L.S. Lowry is a much-loved British painter known for pictures that capture urban life in industrial north west England, most notably during the 1920s. Born in 1887 in Stretford, Lancashire, Laurence Stephen Lowry later moved to Pendlebury near Manchester where he lived and worked for over 40 years. The area, which he at first detested, was covered in factories and cotton mills that Lowry would soon obsessively depict. His fascination with the industrial landscapes and the people that inhabited them was inspired by a missed train. Standing on the platform at Pendlebury station, Lowry would later write of the view of the Acme Spinning Company’s mill, saying “I watched this scene – which I’d look at many times without seeing – with rapture.”
Working in a restricted palette of five colours – white, ivory black, vermilion, Prussian blue and yellow ochre – Lowry depicted landscapes, seascapes, portraits and surreal imaginings. The largest collection of his artwork is held by Salford City Council and displayed at The Lowry museum. From his first solo exhibition at London’s Alex Reid and Lefevre Gallery in 1939 to exhibitions at institutions such as the Tate Britain and the Royal Academy of Art, his influence, reputation and popularity continue to grow.
At a young age Lowry discovered a love for drawing, prompting his enrolment in private painting lessons. As his family’s move to Pendlebury was the result of financial troubles, Lowry had to seek work and inevitably push his interest in art to an after-work activity. For the entirety of his career Lowry was not a full time painter – until the age of 64 he worked as a rent collector, painting only in his free time.
As his passion grew, Lowry later proceeded to study painting and drawing in the evenings at the Manchester Municipal College of Art from 1905-15 and then at the Salford School of Art from 1915-25, experiences which inevitably shaped his now iconic style. In Manchester, Lowry studied life drawing under Adolphe Valette, a French Impressionist. Valette introduced the budding artist to the work of masters such as Camille Pissarro and Georges Seurat whose oeuvre of often dreamy landscapes also included snapshots of industry. Lowry carried the influence of these artists to Salford in the 1920s, the period during which his iconic industrial scenes emerged. Here, Lowry often painted Peel Park, visible from the technical college where his classes were taught. Yet most notable as it relates to Lowry’s career trajectory during his studies in Salford was the advice from his tutor Bernard Taylor. Taylor advised Lowry that his paintings were too dark, leading the artist to begin painting using his now signature pure white backgrounds.
Not only did Lowry live in and amongst industry, his job would take him to some of the poorer areas of the region, experiences which he depicted in his paintings. Still, Lowry was a white-collar worker and therefore a voyeur of the working-class life that he so obsessively depicted. His position as an outsider looking in is reflected in his works such as Early Morning, which seemingly looks out to the streets from the viewpoint of a window, observing the pavement covered in hordes of people on their way to work.
From Lowry’s vast depictions of the industrial north, British writer Philip Dodd would go on to coin the term ‘Lowryscape’ to describe the tendency of the region to be depicted as a more generalised placed with a pre-determined iconography. Such scenes of coal mines, factories and terraced houses are peopled with his stylised human figures, often referred to as ‘matchstick men’ which complement the scenes within which they are placed. Termed for their small and naïve forms, Lowry’s figures were often criticised for their lack of individualism. Even as depicted from closer viewpoints, each figure appears nearly the same as the next, but some argue that this is perhaps exactly the point as they reflect the tones of the seriality and monotony of factory work.
Lowry’s scenes do not just explicitly depict industry but instead focuses on day-to-day public life which exists within the backdrop of industry. A football fan himself, one of his most famous depictions of public life is The Football Match. Having sold for £5.6 million in 2011, this painting is the most expensive Lowry work to date. Though his football themed paintings typically depict crowds of fans on route to the stadium, The Football Match depicts a bird’s eye view of the match, surrounded by hordes of nondescript fans. Yet, it is still a classic Lowry scene as the focus is not simply on the match but also the expansive industrial life that it is situated among. Characteristically, billowing chimneys fill the painting from the foreground and expanding out to the distance.
A slight shift in Lowry’s work began in the late 1930s, a period in which his father passed away and his mother fell ill. Notable is L.S. Lowry, currently at the National Portrait Gallery. What began as a realistic self-portrait, quickly turned grotesque and unsettling, particularly due to the piercing red eyes. This was something that Lowry was aware of, stating that “all the paintings of that period were done under stress and tension and they were all based on myself.” This shift in his work was pushed further after World War II during which his focus switched to works such as Seascape. This depiction of a northern seascape is devoid of figures as the scene is reduced to bands of colour reflecting the sand, sea and sky. The minimalism of this painting boarders on abstraction and emerges as a shocking production of an artist who more typically painted realistic city scenes.
Lowry’s career led some critics to label him as a Sunday painter, one which he rightfully and vehemently rejected, not just because during his life he produced around 1,000 paintings and over 8,000 drawings. The Tate Britain would label his body of work a ‘social-realist project,’ classifying the pictures as unique social documents which recorded the experience of the British working class throughout the events of the 20th century.