L.S. Lowry: painter of misery, misfortune and the collapse of the workshop of the world

L.S. Lowry The Fever Van 1935, Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool, UK)
L.S. Lowry: The Fever Van (1935), Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool, UK)

Phew! I snuck in under the wire and managed to get to see Tate Britain’s big L.S. Lowry show before it closed. I’m glad I did. It provided ample evidence that Lowry – so long out of fashion – will one day take his place among the great observers of social history. Hugely popular but derided by many critics as a repetitive and even downright bad painter,  Lowry was nonetheless a skillful and impressive portrayer of a world that seemed solid and dominant yet was changing so fast-changing that, by the time the paint was dry on the canvas, it was already all but lost. A post industrial world was beckoning. Somehow it seems he knew that the great factories would grind to a halt and the terraces of workers homes would be smashed by the wrecker’s ball.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life provides an extraordinary view of a society unwittingly caught in a state of flux. It also shows that Lowry really wasn’t a bad painter, just out of kilter with the trends of the day. He was inspired by the French impressionists and particularly Adolphe Valette who had taught him at art school in Manchester. The impressionist style informed his paintings of already ruined northern landscapes populated by cowed workers and struggling families. Smoke-shrouded nameless cities, their streets thronged with tiny figures hurrying to work, to the match, to the pub. People stripped of identity by the daily grind. Dirt-poor with lives that were effectively owned by the factory bosses. It was a world where everything was fine… until something went wrong.  Lowry was a rent collector by profession. He knew the painful reality of poverty and its attendant horrors and this is what he painted. Accidents, evictions, everyday misery, a catalogue of misfortunes. The ever-present threat and shame of falling into debt  was so great that it inspired popular music hall songs, illustrated in this show by a scratchy but evocative recording of George Formby Snr. singing When Father said He’d Pay the Rent

Lowry’s 1935 painting The Fever Van  depicts the bleak fact that sickness and death were an inevitable adjunct to daily life. When the van drew up outside a home it was a moment of fear, sadness and impending doom for the family concerned. Lowry’s painting shows the neighbours stopping to stare or hurrying by knowing there there’s nothing they can do and that the isolation of the victim – a possible source of infection and epidemic – is the overriding imperative for the community.

The writer, commentator and critic John Berger understood Lowry and his work particularly well. Part of an article he wrote for New Society in 1966, is reproduced on  one of the walls of this exhibition.  It read: “These paintings are about what has been happening to the British economy since 1918, and their logic implies the collapse still to come. This is what happened to the ‘workshop of the world’. Here is the recurring so-called production crisis; the obsolete industrial plants; the inadequacy of unchanged transport systems and overstrained power supplies; the failure of education to keep pace with technological advance; the ineffectiveness of national planning; the lack of capital investment at home and the disastrous reliance on colonial and neo colonial overseas investment: the shift of power from industrial capital to international finance capital…”

L S Lowry Industrial LS Lowry Landscape 1955. Tate
© The estate of L.S. Lowry Photo: Tate Photography  
L S Lowry: Industrial Landscape, 1955.
© The estate of L.S. Lowry Photo: Tate Photography

Despite the popular image of Lowry obsessively painting Lancashire again and again, he made regular forays outside the north of England and frequently exhibited in Paris. A 1960 painting of Piccadilly Circus shows an acute Lowryesque awareness of the changing times and the special Anglo-American commercial relationship that drove post-war Britain into what it believed would be a brave new world. The two big advertising hoardings towering over Piccadilly are for Bovril and Coca Cola.

There was a time when it seemed that Lowry was destined to mainly be seen through popular  prints of his work on the walls of schools, libraries and thousands of homes. To be confronted with raw paint and canvas shows that these paintings transcend their populist image. Lowry has left a fascinating body of work. Yet he still divides opinion. The national critics, let loose on this show, had a field day. One or two loved it but most of the others found Lowry’s work “repellant” or saw it as thinly disguised Marxist “propaganda.”

I think it’ll take at least another 20 years before its real artistic and historic worth emerges. In the meantime The Tate, so long accused of snobbishly cold-shouldering  L.S. Lowry, have finally given him this huge retrospective. It is the first major Lowry show to be held by a public institution in London since his death in 1976 and perhaps even more significantly is also the first to explore Lowry’s connections with French art, displaying his work alongside  a small  selection of paintings by Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, Adolphe Valette, Maurice Utrillo and even Vincent Van Gough, it highlights how Lowry drew from and extended the French tradition in his engagement with the life of the city, while establishing his own unique style.

Curated by TJ Clark and Anne M Wagner, emeritus professors of art history at the University of California, this is powerful exhibition that suggests that  L.S Lowry was Britain’s pre-eminent painter of the industrial city. Lowry would have been amazed to see this show. I wonder what he would have thought of the Tate’s shameless commercialisation of it though. Exit through the inevitable gift shop and you can even buy a Lowry flat-cap. A snip at 28 quid.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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