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Saturday, January 3, 2015

L. S. Lowry

The Stockport Viaduct, 1969, L.S. Lowry
A Street in Stockport, 1930, L.S. Lowry
Several years ago I encountered an artist on the Internet from Stockport, England. I grew up in Stockport, Ohio (USA). Having nothing more in common than that, we struck up a friendship at the time, which sadly has lapsed. I sent him a group of photos from my hometown. He sent pictures of his. We compared notes. I even published several of our letters and photos in our local newspaper. Stockport, Ohio, is a tiny village of about 500 on the Muskingum River in the southeastern part of the state. Stockport, England, (population 136,082...give or take a few) is a sizable southern suburb of Greater Manchester. It's quite industrial, famous for its hat factory, a city street made of steps (right), and the Stockport Railway Viaduct over the Mersey River. It was also a favorite background for the British painter, L.S. Lowry. I was going over his work and stumbled upon a drawing of the viaduct (above) which I immediately recognized from an earlier photo (below).
Stockport, England, today. Comparing this with the drawing (top), it's notable as to the vertical exaggeration employed. Lowry was never a stickler for scenic accuracy.
L.S. Lowry Self-portrait, 1925
At first glance, Lowry's paintings look like the work of a self-taught or "naïve" artist. His colors are simplistic--flake white (lead), black, Prussian blue, yellow ochre, and vermillion. He painted in oils using no medium. But don't be fooled, he was none of the above. Only a nearly flawless handling of sometimes difficult perspective betrays the fact that Lowry was the beneficiary of several years of academic instruction at the Manchester School of Art, and the Salford Royal Technical College, where he acquired an affinity for industrial content in his work. Lowry was a simple man who, though influenced by Impressionism in his early years, consciously adopted as his own a no-frills, simplistic style, as uncommon in English art as it is refreshing. As his self-portrait (left) indicates, he could handle faces and figures as well as most trained artists. Yet it is primarily in his urban landscapes, so heavily populated with simplified, almost "stick" figures, and noting his extremely limited palette, that we tend to gain the misimpression that he was a self-taught, largely unskilled painter. He hated that.

Saturday Afternoon, 1941, L.S. Lowry
The Organ Grinder,1934, L.S. Lowry.
Laurence Stephen Lowry was born 1887, an only child, the son of a mild-mannered, Stretford (another suburb of Manchester) real estate company clerk and a highly domineering mother who wished all his life that she'd borne a daughter, not a son. He freely admitted he had a difficult childhood which extended into his adult life, ending only when his mother died in 1939, well into her seventies. A self-centered woman, she made no attempt to encourage or understand her son's love of art. During her lifetime, he painted only at night, after she'd gone to sleep, while working as a rent collector during the day. He neither sought nor got recognition as an artist during this time. During the war he was a "fire watcher" and later an official war artist.

Fun Day at the Daily Nook, 1953, L.S. Lowry
L.S. Lowry Memorial
After the war, Lowry's long-delayed fame, and no small amount of fortune, came quickly as he became collectible all over England, even being appointed the official artist for the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. However, his simple lifestyle changed little. He was evicted from his parent's home by his landlord for poor housekeeping and maintenance. He bought his own place in 1948, though he always considered it ugly and uncomfortable. Nonetheless, he lived there for nearly thirty years until his death in 1976. He left behind over a thousand paintings and some eight-thousand drawings. His paintings routinely sell in the high six-figure neighborhood (that's pounds not dollars), his drawing well into five figures. Today, at Mottram in Longdendale (near Manchester) L.S. Lowry sits on a park bench (left), immortalized in bronze, as if sketching the people passing by. Lowry was what you might easily call a compulsive sketcher, a man whose entire life centered upon his art.

Piccadilly Circus, 1960, L.S. Lowry.
Head of a Man (with Red Eyes), 1938,
L.S. Lowry, possible self-portrait.
Although Lowry's work only appears to be that of an untrained, minimally skilled artist, this man's talent ran deep rather than wide. His self-portraits, painted during the 1930s and 40s (many of which have never been publicly displayed), depict an expressionistic self-loathing, largely seen as a result of his extended sublimation of his own will to that of his mother (bedridden the last eight years of her life). Most of these have never been acknowledged as self-portraits, in fact, but they obviously are (right). At a time when most painters were fleeing England's cities (often in fear for their lives) during the war, Lowry was painting the bombed-out ruins. There are few if any Lowry landscapes depicting rural life and still fewer which don't include crowds (often quite large), going to work, relaxing, playing games, or simply involved in everyday life. His Piccadilly Circus (above) is one such work. It dates from 1960 and recently sold at auction for a record 5.6-million pounds. Compare it to the photo of Piccadilly Circus taken about the same time (below). It's interesting to note what the artist added as well as what he left out. Lowry was obviously no slave to realism.

Piccadilly Circus, London, ca. 1960.

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