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He painted Salford’s smoky tops on cardboard boxes from the shops

09/08/2013

Lowry

About a third of the way round the Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain there’s a cluster of paintings by artists who influenced Lowry. These include a bleak Van Gogh landscape of a lamp-post on wasteground on the outskirts of Paris and a couple of Adolphe Valette’s views of Manchester in the early twentieth century. Valette was a French landscape artist who taught Lowry at the Manchester Municipal School of Art.

The painting that really stands out though is Maurice Utrillo’s La Porte Saint Martin, painted in 1910, of a triumphal arch in a working class district of Paris. The greys and off-whites of the buildings surrounding the arch and the dark matchstick figures in the foreground are remarkably Lowryesque. Indeed in later years the Manchester Guardian referred to Lowry as “our Pendlebury Utrillo”. The fact that the influences on Lowry’s painting stretched far beyond his quiet, lower middle class Salfordian upbringing is one of the central features of a wonderful exhibition.

Laurence Stephen Lowry was the first painter that I was aware of as a child. This had more to do with music than any youthful appreciation of art. Brian & Michael’s hit Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs, along with Boney M, seemed to be on the radio constantly in 1978. The song was recorded as a tribute to Lowry who had died two years earlier and was number one for three weeks. Around the same time inexpensive reproductions of Lowry’s most famous paintings became popular in households otherwise largely devoid of art; an affordable art for everyone not just the wealthy.

Lowry Going to the Match

Many of the paintings on show in the Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life exhibition demonstrate the artist’s fascination with crowds and groups of people; whether on their way to school, coming home from work or striding out to a football match. There are also scenes of people on a protest march, a huddled group mourning the death of a loved one and, in Fever Van, a group looking on at an isolation van parked outside a terraced house preparing to remove a fevered infant.

Lowry’s paintings are often described as dull and repetitive. But look carefully and there are often brilliant flashes of colour amidst the greys and blacks. Sometimes a coloured scarf or hat will stand out amidst a sea of darkly clad figures. The repetition came from his capturing of the rhythms of the daily grind of working class life; clocking on and off at the factory or going to a football match on a Saturday afternoon. His paintings capture a broad sweep of British social history through the twentieth century from the austerity of the twenties and thirties through to the “never had it so good” era of post-war social democracy. A painting of Piccadilly Circus in 1960, complete with red double decker buses, captures the gaudy adverts for fizzy drinks, beef extract and household products and signifies the birth of a consumer society barely recognisable from his dark street scenes of the 1920s.

Lowry Piccadilly Circus

The art critic John Berger wrote that “these paintings are about what has been happening to the British economy since 1918….the shift of power from industrial capital to international finance capital, the essential agreements within the two party system blocking every initiative towards political independence and thus economic viability”. He wrote that in 1966 but nearly fifty years later it still resonates and demonstrates that Lowry’s pictures are not simply about the past. The smoke filled urban scenes could easily be a recreation of life in one of modern China’s many industrial mega-cities.

Slowly Lowry’s enclosed street scenes of the 1920s gave way to a bleaker urban openness. His larger scale post-war paintings of composite industrial landscapes full of belching chimneys, towering church steeples, rows of terraced houses and patches of wasteground dotted with murky pools of water often appear to be observed from an elevated view point, almost as if Lowry was perched on a nearby hillside. This was possibly a result of his role as a firewatcher in the Second World War when he spent a considerable amount of his time overlooking Manchester from the roof of a department store.

Later on, as I’m wandering round the Tate’s permanent exhibits, there’s a painting by William Ratcliffe, a contemporary of Lowry, of Hampstead Garden Suburb in 1914 also from above. There are chimneys and church steeples but this time the houses are semi-detached with neat gardens and leafy trees and sunlight with a handful of people going quietly about their business. The north-south divide of the time is evident and provides a stark contrast with Lowry’s northern street scenes of the same period.

Lowry worked as a rent collector and was a lifelong Tory but was embraced by many left leaning Mancunians, including the Manchester Guardian, who admired his depiction of working class life. But was there warmth in his pictures or was he merely a detached observer? Sometimes it’s difficult to tell. His 1952 picture of Ancoats Hospital Outpatients Hall celebrates the new world of the NHS but The Cripples from a few years earlier shocked many with its depiction of the disabled and maimed in cartoonish form. It’s possible that his tendency to be an outsider stemmed from his natural reserve and desire for a quiet life. This reportedly led him to refuse honours, including a knighthood, on four separate occasions in later life.

Lowry Ancoats Hospital

Sadly there is no explanation of why this is the first major exhibition of Lowry’s work in London since his death thirty seven years ago. A certain snobbery existed in the art world, and perhaps still does, towards Lowry. He was seen as an amateur and therefore not a serious painter; someone who did a day’s graft and then went home to paint as a form of relaxation. But that ignored the huge influence that French impressionists like his tutor Adolphe Valette made on his work. Indeed, in the early part of his career, he was admired in France long before he became popular in London, regularly exhibiting in Paris Salons in the 1930s.

Many of the books in the shop at the end of the exhibition, like Lowry’s paintings, depict working class life in twentieth century Britain. There’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe, Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave and Robert Tressell’s brilliant The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. From about half way round the exhibition I was reminded of another intensely private Salfordian, widely admired by foreign contemporaries, similarly tutored early in his career by a leading Frenchman and equally capable of lighting up the drabbest of canvases with a flash of red brilliance. Yes, they should stick Paul Scholes’ book in there as well.

The Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life exhibition continues at Tate Britain until 20th October 2013. There’s more about it here;

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/lowry-and-painting-modern-life?gclid=CPTA0-rgu7kCFbLMtAodw08AYA

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