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Lowry: is the old bugger any good?

Thalia Allington-Wood re-visits the Greater Mancunian artist who did so much for crowds

Published on June 10th 2008.

Lowry: is the old bugger any good?

Artist: L S Lowry

Who's that?
You mean you live in the North and don't know? LS Lowry, born in 1887, a tall, suited, Lancashire man turned self taught artist has long been a household name. Often thought of as naive, his sentimental sketches and paintings depicting industrial working class landscapes and people brought him ridicule but also fame. He is now considered to be one of Britain's most popular and celebrated artists.

What and Where? Coming From the Mill, The Lowry

Date: 1930

Quintessentially Lowry?
Yes indeed. Here we have one of those industrial scenes the punters love so much. 'Coming from the Mill' depicts closing time at the factories, workers stream out of the gates on to the street and make their way home. The people are puppet like, no expression or individual characteristics bar the different colours of their clothes. Caps and red or dark green jackets throng the crowd. Their feet clad in oversized black boots. This should make the crowd seem like a mass, an organism of 'the people', yet it does not. In this painting, as with most of Lowry's, every figure seems to be alone. Lowry shows us, through his own experience of solitude, that there is emptiness in multitude.

Click to enlarge

Looking at 'Coming from the Mill' is like creating a story inside your head. Each individual can be taken, their life and activities constructed. In the right bottom corner a horse rears, throwing back the carriage driver in surprise. Two children stand side by side behind a fence, left out and observing others at play. While on the far left someone leans out of a window to talk to a mother below, a baby slung across her back. These characters turn into real people; they and the scene become symbolic of a nostalgic past that viewers remember knowing.

L S Lowry developed a very personal and stylised technique. The composition of 'Coming from the Mill' is linear and graphic, the oil paint thick and his colour palette limited. The buildings are flat, with simplistic white curtains and emotive, sombre ochre and red walls; their diluted and un-solid colour reflects the lack of money within. The buildings create a grid on the canvas and trap the wandering figures within the white roads. This painting is not one of freedom, but necessity and labour. The figures are hunched, head down and exhausted.

What and Where?
Man with Red Eyes, The Lowry

Date 1938

Is it Lowry?
Well sort of. 'Man with Red Eyes' is a shocking and disturbing image, and a far cry from the heavily populated and distant figures in 'Coming from the Mill'. A man, worn and angry, stares directly out of the canvas, his large eyes burning with a sore red. The directness and raw emotion of his look arrests you.

Though a composite image, 'Man with Red Eyes' was started as a self-portrait. It was, as Lowry explained, him 'letting off steam'. For eight years Lowry had nursed his bed-ridden mother, simultaneously holding down a full time job and painting in the early hours of the morning. This painting he made right before her death, at a time when he felt frayed and on the brink of breaking. It's not Lowry, but the expression of his internal turmoil.

Lowry depicts this anonymous man with stark and grotesque detail. Small dark hairs protrude from his ears; the skin under his eyes is a heavy and dull grey. This man personifies not only Lowry's pain and grief at the time of its composition, but also that of the downtrodden worker, driven and laden by economic necessity. His brow is deeply furrowed, the unshaven stubble twinged with steel grey.

The man, hard and stern, also appears as though completely naked. He is bare and vulnerable in his anger. The red colour of his eyes, nose and scarf form a centre to the canvas. The scarf is tight as if slightly strangling him, while the overly large black cloak envelops him, overcomes his body, curving his shoulders, repressive. When asked about this painting, Lowry replied, "It frightens me".

On Lowry differ greatly. Many find his work sentimental, the language he speaks too simplistic. Looking at both paintings the subject does not feel real, but distanced. This is probably because Lowry did not depict real places or people. They are composite images, or as Lowry described them 'dreamscapes', created and imagined as he sat, tweed suited, in an armchair before his easel. Hence his rather ambiguous titles such as 'A Lancashire Town'. This makes his work surreal, but also at times frustrating and annoyingly innocent.

Click to enlarge

Yet people identify with them and come in their hordes to see them. The Royal Academy retrospective exhibition of his works in 1976 broke all records of attendance for a twentieth century artist. His mill scenes and portraits convey a uniquely English sentiment, very much of the industrial period. The landscapes are typical, full of shared associations. The boots and caps, smoke filled skylines and thronging crowds surging from the factories feel familiar.

Maybe the men do look like sticks, the whole painting somewhat cartoonish. Maybe, the industrial subject does not seem gritty enough, the white pavements too unbelievable. Maybe as comedian Harry Hill tells us, you could replicate it age 10. But maybe that's not the point.

L S Lowry was always aware that every painting he did was an extension of himself. He was a man drawn, not to document correctly what was in front of the work, but to show what he saw through himself, his feelings. His paintings were his indulgence, so why should they not be our indulgence too? Buy a poster for your living room, hallway and bathroom, as two loudly indecisive ladies were doing in the gift shop.

Both these works can be viewed in the Lowry, The Quays. 0870 1112020 www.thelowry.com

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14 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

CraigJune 10th 2008.

Dear Gordo, is that man with the red eyes you after you've had a couple of clarets?

MatJune 10th 2008.

Sub: it's "hordes", not "hoards".

MatJune 10th 2008.

Since you asked, I found the article interesting and would welcome more of the same. I'm also pleased to hear that there's going to be more on the buildings and streets of Manchester. I really enjoyed the piece on green spaces in the city centre. I'd love to read more about Manchester's hidden gems. Can I suggest a piece on the Moravian settlement in Droylsden as a starter?

GordoJune 10th 2008.

Gordo suggests more food articles please. Particularly French three star Michelin restaurants. Oh, and Claret tastings.

DigJune 10th 2008.

Is it just me or is the man with red eyes a portrait of a slightly younger Sir Fergie?

salford redJune 10th 2008.

He wasn't self taught, he studied at The Salford Royal institute AKA Salford Uni, at The Peel building's under Adolphe Valette.

Jonathan Schofield - editorJune 10th 2008.

Right the changes suggested here have been made. The 'them' in the last paragraph refers to the pictures not to Lowry though. Now Simon Turner, what did you think of the article and the writer's insights, behind the subbing? These articles on artworks within galleries, on buildings and through the streets are going to be a regular feature of the site.

Simon TurnerJune 10th 2008.

"He was a man drawn, not to document correctly what was in front of them, but to show what he saw through himself, his feelings. His paintings were his indulgence, so why should they not be ours too? Buy a poster for your living room, hallway and bathroom as two loudly indecisive ladies were doing so in the gift shop." Needs subbing in at least 3 places -"He was a man drawn, not to document correctly what was in front of them" (why is this "them" - does it refer to Lowry, if so "him", or his "feelings", if so is it possible for feelings to have things in front of them?); "His paintings were his indulgence, so why should they not be ours too? (should there not be an apostrophe in "ours"?); "as two loudly indecisive ladies were doing so in the gift shop" (is an inelegant phrase and the words "doing so" are redundant).

Jonathan Schofield - editorJune 10th 2008.

Oops thanks for that, now corrected. Interestingly our first sub-editor started today.

AnonymousJune 10th 2008.

Good luck to the new sub in that case. Keep up the good work Confidential.

AnonymousJune 10th 2008.

Lowry died in 1976. He was born in 1887. Are the subs on holiday?

AnonymousJune 10th 2008.

I like it - good article Confidential. Very astute comments on two very wonderful paintings. People should stop picking at the sub and enjoy what is being said.

Mr TJune 10th 2008.

Love lowry's work, love seeing the working man's bleak and unforgiving experience of Manchester. Hm, not much of a change there eh?

GordoJune 10th 2008.

Now now Craig, I am much better looking...

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