Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, by T J Clark and Anne M Wagner

9781849761222The current blockbuster exhibition at Tate Modern is Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life and this book is its catalogue. So this will be mostly personal reaction to the paintings and part review of this attractive, informative and lively book.

Lowry’s work is instantly recognisable and holds a distinctive place in the English (or do I mean British) heart and mind. The Pavlovian response to the name Lowry is ‘matchstick people’. The most reproduced of his paintings feature these well known crowds of tiny faceless people in an urban landscape, and they tend to raise the question of Lowry’s vision of them. I’ve never seen his work apart from single paintings in national and local collections (I have yet to visit the gallery in Salford that has his name) and I was surprised by the effect on me of absorbing his work over the space of six rooms and his many decades of work. The effect on me was rather like minimalist music – repetitive, but with meaning and intent behind the repetition. I also found myself paying far more attention to Lowry as a landscape painter, and surprised myself by my reactions and the connections that I made with other artists – given that of all 20th century British artists Lowry may be the most distinctive and easily recognised. I was also moved to think about how far Lowry was a chronicler of life and change in the places and communities from which he drew his inspiration.

I blithely promised to write this review, but I’m always a little nervous about writing about art – I consider that I don’t have the language or critical framework. So this is very much about my personal reaction to Lowry, and what the exhibition with its particular curation and the essays in the catalogue taught me.

There is a sense in which this exhibition seemed to me to be an attempt to rescue Lowry from his late 20th century fate as a popular artist, representing the cutting edge for people who aspire to something more respectable (as they see it) than Tretchikoff’s Green Lady or Van Gogh Sunflowers on their walls. Pointing out as the authors do at the start of the book that a Lowry print on the wall features in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party locates his work on the spectrum of popular taste with sickening accuracy. His palette is a colour scheme. His angular cityscapes have a unique decorative effect and his ‘little people’ are set-dressing.

Lowry’s landscape was the industrial towns of the North-west, with their factories and cotton mills, railways, mines, public buildings and spaces, rows of workers’ dwellings and, of course, people in the mass. His background in the lower middle class ensured a measure of security for him through office jobs, then for most of his adult working life the job of a rent collector in the streets that he portrayed – not loved, not loathed, just a part of the fabric of people’s lives. So he stood aside from the people he portrayed, a detached observer who nevertheless was privy to their secrets.

From a young age he took art classes at Manchester College of Art, under the notable late impressionist Adolphe Valette (see Bookfox Moira’s review of his work here), whose paintings of Manchester and Salford give an equally striking but completely different record of the man-made landscape. Lowry’s approach to painting people was for me interestingly revealed in the fact that Valette, who championed his work, nevertheless despaired of his work in Life Class – and it amused me to contrast Lowry’s skilled but weirdly empty line drawings of stiffly posed groups of people with the energetic and exciting drawings of the city that he made while staring out of the windows of the art college. It was intriguing to learn that early on he exhibited more often and with greater success in France, in the Paris Autumn Salon, where his work was regularly hung and his debt to late Impressionists such as Utrillo and Pissarro acknowledged. Seeing his work in this exhibition hung next to works by these painters and Seurat and Van Gogh was illuminating.

Lowry chose his subject matter with serious intent and as, as we know, returned to it again and again for well over fifty years. As it happens, he charted the arc of the decline of heavy industry in his home city, and by extension the whole of Britain. He found what he called ‘the industrial scene’ full of meaning for him, and often expressed this. I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I tried to paint it. All the time I tried to paint the industrial scene as well as I could. It wasn’t easy. I wanted to get a certain effect on canvas. I couldn’t describe it, but I knew it when I’d got it. Well, a camera could have done the scene straight off. That was no use to me – I wanted to get an industrial scene and be satisfied with the picture.

This is just one of the very aptly chosen passages in Lowry’s own words in the exhibition catalogue, in an essay that takes pains to let Lowry’s character come through as he speaks for himself about his art and its inspiration. In another passage Lowry describes how the landscape seems to be alive – he regularly takes a long walk from his Salford home to Bolton; on the way the road passes directly over Kearsley colliery and he can feel and hear the beat of the machinery under his feet and all around him (I found that particularly moving as I know that part of the world, silent now apart from motorway noise).

So it was the landscape that obsessed him, particularly the way the eye is drawn through the cliff like buildings and the towers and chimneys to the foggy horizon and the smokey sky. The people are part of the landscape, and their ebb and flow, gathering and parting, make them behave rather like iron filings in the presence of a magnet. This might be a building – are they going to work, coming home, headed for a football match, waiting to been seen by a doctor in hospital?; or an outdoor event: an argument or fight, an accident in the street, a hearse to follow. In this way, the people in the painting are part of the larger landscape, dwarfed by it, conceivably, but still, as it were, visible from space, or at any rate from the vantage point chosen by the painter.

Walking through rooms of his work and looking at them more carefully than I have before, two things struck me. The matchstick people (though they became more stylised possibly as the years went on) do have life and movement and individuality, if I look at them closely, even when acting collectively. They have a destination or a purpose, or if neither of these then a reason to be there (if only as a loafer). For instance, in one of his massive landscapes from the 1950s, which need to be scanned minutely as well as looked at from afar, in a group of minute people one man has climbed onto a truck and is haranguing the rest. The second was that, by the time of these enormous paintings, this landscape had taken on an aura of fantasy. The point of view is higher, soaring over an almost cartographic view of an industrial scene that has more fantasy than reality. The buildings have air and space between them now. The ground shades from Tarmac to water to waste ground. The monumental buildings pit churches with their spires with mills and their chimneys, factories with public buildings. In my mind I contrasted this with Valette, who managed to infuse documentary paintings of actual locations with a dream-like beauty, and also (this is very odd, shoot me now) I compared the Lowry canvases with John Martin’s massive and lavish series on Heaven and Hell – Ashton-under-Lyne vs The Plains of Heaven. I have no real idea why I made that connection, except that it had the same sort of effect on me, of space and soaring heights, rather than the claustrophobia and confinement that form the usual effect of industrial cities with their mills and factories cheek by jowl.

The catalogue is an enjoyable companion to the exhibition. As well as the plates, there are two very readable essays: T J Clark’s essay in biography, locating Lowry in his world and his class, and exploring the ambiguities of Lowry’s detachment as an observer, politically conservative yet engaged in what he referred to to as ‘social awareness’. The other is by Anne M Wagner on the trajectory of Lowry’s art – enlightening on the nuanced development to be found in his repetitive themes. There is also a chronological essay by Helen Little, locating the milestones in Lowry’s life and career with the wider historical context.

Altogether, I have enjoyed my voyage of discovery of a painter whose work it is easy to see reproduced all around, and consequently easy to think one knows all about. Much food for thought here, and for me a fresh appreciation of the strange beauty of his chosen scene.

If you cannot go to the exhibition (which ends on 20 October), you can get a flavour of his work online from these sites:

The Lowry, Salford (though naturally they want you to visit, so only a few of the 400 items in the Lowry collection are on show)

BBC Your Paintings – LS Lowry (in partnership with the Public Catalogue Foundation) This is the fantastic website that catalogues all paintings known to be in the ownership of publicly funded bodies.

T J Clark and Anne M Wagner: Lowry and the painting of modern life. London: Tate Publishing Ltd, 2013. 224pp
ISBN 13: 9781849761222

10 comments on “Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, by T J Clark and Anne M Wagner

  1. elizabethashworth
    September 18, 2013

    I don’t know if the Tate exhibition showed only Lowry’s ‘matchstick men’ paintings, but if so I would encourage you to go to Salford and see some of his other work. His portraits, in particular, I find mesmerising.

  2. Hilary
    September 18, 2013

    Thanks, Elizabeth, it’s on the list for my next visit, which must be soon! In fact, the exhibition did not concentrate on the ‘matchstick folk’ – that there was more to him was the revelation to me. I’ve since done some online looking too, and I am particularly taken by his seascapes – completely new to me.

  3. Jackie
    September 18, 2013

    Really enjoyed this review. Lowry isn’t known much over here, so I learned a lot. I like how you delved into your feelings about the art & then wove quotes from the catalog through it. It made me feel like I saw the exhibit too.
    Thanks for writing this, it was interesting & made me want to see more of Lowry’s work.

  4. ABB
    September 19, 2013

    I’m envious of your visit to this exhibition! Being fairly familiar with the area in which Lowry lived and worked, I have always felt that his paintings encapsulate a good deal of reportage and social history. The monumentality of the factories and streetscapes contrast with the busy life of the people inhabiting those places. Often, in the background of his paintings, you can see moorlands in the distance, looming, perhaps a subconscious acknowledgement of the transience of the industrial era. So many of the activities in the paintings too are highly characteristic of the north of England – Wakes Week parades for instance – in this sense he is a strongly regional painter.

  5. Kate
    September 19, 2013

    I shall be going in a month or so, so feel briefed! Enjoyable and detailed review.

  6. Alison Priest
    September 20, 2013

    Thanks for this interesting review, Hilary.

    I’ve studied art history with the Open University so this is right up my street. I will be visiting the exhibition at the start of October (on my way to a study tour around Venice!).

  7. Moira
    September 20, 2013

    This was a really fascinating review to read and I’m glad you got so much out of the exhibition. It took me a l-o-n-g time to learn to love Lowry. It wasn’t until I moved north, and – over many years – began to understand, absorb and finally appreciate the many things that make ‘The North’ an almost tangibly different entity to ‘The South’ that I began to ‘get’ Lowry. In the end. I actually learned to like him. I remember standing on the balcony of a room at the top of the Manchester Piccadilly Hotel and looking towards Salford … and from that height, in the slightly grey and overcast light, it truly looked exactly like a Lowry painting. It was revelatory moment.

    Last year, I took myself to The Lowry in Salford. I actually went there for the Valette exhibition, but of course I took in the Lowry paintings as well … and something dreadful and unexpected happened. Somewhere in that gallery, looking at those paintings, I realized that I didn’t remotely like the man that was emerging from them. Now, that really shouldn’t matter – because I’m quite capable of appreciating the work of total bastards in all forms of art … but I think because there’s so much of himself in them … when the ‘self’ that is emerging is deeply unlikeable, it affects your whole attitude – or at least affected mine. He was a lonely man, of course – and I found myself wondering if he was lonely because he was unpleasant or he was inpleasant because he was lonely.

    My reaction may only have been a mirror of other things that were happening in my life at the time, but all I know is that I went into that gallery a confirmed fan of Lowry and came out … not.

  8. rosyb
    September 26, 2013

    Hilary – I think you should definitely write more on art as I’ve really loved all your art pieces. Moira – why did you dislike him so much? Was it something in the biog or the paintings themselves that gave you a bad impression of him.

  9. Hilary
    October 2, 2013

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. Rosy, you’re very kind – too kind!

    Moira, I sort of know what you mean – and we are on the same page over appreciating the art of deeply unpleasant people (I give you W Shakespeare – assuming he did write the stuff, or was he too nasty a man possibly to have done so? 😉 ) What I took away was LSL’s singlemindedness as an artist – even more than Isherwood could he say ‘I am a camera’. He wanted to record these things and paint a picture that satisfied him – he needed someone from the outside to point out that his work had ‘social awareness’. Then I found it interesting that early in his career he had that ‘prophet not without honour save in his own country’ effect, through his success in exhibiting in Paris. I don’t think he was all that lonely – the essays in this book seem to indicate that he had comrades and supporters, some of whom were even confidants, though I’m sure he didn’t ‘do’ warm friendship. He is a one-off – I think I found him as likeable as he would have expected.

    Jackie – Lowry was very prolific, and a really good site to see a wide range of his work is the second link I posted at the end of the piece – the BBC Your Paintings site. By the by, I saw on the news today that the Public Catalogue Foundation who compiled that site are taking some of these publicly owned paintings out to schools – there was a wonderful news item of absolutely fascinated 8 year olds in Wolverhampton being allowed to get to within six inches of a Monet landscape.

  10. Pingback: Going to the Match, LS Lowry | No Standing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on September 18, 2013 by in Entries by Hilary, Non-fiction: Art and tagged , , , , , .



Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.


  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • %d bloggers like this: