"You don't need brains to be a painter, just feelings."
1887 - 1915
Stephen Lowry was born 1 November 1887 in Barrett Street, Stretford. His
father, Robert, worked as a clerk in an estate agent’s office. His mother,
Elizabeth, was a talented pianist. By 1898 the family were living in Victoria
Park, a leafy suburb in south Manchester, but in 1909 financial difficulties
necessitated a move to Pendlebury, an industrial area between Manchester and
Bolton. Lowry’s mother
hated it, and so did Lowry, but, ‘After a year I got used to it. Within a few
years I began to be interested and at length I became obsessed by it.’
After leaving school Lowry took a job as a clerk with a Manchester firm of chartered accountants, Thomas Aldred and Son. In 1910, after being made redundant from a second job, he became rent collector and clerk for the Pall Mall Property Company and stayed there until his retirement in 1952.
By 1915 Lowry had begun attending evening classes at Salford School of Art, based in the Royal Technical College on the edges of Peel Park. One of his tutors there, Bernard Taylor (art critic for the Manchester Guardian) advised Lowry that his paintings were too dark. In response, Lowry tried painting on a pure white background, a technique he was to retain for the rest of his career.
1916 - 1929
1930 - 1938
1930 he had produced what he described as his most characteristic mill scene –
Coming from the Mill, now in the Lowry Collection, Salford. In the same year he
held his first one-man exhibition in Manchester.
All the exhibits were drawings of the Ancoats area of the city and every one sold, including one to Manchester Art Gallery. A few years later A Street Scene (St Simon’s Church) 1928 became the first work by Lowry purchased for Salford Museum & Art Gallery.
In 1932 Lowry had work accepted at the Royal Academy in London but in the same year his father died suddenly. It was only then that the full extent of Robert Lowry’s debts became apparent and Lowry undertook to pay all of these off over time.
Elizabeth Lowry, whose health had always been poor, took to her bed permanently. Not surprisingly, Lowry produced fewer works during the 1930s. In 1938 he painted Head of a Man which began as a self-portrait but was turned into a grotesque head. He was later to say that ‘all the paintings of that period were done under stress and tension and they were all based on myself.’
1939 - 1962
In 1939 Lowry had his first solo exhibition in London
at the Lefevre gallery. The exhibition was successful, and many of the works
sold, but in October that year, Elizabeth Lowry died. Lowry described his life
as altering ‘utterly and completely’ after her death. With the outbreak of the
Second World War Lefevre cancelled his next exhibition and it was 1943 before
he showed work there again.
As Lowry tired of industrial scenes his attention turned to other subjects. Increasingly his work focused on small groups of figures and individuals painted on a plain white ground with little or no architectural or landscape setting.
He insisted that they were all based on real characters, often people he saw living on the streets, such as A Beggar c1965. Lowry thought that some of his late works were his best but they were challenging for audiences used to his mill scenes.He never completely abandoned his industrial subjects and small, loosely painted mill scenes exist dating from as late as 1972 when he had all but given up painting. A trip to Wales with his friend, the collector Monty Bloom, had reignited his interest in industrial landscape for a time when they toured some of the mining villages in the Welsh valleys, resulting in major works such as Bargoed 1965 and Hillside in Wales 1962. He returned to the area several times over the next few years.
1963 - 1967
Lowry had also painted empty landscapes and seascapes for many years and in the 1960s he made repeated visits to the north east of England, particularly Sunderland. Many of his seascapes from this time are based on the view from his room at the Seaburn Hotel where he was a regular visitor.An inveterate draughtsman throughout his life, Lowry continued to draw into old age and his characters sometimes took on the surreal appearance of cartoon-like half animal, half human creatures. The most extreme works, however, came to light only after his death. These ‘mannequin’ drawings depict young women, partly clothed in restrictive bodices or wearing versions of male evening dress, their forms squeezed into the clothes, making movement impossible.
Although they are almost certainly private images, not intended for display, some are highly finished drawings, kept by the artist although he must have known they would be found after his death.On 23 February Lowry died of pneumonia at Woods Hospital in Glossop following a stroke at his home. There had been many exhibitions of his work in the years leading up to his death and Lowry had been consulted by the Royal Academy on the major retrospective they were planning for later the same year. By the time that exhibition closed it had achieved record visitor numbers for an exhibition by a British artist.
1967 - Today
Today Lowry remains extremely popular, and has had many imitators, but he never formally taught students, or gathered a group of followers around him who could have constituted a school.
The discovery after his death that he had been in full-time employment throughout much of his career caused many critics to dismiss him as a ‘Sunday painter’ but his popularity has remained strong. A prolific artist, many of his works are in private collections as well as public galleries and examples appear regularly at auction.