Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

L.S. Lowry (and Mum)

I want to recommend very strongly the excellent film Mrs Lowry and Son, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall and directed by Adrian Noble. Based on the play by Martin Hesford, and essentially a two-hander between Spall and Redgrave, the film is fascinating, intensely dramatic and moving, and well worth seeing even if you don’t particularly like Lowry as an artist. I have some doubts about his work myself (see below) but nonetheless this is not just a wonderfully watchable film but a real statement about the nature of art.

And don’t be put off if you didn’t like Spall’s portrayal of JMW Turner in Mr. Turner. I didn’t like that either; I found it overacted and unconvincing. But Mrs Lowry and Son is a completely different matter.

Redgrave is brilliant as the self-pitying, viciously manipulative but also pathetic Mrs Lowry; Spall is patient, understated, exhausted and yet at moments very close to the edge of violence as Lowry, relentlessly practising the unrewarded painting that obsesses him in the face of relentless hostility and discouragement from his terrifying mother. At one dreadful moment he loses his control and starts destroying his own paintings with a knife. You feel that he’s within an inch of turning the knife towards his mother. It’s emotionally wrenching and terrifying – even though we know that Lowry will eventually find success and acclaim.

No wonder that. long after his mother’s death, there was something a little strange in Lowry’s attitude to women. There is, in fact, another film to be made as a counterpart to this one: the film about Lowry and his young female protégées (notably Sheila Fell) later in his life. Like so many of these creative relations where an older artist features as mentor, there is something both profoundly valuable and deeply creepy in the interplay between young developing talent and old master, galvanised by an unexpressed sexual tension. I hope someone will make this second film too; it would be fascinating, and no less dramatic.

To give a broader view of Lowry, I’ll put in here a piece I wrote some years ago for the Times Literary Supplement, reviewing a biography of Lowry.

Shelley Rohde: L.S. Lowry: A Life  (Haus Publishing Ltd).  £25

ISBN 987-1-90495-049-3

Despite his huge popular following, L.S. Lowry remains enigmatic. To some he is an essential British artist of the twentieth century, to be spoken of in the same breath as Stanley Spencer or Francis Bacon. Others see him as sentimental and inept, a naïf in the wrong sense. Lowry died more than thirty years ago, but Shelley Rohde is still the only author to have attempted a comprehensive life, and although the dust jacket calls the present book a ‘new biography’, is essentially a greatly shortened version of the same author’s L.S. Lowry: A Biography, published in 1999.

An unashamed advocate, Rohde attributes resistance to Lowry’s work, bluntly, to ‘elitism’. This seems a misjudgement because, whether you like Lowry’s work or hate it, there is certainly something odd about it, and it contains elements which run strongly against artistic traditions which remained largely unquestioned even during the twentieth century. The major problem – or the great charm, depending on your point of view – arises from the disjunction in Lowry’s mature work between figures and landscape.

Lowry’s townscapes – his terrace houses, factories, churches, viaducts – are handled with a strong post-impressionist technique undoubtedly transmitted by Adolphe Valette, the French painter who was Lowry’s most significant tutor at the Manchester School of Art. Subtleties of colour and texture are fascinating, flake white (an essential ingredient in the luminous overall effect) and pale earth colours layered over one another to produce endless varieties of tone. The composition is masterly, combining an emphasis on height, depth and gradient with a decorative flattening of perspective.

Yet the figures which swarm in this setting might have been painted by another hand. Stylised, cartoonish, calligraphically drawn and without modelling, consisting most often of a few black lines and a blob of colour, they tend to caricature. The grotesque, the maimed and the mad figure largely amongst them.

In Lowry’s later paintings, mostly from the 1960s, groups of figures lack an architectural setting and formulaic elements become still stronger. Eyes are dots of black; all figures are round-shouldered, all feet encased in enormous black boots.

A strangeness in Lowry’s relation to people was not confined to canvas. Born in 1887, he was the only child of a Manchester ‘estate agent’ who was actually little more than a rent collector and took his family from one unaffordable house to another in pursuit of the gentility craved by his wife, a former pianist. Lowry’s mother spent most of adult life as an ‘invalid’, martyr to undefined ailments which kept her immobilised all day on a couch.

Lowry’s father died in 1932, leaving substantial debts which he had concealed from the family. His mother reacted by abandoning the couch and taking to her bed, where her son tended to her meticulously until the day of her death seven years later, brushing her hair, bathing her bedsores and reading her to sleep every night. His reward for this was merciless discouragement. She regarded his painting (which she referred to as ‘doing nothing’) with contempt, and when the Manchester Guardian invited him to write art criticism she squashed the idea by laughing uproariously and telling him ‘You could never do it, Laurie’. Lowry accepted her judgment but carried the Guardian’s letter in his pocket for years.

Painting was done mainly at night, by electric light, for like his father Lowry had become a rent collector – a job he did meticulously and without promotion for forty years, observing and sketching on his daily perambulations around Manchester. The people whose money he took found him friendly and considerate and seem not to have resented him.

Lowry kept this side of his life hidden from the art world, misleading interviewers and fellow-artists into thinking that he spent his time only in painting. This was part of a general policy: although he had friends, they were kept in sealed compartments, each allowed to see only a facet of his life and opinions. Those who had known him at work were quietly dropped when he retired.

It is perhaps the portraits which testify most strongly against a cosy view of Lowry. Lowry’s male sitters glare fixedly ahead, as if in a police mugshot. The heads are stylised and rigidly symmetrical, with much black outlining of the features. The effect is terrifying; according to Rohde more than one collector rapidly resold a portrait rather than live with it. Perhaps the most powerful of these works is Portrait of a Man (with Red Eyes), a self-portrait of 1938 (misdated 1927 in Rhode’s index), painted at a time when the stress of caring for his mother had brought Lowry to the brink of physical and mental breakdown.

Equally disturbing in a different way are the portraits of a woman, or series of women, whom Lowry identified only as ‘Ann’. Evidently representing a personal archetype rather than an individual, the ‘Ann’ pictures show a woman with oval face, strained-back smooth black hair, pillar-box-red lipstick and huge eyes thickly outlined in black eyeliner. The face is doll-like and expressionless, pallid and smooth as if carved in soapstone.

It would be easy to take ‘Ann’ as a fantasy were it not for the fact that in later life Lowry befriended, one after another, a series of very young women whom he helped financially and educationally. All valued his friendship immensely and they included the notable landscape painter Sheila Fell, who was eloquent in her gratitude for Lowry’s mentorship. His behaviour with these young ladies was entirely decorous but it is noteworthy that they conformed closely to a single physical type – the type represented by the ‘Ann’ portraits. That there was something fetishistic about all this is confirmed by the recollection of the artist Pat Cooke, one of his protégées, who recalled that Lowry

was fascinated by my make-up, particularly my eyes. He would watch me intently putting it on in the car, asking ‘Why do you do that?’ or saying ‘Put on some more black stuff.’ He was disappointed I didn’t wear nail varnish: he loved long red nails.

After Lowry’s death a collection of drawings came to light showing what appears to be the same girl dressed in a range of bizarre costumes: short, rufflike ballet-skirts; enormous collars or bows which imprison her and from which she hangs helpless like an unstrung puppet. In some drawings she is shown decapitated or wounded with swords or knives. They seem to reveal a fascinated terror of female sexuality.

Rhode’s adaptation of her biography for this new edition has entailed losses and gains. The new text is only half the length of the old, and, strangely, it also seems much worse written, containing sentences like this (on the 1976 Royal Academy retrospective): ‘It had been planned to take place in his life  time but Lowry, foiled the plans of the RA to uniquely honour the living artist by dying nine months previously.’ Admittedly this is a low point; but Rohde’s digressive and partisan style means that in the sparser narrative of the new book it is often hard to deduce in what year a given event happened, or what its actual significance might have been.

Unlike the 1999 text this one lacks a proper index, supplying merely an ‘index of names’. A substantial passage of text on page 95 reappears almost verbatim on page 120, and there are innumerable misprints, some of them risible – ‘cemetery’ appears as ‘ceremony’, ‘cited’ as ‘sited’ and ‘public’ as ‘pubic’. The quotation on the dust jacket, clearly intended as a keynote for the book, is attributed to Maurice Collis but is in fact by Eric Newton. The book has also been stripped of a large proportion of the previous edition’s fascinating black and white photographs of Lowry and his world.

A small amount of new material has been introduced, notably a 1964 interview with Lowry and an appendix giving a discussion by Professor Michael Fitzgerald of Lowry’s supposed autism, which inevitably, coming at the end of a biography, has a somewhat reductive impact. The space might better have been spent on exploring Lowry’s success in exhibiting in France around 1930, or his work as an Official War Artist, or his extensive collection of paintings by Rossetti, all of which are mentioned in this and the previous book but hardly investigated. No significant reference is  made to recent work in x-ray photography, which has revealed much about Lowry’s technique and his overpainting of earlier work. His reading and his love of music, both of which were profoundly important to him, are left unexamined.

Those who want a full life of Lowry will still need to go to Rohde’s 1999 book. 

The one area where the present work improves on its predecessor is in its addition of some two hundred well-chosen colour plates. In these Lowry’s art, however eccentric or technically fractured, speaks eloquently of an industrial landscape which no one else documented with such delicacy or obsessive thoroughness, and of people who, perhaps of necessity, could never fit into their surroundings.

Grevel Lindop