Biography of L. S. Lowry
Childhood and Youth
Laurence Stephen Lowry was the only child born to Robert and Elizabeth Lowry. Robert was an estate agent; Elizabeth a schoolteacher, and budding concert pianist. Lowry later said of his father that he was a "cold fish [...] a queer chap in many ways [...] nothing moved him. Nothing upset him. Nothing pleased him. It was as if he had got a life to get through and he got through it". Lowry's mother, who had set her heart on a daughter rather than a "clumsy boy", even dressed her toddler son in white frocks. Childbirth had been extremely difficult for Elizabeth. It left her so physically and emotionally damaged she was unable to continue her work as a teacher and also lost interest in her piano practice. Though this left her embittered and cantankerous, Lowry remained a devoted son who lived with (and cared for) his mother until her death. While she could be a very cruel woman, Lowry refused to speak ill of her: "My mother was an altogether different kind of person. And she had a wonderful eye for beautiful things [...] Unfortunately, she did not really understand my paintings, but she understood me in her curious way and I can't ask for more than that".
Given his upbringing, it is little surprise that Lowry was a reserved child, with few friends and an underachiever at school. One anecdote tells of how he would hide behind his mother's skirts when she played piano at his Sunday school each week. Elizabeth Lowry was also opposed to the idea that her son might pursue a career as an artist, wishing for him a more conventional working life in business. Lowry nevertheless began taking recreational art lessons with his uncle Tom who was himself a failed Royal Academy student. On seeing his doodles and his drawing of "little ships on the sea" his aunt suggested that he might consider some more formal training by attending art classes. Lowry recalled, "I'd nothing against the idea and I was willing to try anything rather than take the usual humdrum job".
Education and Early Career
Given his poor school record, Lowry's parents willingly paid for their son to attend evening art classes to help him foster his only hobby. There were no thoughts of Lowry becoming a professional painter, however, and he began full-time work as a trainee clerk at a local accounting firm. Nevertheless, Lowry joined an evening class at the Manchester School of Art in earnest in 1905 where he studied life drawing under French Impressionist painter Pierre Adolphe Valette. He recalled, "I cannot over-estimate the effect on me of the coming into this drab city of Adolphe Valette, full of French impressionists, aware of everything that was going on in Paris". The Lowry family were living in the middle-class Manchester suburb of Victoria Park. But, in 1909, due to financial difficulties brought on by Robert Lowry's redundancy, they moved to the less prosperous area of Pendlebury. Curator Helena Roy wrote, "Lowry enjoyed an affluent childhood, but his family experienced a distinct drop in social standing resulting in [their] move to the industrial suburb of Pendlebury. His reaction to his surroundings went from loathing to obsession". She suggests, in fact, that the emotional distance he kept from his subjects could be put down to a "solid Lancashire Conservativism" that perhaps reflected his initial "discomfort with his ambiguous social class".
Now in his early twenties, Lowry began work as a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company. According to doctors O'Connell and Fitzgerald (who published a joint paper on the observation that Lowry displayed symptoms of Asperger's) "He was frequently noted to be clumsy, with ill-fitting clothes and an odd appearance. While working as a rent collector, local groups of children often mimicked his unusual gait and posture and made fun of him".
Lowry knew that he was under no time constraints to collect rent, so long as he didn't pocket any of the money for himself. Although he studied periodically at the Royal Technical Institute of Salford (between 1915 and 1925) Lowry honed his style mostly by sketching street scenes as he carried out his day-to-day work duties. His moment of epiphany came one day having just missed a train connection. He recalled, "I saw the Acme Company's spinning mill: the huge, black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows [...] against the sad, damp-charged, afternoon sky. The mill was turning out hundreds of little, pinched figures, heads bent down [...] I watched this scene - which I'd looked at many times without seeing - with rapture".
Lowry began to wonder to himself whether other artists had painted these dour industrial scenes before and, after some investigation, concluded that the "grey and depressing" subject matter meant that only "such a damn fool [as] himself" would be drawn to the topic of Northern Industrialism (and not least "because there's no money in it"). Lowry committed to paint nothing but industrial/urban landscapes. His earliest oil works used a very dark and somber color palette. However, Manchester Guardian journalist D. B. Taylor, one of the few commentators to have taken an interest in Lowry at this time, suggested that he try bringing some light to his "dingy" paintings. On Taylor's advice, Lowry altered his style, often using stark white backgrounds, and eliminating shadows altogether. It would prove to be the beginnings of an upturn in Lowry's painting career. He said later of this period, "Occasionally, I would sell a painting just when I was literally fed-up and all hope was gone. I've never been married [...] and so I shared my joys and sorrows with my parents [...] Oh, you should have seen the excitement when I sold a picture. My parents were so happy even if they didn't really understand my work".
Lowry's father passed away from pneumonia in 1932. He left behind sizable debts and also the task of caring for his mostly bedridden mother, who suffered from neurosis and depression. Lowry's mother became physically and emotionally dependent on her son who found time to paint (largely from memory) only after she had fallen asleep. According to O'Connell and Fitzgerald, "Lowry painted late into the night after his day's work at the office and disliked it when this routine was interrupted". They added that "When asked about the fact that he never married, he replied: 'I was obsessed with painting; I couldn't have gone on as I did and been fair to a wife. When I painted seriously I painted not from ten till four, you know, but from ten till about twelve or two o'clock in the morning. You couldn't do that to be fair to the wife'".
Lowry exhibited works in galleries in Canada, France, and Northern England and held his first one-man exhibition, at the Reid and Lefevre Gallery in London in 1939. Although the Lefevre exhibition significantly increased Lowry's profile - he had by now sold some sixty pieces in total with one being bought by The Tate Gallery - many were less than enthusiastic about his urban landscapes. One critic wrote in the Apollo art magazine that Lowry was "a self-taught painter, a Sunday painter, a primitive," while a critic for The Spectator wrote "I resent the Lowry automaton so fiercely and I am inclined to think that some part of (his) convention rises out of his ability to draw the human figure". Likewise, a critic wrote in The Times that although they found Lowry's work to be original, it was also "narrow and repetitive, with the human figures appearing like insects". Lowry's response to such criticism was rather indifferent: "Let people have their opinions. If they don't like my work, they don't".
In 1938, his mother's health in irreversible decline, Lowry produced a small number of what are known as his despairingly expressionistic "red-eye" portraits. In October 1939, just as he was starting to gain serious recognition, his beloved mother passed away. Lowry was so devasted at his loss (to which the "red-eye" portraits attest) he contemplated suicide. He said at the time, "I have no family, only my studio, Were it not for my painting, I couldn't live. It helps me forget that I am alone".
At the outbreak of World War Two, Lowry volunteered as a fire watcher patrolling the rooftops of department stores in Manchester before, in 1943, becoming an official war artist. By the end of the war he was starting to receive serious recognition and accepted an honorary Master of Arts degree from the University of Manchester in 1945. In the wake of his mother's death, Lowry had neglected the upkeep of the family home, which was finally repossessed by the landlord in 1948. By this point, however, Lowry was financially secure and had earned enough from sales of his paintings to purchase a property known as "The Elms" in the leafy district of Mottram in Longdendale. He was able to set up a studio in the house but found himself less than enamored with his new surroundings: "It does nothing for me. I know there's plenty to paint here but I haven't the slightest desire to work locally" he said. His new-found wealth meant that he was able to start collecting works by artists he admired, most notably the Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lowry, who said of the artist, "there is no one like Rossetti, his pictures are quite wonderful", even started a "Rossetti Society" for which he acted as president.
In 1952 income from his art was enough he was able to resign from the Pall Mall Property Company and, in 1953, he accepted the role of Official Artist at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Although still somewhat reclusive, he did start to build and maintain a number of important artistic friendships, including Harold Riley (a painter from Salford known for his works that focus on sporting events), and the Cumberland artist Sheila Fell, who he met in November 1955, and called "the finest landscape artist of the mid-20th century". Indeed, he supported Fell's career by purchasing a number of her paintings, which he then donated to local museums.
By 1955 Lowry's standing had risen to such a degree he was elected as an Associate Member of the Royal Academy of Arts, and a full Royal Academician in 1962. Already an honorary Doctor of Letters at the University of Manchester (awarded in 1961), he received the same accolade from the Universities of Salford and Liverpool (both in 1975) and served as a visiting tutor at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. However, Lowry also holds some kind of record for the most honors declined, including an appointment to the Order of the British Empire twice (in 1961 and 1965), a knighthood in 1968, and appointments to the Order of the Companions of Honor twice (in 1972 and 1976). Explaining his decision to decline this national recognition he said "There seemed little point, once mother was dead" and explained to the British Prime Minster, Harold Wilson, "All my life I have felt most strongly against social distinction of any kind".
Late Period and Death
In 1966, Lowry said in an interview "I do and I don't enjoy the life of a recluse [...] I'm getting no younger. I'm fed-up to tell the truth. I feel really that I've done the job I set out to do of putting the industrial scene on the map as best I can. Now I want to get out of it. I should have got out of it in 1948, but people wouldn't let me - 'You must paint more pictures.' I was a damn fool to listen [...] I've never searched for all this so-called success. There's no money in painting - the tax-man takes it all".
In the final years of his life, Lowry regularly frequented local football matches as a fan of Manchester City (Lowry's ties to the club were acknowledged in 2016 when the club's owners gifted an unspecified artwork by Lowry to their outgoing Head Coach, Manuel Pellegrini) and took annual holidays to the Seaburn Hotel in Sunderland, where he painted beach and port scenes, as well as scenes of nearby coal mines. Many of these pieces were executed in pencil or charcoal on napkins or scrap paper, and then gifted to passers-by, who had no idea that these drawings would soon be of value. He also produced his series of uncharacteristic fetishistic works, known as "the Mannequin Sketches" or "Marionette Works", which remained hidden from the public until shortly after his death. The art critic Philip Hensher suggested that once they came to light "the new pictures actually enhance[d] Lowry's reputation".
Carol Ann Lowry (no relation), was a thirteen year-old girl who, prompted by her mother, had written to Lowry in 1957 asking for advice on how to become an artist. Some months later, Lowry himself announced himself unexpectedly at Carol Ann's home in Heywood, Lancashire. Lowry took young Carol Ann under his wing, taking her to galleries, restaurants, on seaside vacations, and even paid for her convent education and art classes at Rochdale College of Art. She later described him as "wise, fascinating and interesting" and referred to him affectionately as "Uncle Laurie". Carol Ann said in an interview many years later that she could not "help but feel it was fate that brought us together, that enabled each of us to fulfil a need in the other". She added that "Very much later, when I was grown up, people put it into my head that he might have felt differently towards me, as a man feels towards a woman, but I absolutely cannot believe it to have been so. I don't think there was ever a physical thing for him, with any Woman". Lowry continued to correspond with Carol even after her marriage (although he didn't attend the wedding).
Lowry died of pneumonia at the Woods Hospital in Glossop, Derbyshire in 1976, not long after a stroke he had suffered in his own home. He was buried in a plot next to his parents in the Southern Cemetery in Manchester. At the time of his death, Lowry's estate was valued at just under £300,000, which he bequeathed, together with a large number of paintings and drawings - including some by Rossetti - to Carol Ann Lowry.
The Legacy of L. S. Lowry
In 1976, shortly after his death, a career retrospective of Lowry's work was staged at the Royal Academy. It drew more than 350,000 visitors; an all-time attendance record for a twentieth century artist at the Academy. The exhibition divided critics, however. Some praised him as a significant artist with a unique vision; others dismissing him as solely a social commentator. What is not in doubt is that Lowry has achieved great popularity with the British public. As Chris Stephens, head of display at Tate Britain, put it, "Lowry is a victim of his fan base. The same qualities that make him popular are those that cause him to be less seriously celebrated by the artistic establishment".
Whatever the critical reservations, there can be no disputing the fact that Lowry has entered the hearts and minds of the British public. Lowry's appeal was confirmed shortly after his death when a pop song dedicated to his memory, Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs (Lowry's Song) (written and performed by the folk duo Brian and Michael) reached No. 1 in the music charts, where it reigned for three weeks. In 1987, to mark the centenary of Lowry's birth, the City of Salford and the BBC jointly commissioned a dance performance, titled A Simple Man. Aired by the BBC in 1988, it won the BAFTA (British Association of Film and Television Art) award for the best arts program of 1988. In 2000, a dedicated Lowry art gallery opened in Salford Quays, and is home now to over fifty of his paintings and close to three hundred drawings. The feature film Mrs. Lowry and Son followed in 2019 to fine critical notices. The film explored the central relationship in Lowry's life with the mother who he always thought he had failed as a son. And it was this lifetime of loneliness, regret and solitude that has helped breath added pathos into his vision of industrial northern England.
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
First published on 09 Jul 2021. Updated and modified regularly