Lowry & The Painting of Modern Life

When people think of Lowry, the first thing they usually think of is his little stick figures. Stick figures wrapped up and hunched over in the dark gloomy Northern light.

I’ve had a long affinity with Lowry. He’s been there throughout my whole life. You see, my grandparents, originally from Lancashire had a print of one of his pieces in their house, and it used to fascinate me. All these dark buildings, billowing smoke and tiny long limbed figures seemingly marching all together.
So when the Tate invited me to attend the press view of the new Lowry exhibition, I couldn’t turn it down.

The exhibition is a collection of over 90 of Lowry’s works. They have been brought together to show the public that Lowry has a lot more to him that doom, gloom and stick figures, showcasing some little known works.

The first room, entitled ‘Looking at Lowry’ is an introduction to what Lowry has to offer. From the expected scenes of industry to simple paintings of a vase of flowers in a window, this room encompasses Lowry’s whole subject matter in one room, giving us an insight into what to expect in the coming rooms.

Room two was somewhat of a surprise to me. This room shows the influence French artists had on Lowry at an early stage. Taught in Manchester, by Adolphe Valette, Lowry was introduced to Impressionism, and this is evident in the pieces of this room, displayed along side artists such as Pissarro and Seurat. Personally I hadn’t realised the impression French painting had on Lowry and it was interesting to see this influence for the first time.

Vincent Van Gough ‘Outskirts of Paris’ – 1886

Moving on, you enter a large spacious room that explores the everyday working class. This room really does showcase the Lowry most people recognise. The usual factory scenes are there, accompanied by the hunched over stick figures we’ve come to know and love. This is Lowry’s ‘brand’, the classic street and working life. However there is a sense of humour in Lowry’s pieces, and this has been emphasised by the curators clever use of music in the room. Accompanying the art is a recording of George Formby singing ‘When Father Said He’d Pay The Rent’, a little nod towards Lowry’s job as a rent collector and a hint of Lancashire wit. 

‘The Procession’ – 1927

‘The Royal Exchange’ – 1939

This room also displays some pencil drawings and it’s interesting to see some of Lowry’s preliminary ideas.

Detail of a pencil drawing

The fourth room, painted a dark gloomy grey exhibits some of Lowry’s darker pieces. Lowry had a sombre side to him, and this room presents us with some dramatic pieces. With scenes of industrial Wigan, a necropolis and the aftermath of a ferocious fire, this room really brings home the melodramatic and pessimistic side of the industrial life.

‘Necropolis’ – 1947

‘Industrial Landscape, Wigan’ – 1925

This pessimism is followed by an feeling of optimism in the penultimate room. With the end of World War 2 came a feeling of celebration and a sense of victory. This is shown through several animated scenes of funfairs and street parties. 

‘VE Day’ – 1945
Detail of ‘VE Day’ – 1945

This is however tinged with sadness, through a controversial piece entitled ‘The Cripples’. This piece illustrates the perils of war, and the lasting effect it had on people’s lives.

‘The Cripples’ – 1949

The final room in this fantastic exhibition is somewhat surprising and almost breath taking. Most people recognise Lowry as a small scale artist, and this room is the antithesis of that view. Showcasing five large scale panoramic works, shown together for the first time, these pieces are able to capture your attention for what seems like hours. At almost 5ft 5inches, these pieces are vast. The size was however, not Lowry’s choice and was dictated by the directors of the 1951 Festival of Britain. These large scale pieces are a sort of memorial to the industrial movement, something that was beginning to come to an end.

Five panoramic landscape views painted for the Festival of Britain

Industrial Landscape – 1955

The exhibition is an homage to a great British artist. It showcases just how great an artist Lowry was. Over the years Lowry has courted controversy, with some critics adopting a rather elitist attitude to his work, but this exhibition dispels that. It shows that despite the gritty subject matter, Lowry’s work is surprisingly elegant, and at times uplifting. But above all it shows a true Northerner at heart, depicting his home community, the best way he knew how, industrially. 


The Lowry exhibition is on at Tate Britain until October 20th 2013, to book your tickets visit the website here.


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