Lowry at Tate Britain delivers the goods in show of twists and turns

By Richard Moss | 27 June 2013

Exhibition review: Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, Tate Britain, London, until October 20 2013

a painting of an industrial scene with a lake surrounded by winding gear and chimneys belching black smoke
LS Lowry, River Scene (Industrial Landscape) (1935)© The estate of L.S. Lowry All rights reserved, DACS 2013
LS Lowry (1877-1976) belongs to an illustrious yet disparate bunch of artists who include John Martin, Graham Sutherland and even Beryl Cook. All of them, at some time or other, enjoyed enormous public popularity - and an equal amount of art world disdain.

It’s what’s known as the Lowry syndrome and, as the phrase would suggest, Lowry has suffered most of all; seemingly ostracised from the canon of English painting by the likes of Tate (who last hosted an exhibition of his works in 1966) and ignored in most narratives of modern art.

But today there seems to have been a sea change. There’s a small Lowry in the Tate Britain re-hang, and now this comprehensive survey featuring Tate’s hitherto unseen Lowrys with some of his best and most beloved works.

This is Lowry the painter and social historian; the rent collector and aesthete who devoted his life to painting and capturing industrial Britain and the lives of the urban poor in Manchester, Salford and the Lancashire cotton towns.  

It's a familiar enough story and it begins here with the artist in his element - amid the crowded urban streets, football matches, sporting events and working class Easter fairs.

Teeming with life, these memorable paintings drawn from all periods of his career are full of the recognisable emblems – the mill chimneys, factories and the matchstick figures.

But from here Tate departs from this well worn narrative and heads to 1920s Paris. Here we learn that in the 1920s and early 1930s, this most British of artists adopted the simplicity of the French Realists and their progenitor Van Gogh. There were even parallels with Utrillo and Pissarro. The French lapped it up with complimentary notices and invitations to shows in the Salon d’Automne.

It was quite an achievement. As Lowry himself put it: “They didn’t know me from Adam, I was an Englishman showing in France, and they’re not partial to an Englishman showing in France.”   

Lowry’s surprising depth of involvement with the Parisian art world (he showed his work in Paris more than he ever did in London) coincided with a period of experimentation and a honing of style under the tutorship of Manchester based Impressionist Pierre Adolphe Valette, and works from this period seem to live very comfortably with the French works on show.

In paintings such as St Augustin Church (1924) there are even glimpses of the gothic drama of Caspar David Friederich. Bandstand, Peel Park (1928) is full of the openness of Pissarro.

But Vallette’s atmospheric Manchester impressionism wasn’t fully to Lowry’s taste, and as the critic Eric Newton later remarked: “He belongs to no school, but he may ultimately be the founder of one.”

a photo of a terrace street scene with an ambulance outside a house
LS Lowry, The Fever Van (1935)© The Estate of LS Lowry Image courtesy of National Museums Liverpool
During the 1920s and 1930s the singular obsession to capture everyday life in the slums of industrial northern Britain began to cast its distinctive pallor over the canvasses. “I only deal with poverty. Always with gloom,” he remarked of this period.

Both themes loom large amid the episodes of teeming urban life played out in works such as Quarrel in a Side Street (1925), The Funeral (1928), The Fever Van (1935) and People Standing About (1935).

It’s here that the artist as social historian really emerges - charting the story of pre-NHS Britain, rent collection, strikes, the working day, accidents and incidents. Lowry had decided these themes hadn’t been painted before, and he was determined to find a unique way to do it.

And so he did. But what’s also apparent is the extraordinary degree to which he developed a sense of place. Lowry made thousands of drawings devoted to the topography of the Ancoats slums of Manchester where he trudged day after day as a rent collector. Perhaps it was this that gave him a level of engagement unique in British painting.

By the 1930s the die was set, but thankfully the exhibition doesn't slide into the cosily familiar world of mills and clogs, but rather takes a turn towards a darker theme via a series of paintings hung on dark grey walls under the banner Ruined Landscapes.

Industrial Landscape, Wigan (1925), The Empty House (1934), Gate Posts (1938) and The Lake (1937) are stunningly bleak depictions of 20th century industrial Britain that reveal how dark and dramatic Lowry’s view of the world around him could be.

George Orwell’s words from Road to Wigan Pier inevitably accompany these miserable yet compelling works: “All round was the lunar landscape of slag heaps...  It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.” 

After the war and the dawn of the Labour government, Lowry’s mood lightened as he responded to the cultural realities of Britain after 1945.

The paintings became lighter and a palpable desire to express the vitality of the working classes led to great set piece paintings such as At the Seaside (1946), Beach Scene, Lytham (1963) and Early Morning (1954), which offset the lingering moments of gloom that still surfaced in works like the disturbingly cartoonish The Cripples (1949). Sadly the latter is one of only a few representations of Lowry's powerful figurative paintings.

It is left to the the panoramic views – Lowry’s five footers – of the imaginary city he developed for the Festival of Britain are also presented here together for the first time, to offer a kind of nostalgic farewell to industrial Britain of the 1950s.

They are pure Lowry and perhaps a neat place to end this exhibition. But there’s one final twist in this tale.

Ebbw Vale (1960); Hillside in Wales (1962) and Bargoed (1965) saw Lowry turn his attention to the Welsh Valleys and the post-industrial landscape for a trio of tragic paintings of bleak and desolate valleys that capture a decline in British industry that is still felt today.

So is Lowry still relevant? As we continue to grapple with the realities of the post industrial world this overdue engagement with his work certainly suggests he is.

More pictures:

a painting of a Gothic cathedral arising out of a gloomy grey sky
LS Lowry, St Augustine's Church (1924). Hearn Family Trust© Image courtesy Crane Kalman Gallery Ltd, London
a painting of crwods walking to a football ground
LS Lowry, Going to the Match (1953). Professional Footballers Association© The Estate of LS Lowry. All rights reserved, DACS 2013
a painting of people in a hospital waiting room
LS Lowry, Ancoats Hospital Outpatients' Hall (1952)© Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester
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