburb of Salford. At first I didn’t like it at all then I wanted to depict it. Finally I became obsessed by it and did nothing else for 30 years’.
I read that one of his paintings was in Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery so I went to check it out. In the main exhibition hall there was another painting that caught my eye – Twentieth Century by C.R. Nevinson (1889-1946), I made a note to check out more work by this artist.
Now over to the Lowry, smaller than I imagined there it was amongst other fine works by various artists, the information card notes Laing Art Gallery bought the painting direct from the artist.
River Scene was painted in 1935 at a time when he was looking after Elizabeth his bedridden mother in the family home in Station Road, Pendlebury, his father had died in 1932. It was also the time when the Lowry style of reflecting working class life was cutting through.
The Royal Academy had previously labelled him ‘a Sunday painter’ when it was known he spent his days as a rent collector, but January 1939 was the debut exhibition of Lowry in London, the first major recognition of his work.
A mixed reception from art critiques followed with 16 of his paintings sold for about £30 each. Although his mother didn’t agree – the show was a success and another exhibition was arranged for later that year.
But in September everything including art galleries and exhibitions were put on hold as the country prepared for restrictions and blackouts as the Second World War was declared.
Lowry, who was now in his 50s, was devastated, adding to this, his mother died in October aged 83, he fell into a deep depression. Even though at times his relationship with his mother was fractious, living at home, making her tea and painting in the attic would have brought a comfortable routine to his life.
Lowry had loved his mother but the relationship was strained with her disapproving of how much time he spent painting, she only liked one of his paintings – Lytham Seascapes with Yachts. After one particular scathing remark Lowry went outside in a fit of rage and built a bonfire of his paintings, fortunately his friend Reverend Geoffrey Bennett saved them from the fire.
During the war Lowry was an official war artist and night time fire watcher on the rooftops of Manchester department stores. Although tired and feeling a deep sadness after his mother’s death, his painting took on a sharper focus.
Part of the city were in ruins after the Luftwaffe bombing raids ‘I remember being first down in the morning to sketch the bombed buildings before the smoke and grime had cleared’.
After the war ended success was around the corner for Lowry with exhibitions and paintings sold. Aged 65 he retired with a £200 a year pension as a rent collector from the Pall Mall property company, plus a move from the family home to a house 20 mile away in Mottram-in-Longdendale.
‘Heaven only knows why I came to this place. I absolutely loathe it! I hate the house I live in now but here I am and here I suppose I’ll end my days’.
Without any family Lowry lived alone in Mottram until his death in 1976, among all the doom and gloom of his life there was a shy smile of contentment that appeared now and then.
Gary Alikivi January 2022
Notes: L.S. Lowry, The Art and the Artist, T.G. Rosenthal
L.S. Lowry, Michael Leber & Judith Sandling
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.