Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life - a review

The crowd love Lowry and Lowry loved painting crowds.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life - the new exhibition of L. S. Lowry's paintings which opens at Tate Britain tomorrow is going to be a lot about crowds.

The crowd have already spoken. More tickets have been sold for this exhibition than for any other exhibition at Tate Britain.  If you want to see it you better book your tickets fast!

V.E. Day (1945) by L.S. Lowry
Lent by Glasgow Museums
It is after all the first major exhibition of Lowry's work in London since 1976 when the Royal Academy held an exhibition of his work - L.S. Lowry RA, 1887-1976 (4 September to 14 November 1976) - following his death at the age of 88.

That exhibition attracted 300,000 visitors - so there's a sizeable target for the Tate to beat!
The exhibition brings together over ninety works, including Tate’s own pictures Coming Out of School 1927 and The Pond 1950 and significant loans from public and private lenders. The show will demonstrate Lowry’s ambition and achievement as a modern artist, arguing for his status as Britain’s pre-eminent painter of the industrial city and placing him within the context of European art history.Tate Britain
The large Industrial Landscapes by LS Lowry
(painted in the 1950s - including one for the Festival of Britain
Included in the same room are three paintings of the industrial landscape in South Wales)
Room 3 in the  Lowry Exhibition at the Tate
The elephant in the room yesterday at the press view for the new exhibition was how come the Tate had managed to ignore this much loved British artist for so long.

The situation became so bad over the years that eventually a campaign was started to 'make' the Tate hold an exhibition and exhibit rather more Lowry on its walls.  In a documentary in 2011, the actor Sir Ian McKellen, who's a big fan of Lowry, was particularly critical of the failure of the Tate to show Lowry's work properly.

There was some suggestion that Lowry had become a political football (ironic for a man who loved the game) between the north/south divide and in debates about good/bad art within the art establishment.  Some even considered that Lowry would never be seen at the Tate while it maintained a snobbish notion of what was "real art".  I have to say that it's my impression that following the campaign, Tate Britain was in effect eventually shamed into having an exhibition - but were left with the question of how and curated by who!

It seemed to me yesterday that Tate Britain gratefully accepting a proposal from the academic curators of the current exhibition to do an exhibition of Lowry's work and extended an invitation to them to present an exhibition at Tate Britain which would enable people to reappraise his work.  TJ Clark in particular is a curator who comes with a very credible academic background in relation to the articulation of social conditions through art - and the portrayal of the working class man.  He and his wife had quite independently arrived at an appreciation of Lowry's paintings prior to speaking with the Tate - but are not Lowry specialists.  Appropriately, the exhibition takes its title from TJ Clark’s seminal book, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers 1985.

Helen Little, Assistant Curator at the Tate who also worked on the exhibition suggests that
Lowry really has escaped the eye of the London art world I would say for the last few decades at least. His work is sort of shrouded in a north/south divide, class snobbery, all of those things – highly contentious and full of condescension I would say with a lot of art historians and curators. And a lot of myths and stories about him and his work will never go away. And a lot of those things are things that we are trying to pay attention to with this exhibition

Watch Telegraph Art Critic Richard Dorment and Assistant Curator Helen Little preview the show. (Video from The Telegraph)

For myself, like many children, one of the first paintings I ever saw was a reproduction of a painting by Lowry, which hung in my primary school.  It was a constant in my life for seven years.

(Left) Coming out of the Mill (1930) by LS Lowry (Lowry Collection)
(Right) Coming out of School (1927) by LS Lowry (Tate)
- This was the one which hung in my own primary school

I'm also speaking as somebody who was born on the very edge of the Greater Manchester conurbation and who commuted to secondary school in Manchester by train every day for seven years.  I became very used to seeing a lot of the industrial landscape in Salford and Trafford Park that he painted and which I could see from the train high up on the viaduct.  I also vividly remember being taken up to Manchester when I was very small by my father and seeing the bomb sites which still existed in and around central Manchester in the late 50s and early 60s.

From my perspective, there's a group of people who are used to looking at industrial northern scenes 50+ years ago - and don't regard them as in any way unusual - and there's a set of people who simply haven't got a clue about the north, industrial landscapes or the working class.

So when you read the reviews of this exhibition - just bear in mind where some of the reviewers have come from and what sort of art education they had!

One such was in the preview yesterday and I heard her commenting to camera about the children in one painting playing in "the sewage".  She obviously had no appreciation whatsoever of the craters left by bombs or that it rains rather a lot in Manchester and such craters often filled with rainwater. Readers - I took exception. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever she had made a rather large assumption.  I took her to task and made it very clear that I considered such a comment was both inaccurate and a wholly inappropriate one to make on film.  It also made it very clear to me the type of ignorance and prejudice that Lowry has had to put up with - both in his lifetime and after his death - and which continues today.

Some of the things which are highlighted by the exhibition are:
  • he studied art with Adolphe Valette (1876-1942) and was very taken with the paintings created by the French painters
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. He had a freshness… that was a very wonderful thing… I had not seen drawings like these before.  LS Lowry
  • he decided to paint the industrial landscape - because nobody else was attempting to do so and has left us a legacy as a result
  • in 1921 he starts to exhibit his art in Manchester and receives a glowing review from the Manchester Guardian
  • in the 1920s, Lowry was better known as a painter in Paris than London.  He regularly exhibited in Paris over a period of years.  His work is hung in the exhibition alongside paintings by Van Gogh, Seurat, Utrillo and Pissaro and stands up very well to such heavyweight company.
  • He supported himself as a rent collector - and painted at night.  He commented that many of the people he visited appear in his paintings.  His job enabled him to travel around and to see people on the streets coming and going against an urban landscape every day of his working life.
The Removal (1928) by LS Lowry (Private Collection)
This is a painting of an eviction - a sad but not exceptional event in the lives of many people
  • He always painted from observation and recall - but in his studio - supported by the rather a lot of drawings and sketches.  He never painted from a photograph until asked to do a painting associated with the introduction of the NHS
  • He only began to make more money from his art than his job towards the end of his career as a rent collector.  
  • he was an extremely well regarded painter in England for a number of years. He became a Royal Academician and was asked to produce paintings to commemorate important events such as the Festival of Britain and the introduction of the NHS.  The exhibition displays the large paintings he produced in later years together for the first time.
  • He was, in short, a national figure - until consigned to the archives by the curators of recent years.
As noted by this exhibition's co-curator, it's interesting how the UK has very little visual record exists  in paintings of the industrial heritage of the past.  To my mind Lowry is to be celebrated if only because he set out to do what nobody else thought worthy of recording.  As a result we have a record of working class life and the events which punctuated the monotony of the regular ordinary everyday life.  However the paintings are much more than that - as can be appreciated when visiting this exhibition.

I very much enjoyed his paintings and the exhibition as a whole.  It was wonderful to see the originals of paintings I've only ever seen as reproductions.  I also particularly enjoyed the quotations around the walls which highlight a rather different perspective on Lowry and what life was like for many people.

Seeing all the paintings together brought home to me what a very powerful body of work he created.  To me it connects with the ordinary life of a huge number of people.  They may be the streets and canals and viaducts and chimneys of  Salford, Manchester, Stockport and the northern mill towns - but similar scenes existed in very many towns and cities across the UK.  He feels to me like a painter for the common man.  Perhaps that explains his popularity with so many people?

The Procession (1927) by LS Lowry
First shown at the Salon des Artistes in Paris in 1931 and then Royal Academy in 1932
This painting instantly reminded me of my Grandmother's photos of
the Whit Walks she used to go on in Manchester
- where people used to process with banners

I'm going to read the books I bought and then comment some more - at a later date - on Lowry and the paintings in this exhibition.  There are some themes in his work which are worth highlighting - to do with sport and recreation and the health service.

I highly recommend you go and see it and make up you own mind about him. I think you'll be fascinated by his painting which has much more texture and subtlety than is seen in the reproductions.

LS Lowry Short Biography

L S Lowry was born in Stretford, Lancashire. Many of his works depict nearby Salford and surrounding areas including Pendlebury, where he lived and worked for over 40 years. On leaving school in 1904, he began work in Manchester as a clerk with a firm of chartered accountants, studying painting and drawing in the evenings at the Municipal College of Art (1905–15) and at Salford School of Art (1915–25). In 1916, he joined the Pall Mall Property Company as a rent collector and remained there until he retired with a full pension in 1952.

Exhibition: Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life - Tate Britain, Level 2 Gallery

  • 26 June – 20 October 2013 (press view: 24 June 2013)
  • Open daily 10.00 – 18.00 (Friday – Sunday until 20.00)
  • Ticket Hotline (There will be controls on numbers. There will also be tickets available to buy at the Tate every day - but you may well need to get there early to be able to buy on the day)
  • Supported by The Lowry Exhibition Supporters Group
Curators: The exhibition is curated by TJ Clark and Anne Wagner, emeritus professors of art history at the University of California, working with Helen Little, Assistant Curator, Tate Britain.


Here are some of the reviews which you might also be interested in:


After the exhibition I had lunch and then walked around the new hang of British Art at the Tate - which is incidentally the first time that the museum has made sense to me.  Lowry has a painting hung in this part of their permanent exhibition - right next to Lucian Freud - two keen observers and 'outsiders' together.  It sort of felt right to me.


  1. Oh to be in Britain and see this exhibition. I found Lowry when we were in the UK a few years ago, I am just recovering from a knee replacement so my memory may be a little hazy, but we were in Berwick on Tweed and followed the Lowry trail, I also bought a calendar with his wonderful paintings on it.I love his clear spare lines and the movement of his people.
    Thank you for this post on him.

  2. A very interesting and thoughtful post (as always) -- thanks, as ever. My own thought is that perhaps Lowry somehow teeters on the 'divide' between 'outsider art' and art that has been accepted as part of the canon and so causes us to feel uncomfortable, because in reality that 'divide' is something critics/insiders arbitrarily impose on a continuum.

  3. My point would be that it only feels like outsider art to critics if they have no experience of northern mill towns and back to back streets.

    To a lot of very ordinary older people who hail from towns and cities in areas which were major industrial areas the scenes look very ordinary.

    It's only outsider art if the critic has never ventured north of Watford Gap! (as the saying goes).

  4. It's weird I think that towns and cities and factories and crowds are considered 'outsider' whereas labouring peasants, sheaves of waving corn and haywains are considered mainstream. How do you explain that, unless it is some deep-rooted ideal of the bucolic rural idyll. If haywains aren't your thing, and you don't fancy cutting off your ear, going mad or dying, then best do something (not paint?) that encourages Mr Saatchi to bend his credit card: the modern alternative to becoming mainstream. I think the professional art world (is that the right term?) is very hard to understand.

  5. I do take your point about the Londoncentric critics seeing Northern Lowry as an outsider, but as a fully fledged Northerner myself, I meant 'outsider art' more in the sense of art beyond the 'threshold' of canonical art, art that unsettles because we (viewers) feel uncertain about the artist's mindset. This disturbing quality seems to be located in Lowry's figures in particular.

  6. Thanks for this interesting post. You have inspired me to go to see it.


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