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L. S. Lowry Photo

L. S. Lowry

English Painter

Born: November 1, 1887 - Stretford, Lancashire, England
Died: February 23, 1976 - Glossop, Derbyshire, England
Movements and Styles:
Existentialism in Modern Art
"Most of my land and townscape is composite. Made up; part real and part imaginary ... bits and pieces of my home locality. I don't even know I'm putting them in. They just crop up on their own, like things do in dreams."
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"I only deal with poverty; always with gloom. You'll never see a joyous picture of mine."
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"You don't need brains to be a painter, just feelings."
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"I am not an artist. I am a man who paints."
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"If people call me a Sunday painter, I'm a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week."
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"My ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map because nobody had seriously done it."
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"I just paint the people as I see the people in my mind's eye."
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"Accidents interest me - I have a very queer mind you know. What fascinates me is the people they attract. The patterns those people form, an atmosphere of tension when something's happened. [...] Where there's a quarrel there's always a crowd. [...] It's a great draw. A quarrel or a body."
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L. S. Lowry
"I have been called a painter of Manchester workpeople. But my figures are not exactly that. They are ghostly figures, which tenant these courts and lane-ways and which seem to me so beautiful."
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"Had I not been lonely, I should not have seen what I did."
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"I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me. Natural figures would have broken the spell of it [...] Had I drawn them as they are, it would not have looked like a vision."
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"I have no family, only my studio."
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"Were it not for my painting, I couldn't live. It helps me forget that I am alone."
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"You don't need brains to be a painter, just feelings."
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L. S. Lowry

Summary of L. S. Lowry

Lowry is perhaps England's most instantly recognizable painter. He was a solitary, semi-reclusive, individual who developed a highly idiosyncratic style that features firmly drawn industrial backgrounds against which groups or crowds, painted in his signature "matchstick men" style, go about their everyday business. He is known mostly for what art historian John Rothenstein called "a kind of gloomy lyricism" but his urban vignettes, which were drawn from his home surroundings in England's industrial north, very often carried a detached but affectionate humor. Lowry is amongst that group of artists whose biography - in his case a meek mannered, mother-fixated, virgin - brings and added poignancy to their art. It was a shock to many, therefore, that on his death a series of erotic drawings emerged bringing an unexpected dimension to the life story of a man who remains today one of the English public's most beloved painters.

Accomplishments

  • Lowry is associated first and foremost with industrial scenes which were rendered in limited tones of gray and brown and reduced, or "childlike", shapes of cubes and lines. The figures that populated the majority of his works came to be known as his signature "matchstick men". The works were utterly unique, poetic yet unsentimental. His industrial scenes were also apolitical. Lowry's non-judgmental approach left left-wing critics cold but made the works fully relatable to the ordinary people they represented.
  • Critics of Lowry have suggested that his work was repetitive and that this hinted at a lack of imagination on the artist's part. But his paintings merely reflected the humdrum and clockwork comings-and-goings that marked the everyday existence of the working class northern community to which he himself belonged. He chose not to celebrate or make heroes of his subjects but rather to capture, often with humor and affection, something of the humdrum existence of the group as a whole.
  • During the 1950s, Lowry turned more and more to individual portraits. Rendered in greater detail than his "matchstick" figures, and usually set against blank backgrounds, his figures were not based on actual individuals but came rather, in Lowry's words, "from my own head". With these pieces he was trying to exorcise something of the depression and loneliness he experienced most acutely in the 1920s and 1930s and, in a rather more buoyant tone, to commemorate the lost working-class dress codes of those decades.
  • Lowry produced a series of highly uncharacteristic fetish drawings - often referred to as the "the mannequin sketches" or "marionette works" - that only came to light only after his death. Erotically charged, and often with a bondage/torture theme, the drawings, though a long way short of being pornographic, caused dismay amongst many of Lowry's followers. Rather than dent his wider reputation, however, for many these works brought an added dimension of intrigue to a mother-fixated artist who had never experienced a sexual relationship.

Biography of L. S. Lowry

L. S. Lowry Life and Legacy

"I have been called a painter of Manchester workpeople", said Lowry, one of the industrial north's most cherished sons, but "my figures are not exactly that. They are ghostly figures, which tenant these courts and lane-ways and which seem to me so beautiful".

Important Art by L. S. Lowry

Progression of Art
1922

A Manufacturing Town

When he first began painting industrial scenes, Lowry used an extremely dark color palette. In A Manufacturing Town, for instance, we see several soot-covered houses, distant factories with black billowing out of their smokestacks, and, in the far distance, the silhouette of a church. The scene is populated by several human figures, each rendered in a simplistic manner, with features that are indiscernible. This style of figure populated the majority of his works and they came to be known as his signature "matchstick men".

Lowry, who had already demonstrated his talent at realistic figure drawing in earlier years, explained, "I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me [...] Natural figures would have broken the spell of it, so I made my figures half unreal. Some critics have said that I turned my figures into puppets, as if my aim were to hint at the hard economic necessities that drove them. To say the truth, I was not thinking very much about the people. I did not care for them in the way a social reformer does. They are part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way: as part of a vision".

Rachel Hidderley, senior director of Modern British & Irish Art at Christie's in London, asserts that "It's hard to think of many artists who dared take on the great industrial progress of the 20th century, let alone paint it so compellingly". Arts writer Laura Bulbeck was in agreement, writing that "Lowry is beloved by us for making the industrial scene his own. These works were created in his own unique way, poetic yet not sentimental, compelling, even at times disturbing, but never judgmental".

Oil on canvas - The Lowry, Salford, England

1939

Market Scene, Northern Town

After Manchester Guardian journalist D. B. Taylor suggested that Lowry lighten the tones and hues of his paintings, he began using stark white backgrounds for his works, marking the emergence of his mature signature style. In this work, we again see factories and churches in the background, while the foreground market scene (recognizable as Pendlebury Market, near Lowry's home) is packed with people. As art historian Rosie Rockel writes, Lowry "tried to get entire communities down on canvas". Lowry himself explained, "I like detail. I cram as many figures as I can in many of my pictures. Good value, you know, for the [person] who finally has the picture!".

One always gets the sense from his images that Lowry is an objective observer of a scene, rather than a participant in it. History and culture scholar Paul Dave considers him to be a sort of northern English flâneur, noting that, "in painting, and particularly in the French tradition, the crowd experience was mediated through a form of detachment (Baudelaire's sensation of the isolated self adrift in the crowd) in which the proximity to the stranger, a necessary and challenging aspect of the experience of modernity, was managed". Indeed, Lowry's paintings can reflect the despair and loneliness of his life and the broader social condition of northern England, (particularly during the 1930s), even when the images themselves present more convivial subject matter, such as this market scene.

Oil on canvas - The Lowry, Salford, England

1941

Houses near a Mill

As in the majority of Lowry's works, Houses near a Mill shows several houses, with mills and factories billowing black smoke from their chimneys, and streets busy with people. He also often included stray dogs in his works, likely because they were just as much a part of the urban landscape as the buildings and their inhabitants.

The repetition in Lowry's oeuvre is sometimes read as a lack of imagination or creativity (or an inability to paint anything else). However, a more sympathetic reading is that he was in fact painting a community for which life itself was repetitive. The constants and similarities amongst his works in a way reflect the humdrum daily routine of the local factory works and their family members. Moreover, the derelict buildings featured in his works reflect the general sense of poverty and drudgery that characterized life in industrial-era northern England. At the same time, however, these buildings served as a sort of psychological self-portrait of the artist. Lowry would spend hours staring at dilapidated, empty, and abandoned buildings, and once stated "I saw in those desolate buildings an image of myself".

Although he was not the first artist to paint industrial scenes, Lowry's take on the subject was unique. As cultural historian Paul Dave argues, Lowry's work focused "on a complex reality through which the material conditions of the industrial working class emerged [...] At the same time Lowry found a form for this content which was modest, not over dramatised or melodramatic but 'little', scaled to manageable, everyday dimensions and tones [...]. In other words, Lowry emphasises that ironic/humorous realist survivalism of the working class in preference to any heroic Marxist vision of a battling proletariat".

Oil on canvas - Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England

1942

Blitzed Site

During the second world war Lowry was hired as an official war painter. He produced several painting of the aftermath of the bombings. Blitzed Site is filled with the rubble of destroyed buildings, with grey smoke still visible, rising from the ashes. Later in life, he recalled that he was always the "first down in the morning to sketch the blitzed buildings before the smoke and grime had cleared". In Blitzed Site, a red building on the left-hand side still stands, emphasizing the contrast between what was and what remained. Lowry's "matchstick men" appear to be searching through the debris, while others, particularly the man at the centre of the foreground who looks directly at the viewer, appear to be in a state of shock and bewilderment.

Cultural historian Paul Dave cites critic John Rothenstein in his assertion that "Lowry's value lay in the realism with which he engaged with 'squalid disorder' of the inter-war period, and how this offset the 'drab uniformity' of planned post-war social reconstruction. This reactionary nostalgia and anti-utopianism was presented as a form of aesthetic honesty - there was not 'an iota of idealisation' in his pictures".

Oil on canvas - The Lowry, Salford, England

1953

Going to the Match

Following the war, the mood of many of Lowry's paintings shifted. Although, as art historian Rosie Rockel notes, his later works continued to contain the "oppressive sense of thick smog", serving as images of "industrial Britain in decline", at the same time, he began to shift the focus of his subject matter from monotonous labor and drudgery to leisure activities. He managed to bring to these works a "playful sense of humor" while at the same maintaining an element of melancholy. Rachel Hidderley, senior director of Modern British & Irish Art at Christie's in London, notes that in Lowry's post-war works, "There are still the incredible crowds, but now these people are increasingly at play, not work". Here they are shown as groups of people heading towards the football stadium at Burnden Park in Bolton. Similar post-war Lowry works that focus explicitly on pleasure and leisure include The Football Match (1949), and Fun Fair at Daisy Nook (1953).

Welsh artist, writer, and friend of Lowry, Mervyn Levy, argued that in many of Lowry's works, particularly Going to the Match, what interested the artist most was not the individual figures so much as "the masses of people [the] rhythms they made against the background of streets and buildings, mills and factories". Likewise, media, communication, and culture scholar Zoë Thompson suggests that "The theme of the crowd is apparent but in particular it is the architecture of the crowd that appears to have fascinated Lowry: their clockwork precision, their strategic comings and goings, the order in the rabble, the symmetry of the everyday. Going to the Match evidences Lowry's command of the urban crowd and its formations". Lowry would have endorsed these readings: "All my people are lonely", he said, "and crowds are the most lonely thing of all".

Oil on canvas - The Lowry, Salford, England

1953

A Couple Crossing the Road

In the 1950s, Lowry began to focus many of his works on individual human figures, rendered in more detail than his signature "matchstick men", and set against blank white backgrounds; extracted from their everyday milieu and somehow suspended in time and space. Other works executed in a similar style included images of single individuals of downtrodden appearance, and "tramps". Said, Lowry, "These folks affect me in a method that the industrial scene by no means did. They are actual individuals, unhappy people. Sadness attracts me, and there are some very unhappy things. similar feelings in myself".

That having been said, and while he claimed to restrict his palette to just five colours - vermilion, ivory black, Prussian blue, yellow ochre and flake white - there is a notable shift in Lowry's post-war art with a definite lifting in mood. The younger figure here on the left, for instance, stares at the viewer with a smiling face. Lowry once explained that the people in his portraits are rarely based on real people, but instead come from his own head. When asked why the figures in his paintings were still dressed in "old-fashioned" clothing, he responded "That's because my real period was the Depression age of the twenties and thirties. My interest in people is rooted there. I like the shape of the caps. I like the working-class bowler hats, the big boots and shawls".

Oil on canvas - The Whitworth, Manchester, England

undated, probably 1972-74

Untitled

This work is one of a series of private, uncharacteristic drawings - often referred to as the "the mannequin sketches" or "marionette works" - that Lowry is believed to have executed around the late 1960s or early 1970s, which he kept hidden. In fact they were undiscovered until 1976, shortly after his death. The drawings were erotically charged, and at times, even violent, featuring the mysterious "Ann" character who appeared in other portraits he painted throughout the 1950s. However, in the mannequin sketches, Ann appears more like a doll or ballerina (with some adopting typical ballet poses), often wearing revealing and tight-fitting tops and miniskirts or tutus, and frequently enduring humiliating forms of torture.

Journalist and author Angela Levin writes of this series that, "Although by no means pornographic, the sexual edge is clear. To many Lowry fans they will be downright disturbing. They suggest a new, somewhat unsettling dimension to his relationship with women," including his oppressive and demanding mother, as well as his close young female friend, and inheritor of his estate (including this series), Carol Ann Lowry. When this series was first put on display at the Art Council's Centenary exhibition at the Barbican in 1988, art critic Richard Dorment wrote that the drawings "reveal a sexual anxiety which is never so much as hinted at in the work of the previous 60 years". Michael Simpson, the head of galleries at The Lowry art gallery, believes that Lowry was also influenced by the fashion trends of the moment, noting that "It was a time when young women in miniskirts were occupying the High Street and Lowry, by then well into his 80s, was obviously fascinated by what he saw".

The Lowry, Salford, England

1963

The Sea

Lowry was as inspired by the coast just as he was by his industrial surroundings: "Some people like to go to the theatre, some like to watch television. I just like watching ships", he once said. His seascapes were originally inspired by a trip to Anglesey, Wales which he took shortly after his mother's death. He said of those paintings, "Look at my seascapes, they don't really exist you know, they're just an expression of my own loneliness".

Writer and Curator Anna McNay, writes that it was not ships that attracted Lowry to the northern English coast so much as "the open expanse of the North Sea". He said "It's the battle of life - the turbulence of the sea. I have been fond of the sea all my life, how wonderful it is, yet how terrible it is. [...] It's all there. It's all in the sea. The Battle of Life is there. And Fate. And the inevitability of it all. And the purpose." In the final decades of his life, Lowry frequently took holidays at the Seaburn Hotel in Sunderland, where he painted a series of seascapes (this work presents the view from Lowry's hotel room). While some of these pieces presented beach scenes populated by people on vacation, the majority, including The Sea and Grey Sea (1964), depict, as Hidderley, writes, "expanses of water and sky, separated only by the horizon line, [that] are so empty they border on abstraction".

Lowry once said of his attraction to the coast: "It's the battle of life - the turbulence of the sea [...] I have been fond of the sea all my life, how wonderful it is, yet how terrible it is. But I often think [...] what if it suddenly changed its mind and didn't turn the tide? And came straight on? [...] The Battle of Life is there. And Fate. And the inevitability of it all". McNay suggests that "At the age of 88 [the year before his death] Lowry professed to 'never [having] had a woman'. He spent his life, it would seem, waiting: waiting for love, waiting for companionship, waiting, ultimately, for death. Perhaps [The Sea and others like it] sheds new light on the overcrowding of his peopled scenes - after all, one is never as lonely as when in a crowd".

Oil on canvas - The Lowry, Salford, England

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
L. S. Lowry
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Harold Riley
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    Sheila Fell
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    David Carr
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    Mervyn Levy
Artists
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    Simeon Stafford
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    Theodore Major
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    Ben Kelly
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    Phil George
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    Liam Spencer
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Harold Riley
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    Sheila Fell
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    David Carr
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    Mervyn Levy
Movements & Ideas
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    (Urban) landscape painting
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    Camden School
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"L. S. Lowry Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 09 Jul 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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