Some artists can instantly transport the viewer to a time and place; one was L.S. Lowry, whose depictions of the North of England and its urban industrial landscape, and his distinctive matchstick men, earned him a level of popularity that would outlive him. It would also see his legendary painting, The Football Match sell for £5,641,250 at Christie’s in 2011. What’s less well known is the story of the Lowry himself, which could have been so different if hadn’t missed a train…
“You don’t need brains to be a painter, just feelings”
L.S. Lowry’s townscapes are some of the best known and most popular works of British 20th Century art, evoking both nostalgia and curiosity. Crowds of stick-like people hurry through the northern industrial landscapes of his childhood, offering a vision of shared activity that’s tinged with individual loneliness, as the viewer is rarely a part of the scene.
Lowry lived and worked in Pendlebury, Lancashire, in the north west of England, where he lived and worked for more than 40 years, producing some his most famous paintings. His paintings offer a glimpse into the character of a painter who held a reputation for being a shy and reclusive person, but led a life of intrigue that belies the normality of life that he depicted in his paintings.
The shy and reclusive hero of modern British painting holds the record for rejecting five British honors from Queen Elizabeth II, including refusing a knighthood in 1968. But that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of a character that holds as much intrigue as his paintings.
1. L.S. Lowry was taught by a French impressionist
L.S. Lowry’s detractors labelled his paintings naïve, and snubbed him as a Sunday painter in an attempt to undermine his abilities. To this, he replied, “If people call me a Sunday painter, I’m a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week.” Lowry rigidly stuck to a style that was distinctly his and no one else’s, so it might come as a surprise that he was tutored by French impressionist Adolphe Valette (1876–1942), who helped to pioneer Impressionism in Manchester.
The pair met when Lowry was 17. He was attending evening classes at the Manchester Municipal School of Art; the 28-year-old Valette had been quickly spotted and offered a full-time teaching post at the school.
“I can’t overestimate the effect on me at that time of the coming into this drab city of Adolphe Valette, full of French Impressionists, aware of everything that was going on in Paris,” said Lowry. “He had a freshness and a breadth of experience that exhilarated his students”. Lowry never fully adopted an Impressionist technique or colour range, but their shared interest in capturing modern life in an urban landscape are evident.
2. A missed train changed Lowry’s life
Like a moment from the film Sliding Doors, L.S. Lowry’s life changed irreversibly when he missed a train from his hometown of Pendlebury. Instead of being whisked away to his destination, he “saw the Acme Company’s spinning mill: the huge, black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows… against the sad, damp-charged, afternoon sky,” Lowry recalled later in life. “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.”
This seemingly innocuous, every day incident would shape the remainder of Lowry’s artistic life; he made it his life’s work to paint the scenes that dominated his life – and the lives of everyone else – in Lancashire.
3. He bequeathed his estate to a pen pal who was 13 when they met
As an aspiring artist, 13-year-old Carol Ann Lowry wrote to her unrelated namesake L.S. Lowry seeking advice, and to her surprise he replied. In doing so would he would change the course of both of their lives.
The duo struck an unlikely “Harold and Maude” style friendship, which had the approval of Carol’s mother. The relationship was seemingly both plutonic and mutually beneficial, as the un-married Lowry benefited from the company of an admiring fan whom he took to the ballet, treated to meals in restaurants and holidays by the sea, while Carol enjoyed the company of one of the most renowned living artists in England at the time.
The friendship lasted nearly two decades until the artist’s death in 1976, when the strength of their friendship was revealed. He left his £300,000 estate to Carol, along with a large collection of his private paintings, which included a portrait of Ann (as she’s referred to in the listing) in a red jumper, as well as another a number of landscape scenes.
4. Lowry used only five paint colors to create his masterworks
“I am a simple man and I use simple materials: ivory black, vermilion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre, flake white and no medium. That’s all I’ve ever used in my paintings. I like oils … I like a medium you can work into over a period of time,” he said of his paintings.
Capturing the tones and palette of his surroundings, Lowry invited his viewers in to see and experience daily life in North West England, often focusing on the red brick buildings of Lancashire, the gray surrounding streets and splashes of color. However, the scenes to which he applied his color weren’t all entirely accurate depictions.
“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.”
5. Not just a landscape artist, Lowry was also an accomplished portrait painter
When you think of Lowry, it’s probably images of matchstick men and scenes of daily life that spring to mind. From bustling city streets to crowds gathering at a soccer match and going to work, L.S. Lowry is synonymous with landscapes of mill scenes and industrial settings, but he was also a consummate portraitist, although he painted few self-portraits throughout his career.
His 1925 self-portrait shows the influence of his impressionist master, Adolphe Valette. The viewer finds him wearing a cap, overcoat and slightly vulnerable gaze. The experience of painting a self-portrait wasn’t entirely to Lowry’s liking. He later recalled, “I had a great tussle with it, and when it was done said ‘Never again, thank you.’” Perhaps that’s why he favored landscapes.