It was not until he was 52 that the tide began to flow
Laurance Stephen Lowry, born in Manchester on November 1, 1987, was a unique and outstanding painter, of his time. He has been regarded widely as a painter of industrial Lancashire and the North of England, but his work was far from confined to that type of subject. It was nevertheless through his pictorial presentation of industrial landscape, the portrayal of people associated with it and implications of the ravages it produced on the environment, that he first became generally recognised as an artist of originality and distinction.
From his early years it seems that he was destined to make painting his life and to become the eccentric character who was respected and appreciated by his numerous friends and associates.
Lowry's ancestry on his father's side derived from Northern Ireland. Many of his peculiarities were in the mould of a striking Irish individualist rather than a product of Lancashire, although superficially he could be accepted easily as belonging to the Lancashire background. His mother was an excellent pianist. She was actively interested in the arts, and it may be surmised that he inherited his artistic intensity from her. She no doubt contributed also to his critical appreciation of classical music and his extensive acquaintance with it.
According to himself he was not successful at school. He was wont to say that he never passed an examination in his life. He began his career about 1906 by attending classes at the Manchester Municipal College of Art, where he continued for a number of years.
Lowry's parents moved from Rusholm, Manchester, to Pendlebury, Salford, in 1909, and after he finished attending the College of Art in 1915 he continued to live at home and to develop his painting. He frequented the Fylde country a good deal about this time and became very attached to it, making pencil or pastel drawings which led in time to numerous paintings of the Fylde landscape. It was during this perliod too that Lowry, as he has related, became aware of the pictorial richness of the industrial landscape which surrounded him, including the people who formed part of it, their activities and their oddities.
The stylising of the figures which populated so many of his pictures and were so characteristic a feature of his arose in part intuitively because it expressed what he saw in them and in part deliberately because he did not want his picture to be dated by the fashion of attire. Suggestions have been made that these figures carried some sociological implication, revealed Lowry's nature, but such connotations were unnecessary. He included figures simply because they were part of the observed scene. To him they became in painting items of composition even in groups or crowds, used to give balance or liveliness to his pictures.
He was always responsive to the absurd, the grotesque, the tragicomedy, in an individual or an event. He said once: "Life's a funny thing, I can't get used to it and went on to remark that he was sometimes upset by his tendency to be amused at the bizarre elements which he saw in something tragic or serious. He was basically considerate and sympathetic. His paintings or drawings of individuals who had gone far down in the world were never cynical, mocking, or sordid, though a certain relish in depicting them was often detectable.
He painted many pictures, some of his finest, without any figures, particularly seascapes, moors, landscapes and subjects originating from the industrial environment when the composition did not require them or their inclusion was not appropriate. The emptiness of some of these pictures in terms of human presence has been ascribed to Lowry's supposed loneliness, an interpretation that has been overstressed.
Lowry's character was very complex. It is true that he lived alone with his parents until his father died in 1932 and then with daily help looked after his mother, who became an invailid, until her death in 1939. He continued to occupy the family's house in Pendlebury until 1948 when he moved to Mottram in Longdendale, a small village near Manchester, where he had a rather grim plain stone house fronting almost on the street with a neglected back garden which he never bothered about. Socially he idid not mix readily, he did not smoke or drink.
This apparent isolation, though at times it may have given rise to a sense of loneliness was it would seem, deliberate and the outcome of two paramount motives. One consideration was that nothing should interfere with his painting or involve him in ties that might prevent him doing what he wanted, whenever, wherever and however he took the notion to do it. The other, perhaps overriding, motive was that his private affairs should be kept separate from his painting and all that it entailed. To this end he was capable of using camouflage in conversation and in personal relationships, if required, to the extent that it appeared to be natural.
Fundamentally he was warm-hearted and generous. To young artists whom he considered sincere and talented he gave assistance quietly by encouragement, with advice if sought, by buying their work, and in other practical ways. He was also shrewd, astute, sensitive, energetic, independent, intolerant of constraint in any form, determined to live on his own terms, apt to be secretive regarding his real thoughts or intentions but withal genial, appreciative, responsive to an immediate situation lively and likeable.
His integrity to his work was deep and absolute. He wanted his work to live, an obsession that affected him strongly. He said repeatedly that he would like to come back a hundred years hence to see how the reputation and standing of contemporary artists or those of the recent past had fared. The observable changes that were currently taking place greatly interested him.
It was not until 1939 when he was 52 years of age that the tide began to flow for Lowry towards eventual recognition as an original figure in the line of great British painters. The circumstance of his work coming to the notice of Mr A. J. McNeill Reid of the Lefevre Gallery has frequently been recounted and the consequent hOlding of Lowry's first one-man exhibition in that gallery in 1939. Subsequently 12 one-man exhibitions of paintings were held there, the last in 1967, and exhibitions of drawings in 1968 and 1971. Other exhibitions, included those at the City of Salford Art Gallery (1941), the Bluecoat Chambers, Liverpool (1943), the Midday Studios, Manchester (1948), retrospective exhibitions at Salford Art Gallery (1951), the City Art Gallery, Manchester (1959), and the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield (1961). In 1966 the Arts Council held a comprehensive retrospective showing of paintings and drawings at the Tate Gallery.
He was elected to membership of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1934,became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1955 and Royal Academician in 1962. The University of Manchester awarded him the honorary degrees of MA (1945) and LL.D. (1961). In 1964 the Halle Concerts Society paid him an unusual tribute in arranging for the Halle Orchestra to give a special public concert in his presence to mark his seventy-seventh birthday. He was given the Freedom of the City of Salford in 1965.
Lowry's worth and status were thus widely recognised during his lifetime. An honourable place for him in the history of British painting would seem to be assured. He was a unique personality and a unique artist. He did not derive from or belong to any particular school or group. His work embodied a vision peculiarly his own.