He was a rent collector, he was an eccentric, but L.S. Lowry is also misunderstood, says Tom Rosenthal. The artist was a genius who saw beauty where others saw ugliness
L.S. Lowry is one of England's finest painters, but he is surely the most enigmatic and, in terms of reputation, one of the most controversial in the sense of most argued over. Is he primitive? Is he naive? Is he just a self-taught rent collector? Is he a self-confessed virgin bachelor without a scintilla of a Bohemian amorous life fuelled by booze? One could go on and on to speculate about his eccentricity. He has even, posthumously and without a shred of evidence, been loaded with the label of Asperger's syndrome by an academic working on the threadbare basis of a few reproductions.
Perhaps the absurdity of some of these questions helps to create a more wholehearted version of an indubitably eccentric man; at least by contemporary standards. Making a living as a painter is as far from the astounding prices achieved by Bonhams and the other auction houses as can be imagined. The usual way for any budding artist to earn a crust is teaching or working in an advertising agency. It is certainly not a lifetime as a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company in Manchester and quietly taking your pension aged 65.
This slender fact alone has camouflaged the information that he was a thoroughly well taught and trained professional artist as well as a highly efficient rent-collector. And, to anyone like me, who lived his childhood in much bombed, and destroyed, wartime blitzed Manchester, Lowry's endless perambulations in the mean streets of Manchester, Salford, Stockport and a dozen other north-western municipalities gave him an acutely accurate and penetrating perception of housing, working and living in a deeply and fundamentally depressed cityscape.
The famously untaught Lowry became a Royal Academician, thus upsetting a group of senior RAs who had been well and lengthily taught, but weren't half as talented or exciting as Lowry. But, of course, Lowry was taught at several first-rate art schools. He just happened to attend lessons in the evenings, mastering from plaster casts and from paid models, the basic rules of figure painting; and being, quite early in life, thoroughly bored by them. He also took lessons from the American painter William Fitz and was both taught and mentored by the Manchester-based French Post-Impressionist, Adolphe Valette who, to this day, shares impressive wall space with Lowry in Manchester's municipal galleries.
The genius of Lowry consists in his wholly radical vision of what perceptive Lowry admirers such as Sir John Rothenstein (who, as Director of the Tate, became an early, even prolific, purchaser of Lowry's best work) saw as monumental industrial ugliness, even horror. Lowry saw beauty where his opponents saw only soot and brick covered in filth and, in the case of the factories, vomiting more filth.
Lowry himself described the flash of illumination which first let him see the glory in the industrial setting after he had just missed a Manchester-bound train: "I remember that the guard leaned out of the window and winked at me as the last coach disappeared from the platform. I was very cross about that, I went back up the steps. It would be about four o'clock and perhaps there was some peculiar condition of the atmosphere or something. But as I got to the top of the steps I saw Acme Mill, a great square red block with the little cottages in rows right up to it – and suddenly, I knew what I had to paint."
This was certainly a key moment in Lowry's existence since it gave him the subject-matter of a lifetime. There is a poignant and exquisitely painful moment in Lowry's life. As is well known he lived, well into middle-age, with his parents, a somewhat exiguous example of what Orwell would have called lower-middle class existence, until his father died. After this, his valetudinarian and, I suspect, hypochondriacal, mother became, as the Northern expression has it, "bedfast".
Lowry looked after her with great nobility, constantly trying to please her with his art but she, equally constantly, withheld any word of praise. The closest he came to approval was to paint a Lytham St Ann's rather pretty seascape – but she complained, "Why can't you paint more pictures like that?". Poor Lowry interpreted this sentence as praise and hung the picture in his bedroom for the rest of his life.
The word 'literary' when applied to a painter is almost always pejorative yet, in my study of Lowry, I keep on stumbling onto great writers and great writing. Lowry was not himself a voluminous reader. He worshipped Montaigne but, in so far as one can judge these matters, he did not read the major works published in his lifetime such as Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman et al, Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power. He probably read the novels of Howard Spring, an early patron and I don't see how he could have avoided that wonderful novel of working class life and politics in Salford, Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood.
There is a story, which I hope is apocryphal, that Greenwood knocked on the door one evening. The Lowry net curtains twitched and Mrs Lowry's head emerged to say "What do you want?" Greenwood said "I don't need to disturb you Missis. It's your Laurie I want". "Well, he's not in". Further twitch of net curtain and slam of window. Thus best painter and best novelist of the north-west were kept apart while 'our Laurie' was upstairs, alone, painting in his attic studio.
Anyone who reads Canetti or Riesman will immediately see Lowry's crowd images. His obsession with crowds, which shaded into an ability to paint them in a manner both accurate and visionary, is almost demonic. These are individual people not, heaven forbid: 'matchstick men'. The essence of matchsticks is that they are dull, uniform, formulaic. Lowry's characters, as in masterpieces like Going to the Match, are clearly differentiated, individual, above all human with human needs and desires. This holds also for his somewhat less crowded group scenes, such as Steps at Wick, where a group of inimitable Lowry characters gather against a background of steep, urban steps; steps being another of Lowry's obsessions.
A passage from Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier shows, quite subconsciously, a great writer re-creating the scenery and the mood of a great painter, although there is no evidence that either was aware of the other's existence.
"I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag heaps, and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag heaps in the distance, stretched the "flashes" – pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits. It was horribly cold. The 'flashes' were covered with ice the colour of raw umber, the bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks, the lock gates wore tears of ice. It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes, and foul water."
And perhaps the last word should go to Lowry who had one of the most carefully masked yet sharpest minds in the North-West. "People call me a Sunday painter; well I suppose I'm a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week."
Dr T. G. Rosenthal is the author of L. S. Lowry: The Art and the Artist (Unicorn Press).