Laurence Stephen Lowry RBA RA (1 November 1887 – 23 February 1976) was an English artist. Many of his drawings and paintings depict Pendlebury, Lancashire, where he lived and worked for more than 40 years, and also Salford and its surrounding areas.
Lowry is famous for painting scenes of life in the industrial districts of North West England in the mid-20th century. He developed a distinctive style of painting and is best known for his urban landscapes peopled with human figures often referred to as "matchstick men". He painted mysterious unpopulated landscapes, brooding portraits and the unpublished "marionette" works, which were only found after his death.
Due to his use of stylised figures and the lack of weather effects in many of his landscapes he is sometimes characterised as a naïve "Sunday painter", although this is not the view of the galleries that have organised retrospectives of his works.
A large collection of Lowry's work is on permanent public display in The Lowry, a purpose-built art gallery on Salford Quays named in his honour. Lowry rejected five honours during his life, including a knighthood in 1968, and consequently holds the record for the most rejected British honours. On 26 June 2013 a major retrospective opened at the Tate Britain in London, his first at the Tate, and in 2014 his first solo exhibition outside the UK was held in Nanjing, China.
Lowry was born on 1 November 1887 at 8 Barrett Street, Stretford which was then in Lancashire. It was a difficult birth, and his mother Elizabeth, who hoped for a girl, was uncomfortable even looking at him at first. Later she expressed envy of her sister Mary, who had "three splendid daughters" instead of one "clumsy boy". Lowry's father Robert, who was of northern Irish descent, worked as a clerk for the Jacob Earnshaw and Son Property Company and was a withdrawn and introverted man. Lowry once described him as "a cold fish" and "(the sort of man who) realised he had a life to live and did his best to get through it."
After Lowry's birth, his mother's health was too poor for her to continue teaching. She is reported to have been talented and respected, with aspirations of becoming a concert pianist. She was an irritable, nervous woman brought up to expect high standards by her stern father. Like him, she was controlling and intolerant of failure. She used illness as a means of securing the attention and obedience of her mild and affectionate husband and she dominated her son in the same way. Lowry maintained, in interviews conducted later in his life, that he had an unhappy childhood, growing up in a repressive family atmosphere. Although his mother demonstrated no appreciation of her son's gifts as an artist, a number of books Lowry received as Christmas presents from his parents are inscribed to "Our dearest Laurie." At school he made few friends and showed no academic aptitude. His father was affectionate towards him but was, by all accounts, a quiet man who was at his most comfortable fading into the background as an unobtrusive presence.
Much of Lowry's early years were spent in the leafy Manchester suburb of Victoria Park, Rusholme, but in 1909, when he was 22, due to financial pressures, the family moved to 117 Station Road in the industrial town of Pendlebury. Here the landscape comprised textile mills and factory chimneys rather than trees. Lowry later recalled: "At first I detested it, and then, after years I got pretty interested in it, then obsessed by it ... One day I missed a train from Pendlebury - (a place) I had ignored for seven years — and as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill ... The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out ... I watched this scene — which I'd looked at many times without seeing — with rapture ..."
After leaving school, Lowry began a career working for the Pall Mall Company, later collecting rents. He would spend some time in his lunch hour at Buile Hill Park and in the evenings took private art lessons in antique and freehand drawing. In 1905, he secured a place at the Manchester School of Art, where he studied under the French Impressionist, Pierre Adolphe Valette. Lowry was full of praise for Valette as a teacher, remarking "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". In 1915 he moved on to the Royal Technical Institute, Salford (later to become the Royal Technical College, Salford - now the University of Salford) where his studies continued until 1925' There he developed an interest in industrial landscapes and began to establish his own style.
Lowry's oil paintings were originally impressionistic and dark in tone but a Mr. D. B. Taylor of the Manchester Guardian took an interest in his work and encouraged him to move away from the sombre palette he was using. Taking this advice on board, Lowry began to use a white background to lighten the pictures. He developed a distinctive style of painting and is best known for his urban landscapes peopled with human figures, often referred to as "matchstick men". He also painted mysterious unpopulated landscapes, brooding portraits and the unpublished "marionette" works, which were only found after his death.
His father died in 1932, leaving debts. His mother, subject to neurosis and depression, became bedridden and dependent on her son for care. Lowry painted after his mother had fallen asleep, between 10pm and 2am, or, depending how tired he was, he might stay up for another hour adding features. Many paintings produced during this period were damning self-portraits (often referred to as the "Horrible Heads" series), which demonstrate the influence of expressionism and may have been inspired by an exhibition of van Gogh's work at Manchester Art Gallery in 1931. He expressed regret that he received little recognition as an artist until the year his mother died and that she was not able to enjoy his success. From the mid-1930s until at least 1939, Lowry took annual holidays at Berwick-upon-Tweed. After the outbreak of war Lowry served as a volunteer fire watcher and became an official war artist in 1943. In 1953, he was appointed Official Artist at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
After his mother's death in October 1939, he became depressed and over time, neglected the upkeep of his house to such a degree that the landlord repossessed it in 1948. He was not short of money and bought "The Elms" in Mottram in Longdendale. Although he considered the house ugly and uncomfortable, he stayed there until his death almost 30 years later.
In later years, Lowry spent holidays at the Seaburn Hotel in Sunderland, County Durham, painting scenes of the beach and nearby ports and coal mines. When he had no sketchbook, Lowry drew scenes in pencil or charcoal on the back of envelopes, serviettes and cloakroom tickets and presented them to young people sitting with their families. Such serendipitous pieces are now worth thousands of pounds; a serviette sketch can be seen at the Sunderland Marriott Hotel (formerly the Seaburn Hotel).
He was a secretive and mischievous man who enjoyed stories irrespective of their truth. His friends observed that his anecdotes were more notable for humour than accuracy and in many cases he set out deliberately to deceive. His stories about the fictional Ann were inconsistent and he invented other people as frameworks on which to hang his tales. The collection of clocks in his living room were all set at different times: to some people he said that this was because he did not want to know the real time; to others he claimed that it was to save him from being deafened by their simultaneous chimes.
Lowry had many long-lasting friendships, including the Salford artist Harold Riley, and made new friends throughout his adult life. He bought works from young artists he admired, such as James Lawrence Isherwood, whose Woman with Black Cat hung on his studio wall. He maintained ongoing friendships with some of these artists. He befriended the 23-year-old Cumbrian artist Sheila Fell in November 1955, describing her as "the finest landscape artist of the mid-20th century". He supported her career by buying several pictures that he gave to museums. Fell later described him as "A great humanist. To be a humanist, one has first to love human beings, and to be a great humanist, one has to be slightly detached from them." As he never married this affected his influence, but he did have several lady friends. At the age of 88 he said that he had "never had a woman".
As his celebrity grew in the late 1950s, he grew tired of being approached by strangers, and particularly disliked being visited by them at home. Another of his unverifiable stories had him keeping a suitcase by the front door so that he could claim to be just leaving, a practice he claimed to have abandoned after a helpful young man insisted on taking him to the railway station and had to be sent off to buy a paper so that Lowry could buy a ticket for just one stop without revealing his deceit. However, he was polite to the residents of Mottram, who respected him and his privacy; he used the bus to get about the area in his retirement. A bronze statue of him was erected at the traffic lights in the village.
Despite attempts to present himself as a "simple man" and, by default, unable to appreciate post-classical art, Lowry seems to have been aware of major trends in 20th-century art. In an interview with Mervyn Levy he expressed his admiration for the work of René Magritte and Lucian Freud, although he admitted that he "didn't understand" Francis Bacon's work. When he started to command large sums for the sale of his works, Lowry purchased a number of paintings and sketches by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Many of these works were portraits of Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris and William Holman Hunt's muse Annie Miller. Lowry considered Rossetti to be his chief inspiration.
Although seen as a mostly solitary and private person, Lowry enjoyed attending football matches and was an ardent supporter of Manchester City.
Lowry retired from the Pall Mall Property Company in 1952 on his 65th birthday (McLean, 1978). He became chief cashier but never stopped collecting rents. The firm supported his development as an artist and allowed time off for exhibitions in addition to his annual leave. Margery Thompson met him when she was a schoolgirl and he became part of her family circle. He attended concerts with her family and friends, visited her home and entertained her at his Pendlebury home, where he shared his knowledge of painting. In the 1950s he visited friends at Cleator Moor in Cumberland (where Geoffrey Bennett was the manager at the Westminster Bank) and Southampton (where Margery Thompson had moved after her marriage). He painted pictures of the bank in Cleator Moor, Southampton Floating Bridge and other scenes local to his friends' homes.
In 1957 an unrelated 13-year-old schoolgirl called Carol Ann Lowry wrote to him at her mother's urging to ask his advice on becoming an artist. He visited her home in Heywood and befriended the family. His friendship with Carol Ann Lowry lasted for the rest of his life.
In the 1960s Lowry shared exhibitions in Salford with Warrington-born artist Reginald Waywell D.F.A.
Lowry joked about retiring from the art world, citing his lack of interest in the changing landscape. Instead, he began to focus on groups of figures and odd imaginary characters. Unknown to his friends and the public, Lowry produced a series of erotic works which were not seen until after his death. The paintings depict the mysterious "Ann" figure, who appears in portraits and sketches produced throughout his lifetime, enduring sexually charged and humiliating tortures. When these works were exhibited at the Art Council's Centenary exhibition at the Barbican in 1988, art critic Richard Dorment wrote in The Daily Telegraph that these works "reveal a sexual anxiety which is never so much as hinted at in the work of the previous 60 years." The group of erotic works, which are sometimes referred to as "the mannequin sketches" or "marionette works" are kept at the Lowry Centre and are available for visitors to see on request. Some are also brought up into the public display area on a rotation system. Manchester author Howard Jacobson has argued that the images are just part of Lowry's melancholy and tortured view of the world and that they would change the public perception of the complexity of his work if they were more widely seen.
Lowry died of pneumonia at the Woods Hospital in Glossop, Derbyshire, on 23 February 1976, aged 88. He was buried in the Southern Cemetery in Manchester, next to his parents. He left an estate valued at £298,459, and a considerable number of artworks by himself and others to Carol Ann Lowry, who, in 2001, obtained trademark protection of the artist's signature.
Lowry left a cultural legacy, his works often sold for millions of pounds and inspired other artists. The Lowry in Salford Quays was opened in 2000 at a cost of £106 million; named after him, the 2,000 square metres (22,000 sq ft) gallery houses 55 of his paintings and 278 drawings – the world's largest collection of his work – with up to 100 on display. In January 2005, a statue of him was unveiled in Mottram in Longdendale 100 yards away from his home from 1948 until his death in 1976. The statue has been a target for vandals since it was unveiled. In 2006 the Lowry Centre in Salford hosted a contemporary dance performance inspired by the works of Lowry.
To mark the centenary of his birth, Royston Futter, director of the L. S. Lowry Centenary Festival, on behalf of the City of Salford and the BBC commissioned the Northern Ballet Theatre and Gillian Lynne to create a dance drama in his honour. A Simple Man was choreographed and directed by Lynne, with music by Carl Davis and starred Christopher Gable and Moira Shearer (in her last dance role), and won a BAFTA award as the best arts programme in 1987. It was subsequently transferred to the stage and first performed in Manchester in 1987 and in London at Sadler's Wells in 1988.
In February 2011 a bronze statue of Lowry was installed in the basement of his favourite pub, Sam's Chop House.
On 26 June 2013 a retrospective opened at the Tate Britain in London, his first there, scheduled to run until 20 October.
The music video for The Masterplan by manchester band Oasis was heavily inspired by the works of Lowry.
Lowry was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by the University of Manchester in 1945, and Doctor of Letters in 1961. In April 1955 Lowry was elected as an Associate Member of the Royal Academy of Arts and in April 1962 became a full Royal Academician. At the end of December of the same year his membership status evolved to that of Senior Academician having reached the age of 75. He was given the freedom of the city of Salford in 1965.
In 1975 he was awarded honorary Doctor of Letters degrees by the Universities of Salford and Liverpool. In 1964, the art world celebrated his 77th birthday with an exhibition of his work and that of 25 contemporary artists who had submitted tributes at Monk's Hall Museum, Eccles. The Hallé Orchestra performed a concert in his honour and Prime Minister Harold Wilson used Lowry's painting The Pond as his official Christmas card. Lowry's painting Coming Out of School was depicted on a postage stamp of highest denomination in a series issued by the Post Office depicting great British artists in 1968.
Lowry twice declined appointment to the Order of the British Empire: as an Officer (OBE) in 1955, and as a Commander (CBE) in 1961.[why?] He turned down a knighthood in 1968, and appointments to the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in 1972 and 1976. He holds the record for the most honours declined.
Lowry's work is held in many public and private collections. The largest collection is held by Salford City Council and displayed at The Lowry. Its collection has about 400 works. X-ray analyses have revealed hidden figures under his drawings – the "Ann" figures. Going to the Match is owned by the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) and is displayed at The Lowry along with a preparatory pencil sketch.
The Tate Gallery in London owns 23 works. The City of Southampton owns The Floating Bridge, The Canal Bridge and An Industrial Town. His work is featured at MOMA, in New York City. The Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu in Christchurch, New Zealand has Factory at Widnes (1956) in its collection. The painting was one of the gallery's most important acquisitions of the 1950s and remains the highlight of its collection of modern British art.
In the early days of his career Lowry was a member of the Manchester Group of Lancashire artists, exhibiting with them at Margo Ingham's Mid-Day Studios in Manchester. He made a small painting of the Mid-Day Studios which is in the collection of the Manchester City Art Gallery.
During his life Lowry made about 1,000 paintings and over 8,000 drawings.
Five Lowry art works were stolen from the Grove Fine Art Gallery in Cheadle Hulme, Stockport on 2 May 2007. The most valuable were The Viaduct, estimated value of £700,000 and The Tanker Entering the Tyne, which is valued at over £500,000. The Surgery, The Bridge at Ringley and The Street Market were also stolen. The paintings were later found in a house in Halewood near Liverpool.
In July 2015 three works - Lady with Dogs, Darby and Joan and Crowd Scene - featured in the BBC One series Fake or Fortune?. The programme enlisted the help of various experts to determine whether the paintings were genuine or forgeries. The works in question had been bought in the 1960s by a Cheshire businessman, Gerald Ames, but their provenance was poor, and it was noted that Lowry was "probably the most faked British artist, his deceptively simple style of painting making him a soft target for forgers".
Lowry claimed to have only ever used five colours: Flake White (Lead White), Ivory Black, Vermillion Red, Prussian Blue and Yellow Ochre, all from the art-supply firm Winsor & Newton, but expert analysis of the paint used in Darby and Joan showed that it contained traces of Zinc White. However, the program revealed a photograph of Lowry's studio in the 1950s which showed that he did have both Titanium White and Zinc White. The same painting was also plainly visible in a contemporary BBC documentary film about the artist, which included shots of his studio. All three works were judged to be genuine by a panel of experts, and the total value of the paintings was estimated to be in excess of £200,000.
In March 2014 fifteen of Lowry's works, from the A.J. Thompson Collection, were auctioned at Sotheby's in London; the total sale estimate of £15 million was achieved, even though two paintings failed to reach their reserve price and were withdrawn. Thompson, owner of the Salford Express, collected only Lowry paintings, starting in 1982. The auction included the paintings Peel Park, Salford and Piccadilly Circus, London, Lowry's most expensive painting at auction to date, which fetched £5.6 million in 2011 but only £5.1 million in 2014.