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LS Lowry - His Life and Career

Art School 1905

"If people call me a Sunday painter I'm a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week!"

Lowry was always irritated by people who thought he was an amateur painter, self-taught and untutored. "Started when I was fifteen. Don't know why. Aunt said I was no good for anything else, so they might as well send me to Art School..." In 1905 he began evening classes in antique and freehand drawing. He was to study both in the Manchester Academy of Fine Art and at Salford Royal Technical College in Peel Park. Academic records show him still attending classes in the 1920s. Lowry knew from his teachers - people like the Frenchman Adolphe Valette - how French Impressionism had changed the painting of landscapes and the modern city. He knew from exhibitions in Manchester what the current trends in modern art were, and deeply admired Pre-Raphaelites like Ford Madox Brown and Rossetti. Far from being a naïve Sunday painter, Lowry was an artist looking for his own distinctive way of painting and drawing - and for a subject matter he could make his own, preferring eventually the view from the Technical College window to that of the posed model.

A Painter's Vision, 1920

In his early years Lowry lived in the leafy Manchester suburb of Victoria Park. Then lack of money obliged his family to move to Station Road, Pendlebury, where factory chimneys were a more familiar sight then trees. Lowry would recall "At first I detested it, and then, after years I got pretty interested in it, then obsessed by it." The subjects for his paintings were on his doorstep. In later life he recalled this as a sort of vision. "One day I missed a train from Pendlebury - (a place) I had ignored for seven years - and as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill … The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out... I watched this scene - which I'd looked at many times without seeing - with rapture..."

An Appreciation, 1921

A writer in The Guardian newspaper, Bernard Taylor, recognised the real quality of Lowry's work, when he reviewed one of the artist's earliest exhibitions.

"Mr Laurence S Lowry has a very interesting and individual outlook. His subjects are Manchester and Lancashire street scenes, interpreted with technical means as yet imperfect, but with real imagination... We hear a great deal nowadays about recovering the simplicity of vision of primitives in art. These pictures are authentically primitive, the real thing not an artificially cultivated likeness to it. The problems of representation are solved not by reference to established conventions, but by sheer determination to express what the artist has felt, whether the result is according to rule or not..."

The Industrial Scene late 1920s - 1930s

Lowry worked as rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company. He did not tell people about his work because he did not want them to think of him as a spare-time painter. His job led to him walking all over the city. What did he see? Children playing in the streets, people returning from work, going off to work, gossip on the front steps, incidents, market places and Whit-processions. But all this changed in his lifetime: blitz and rebuilding, slum clearances and new housing, changed the face of the city he had observed so well.

"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 best I could. It wasn't easy. Well, a camera could have done the scene straight off."

Artist at Work

Lowry felt that drawings were as hard to do as painting. He worked the surface of his drawings by smudging, erasing and rubbing the pencil lines on his paper to build the atmosphere of the drawing. He was always doing quick sketches on the spot on whatever paper he had in his pockets.

Lowry carefully composed his pictures in a painting room at home and took great care over placing each figure. Late in life he would sit before a canvas or board on his easel and not know what was going to be in the painting until he started working. He called them "dreamscapes".

Bernard Taylor made the suggestion that helped Lowry to get into his painting the stark figures and the pallor of the industrial sky that he wanted. Taylor suggested he painted on a pure white background. Lowry experimented with layers of white paint on boards, leaving them for a time so the surface went creamy.


Lowry used a very basic range of colours, which he mixed on his palette and painted on the white background. "I am a simple man, and I use simple materials: ivory, black, vermilion (red), Prussian blue, yellow ochre, flake white and no medium (e.g. linseed oil). That's all I've ever used in my paintings. I like oils... I like a medium you can work into over a period of time". Looking closely at the surface of Lowry's paintings shows us the variety of ways he worked the paint with brushes (using both ends), with his fingers and with sticks or a nail.

Some paintings are painted over other images. The 1938 painting Head of a Man (Man with Red Eyes) when x-rayed showed a female portrait and possibly a self-portrait underneath.

He was once asked what he did with his old suits. "Wear them", came the reply! He certainly wore them to paint in, wiping the brushes on his lapels and sleeves.

Desolation Row 1930s - 1940s

Lowry's father died in 1932. For the next seven years, his 73 year old mother became 'bed fast' and completely ruled her son's life. After her death in 1939, Lowry painted The Bedroom Pendlebury - in memory of those long hours he spent looking after her.

She always demanded his attention. Lowry would only get to his painting room late at night after she had settled. "She did not understand my painting, but she understood me and that was enough." These were years of isolation and growing despair, reflected in Lowry's paintings. They depict derelict buildings and wastelands as mirrors of himself. As an official war artist - himself emotionally blitzed - he drew the ruined shells of bombed-out buildings. In1939, the year his mother died - the person he most wanted to please - he tasted success with his first London exhibition. "After she died, I lost all interest." Continuing to paint was his "salvation".

Private Man, Public Figure 1950s - 1970s

Just when Lowry began to have success he was moving away from the subjects that everybody wanted him to paint. "Had I not been lonely none of my works would have happened". Some of his most powerful pictures are deserted landscapes and seascapes. Some of the most difficult pictures to like are of solitary figures and down and outs. "I feel more strongly about these people than I ever did about the industrial scene. They are real people, sad people. I'm attracted to sadness and there are some very sad things. I feel like them."

Everything came too late for Lowry. But his late years saw him become a popular celebrity. He also became preoccupied about whether his art would last. "Will I live?" he asked over and over again, like the art of the Pre-Raphaelites he collected and loved.

From Childhood to Childhood 1976

"I painted from childhood to childhood." Lowry painted and drew into his old age - often protesting to interviewers that he had "given up", "packed it in". He died aged 88 in 1976 just months before a retrospective exhibition opened at the Royal Academy. It broke all attendance records for a twentieth century artist. Salford Museum & Art Gallery began collecting the artist's work in 1936 and gradually built up the collection which is now at the heart of the award-winning building bearing the artist's name, celebrating his art and transforming the cityscape again.

LS Lowry self portrait

The Lowry is a private limited company registered in England and Wales (no. 3255905) and a registered charity (no. 1053962).