IN his distinctive and memorable pictures, L.S. Lowry summoned
up a vision of a northern English city landscape that he knew well
and studied closely over many years. He lived in an industrial
suburb of Manchester. He moved there as a young man with his mother
and father. Since he came from a more residential district, it took
him, he said later, several years before his dislike of the area
changed to tolerance, then interest, and finally obsession.
But Lowry was by no means simply a faithful recorder of a
particular locality, though he did make drawings in the streets,
presumably to stock his imagination. It was this imagination,
rather than observation only, which was the main source of his
They were usually generalizations (though occasionally they did
describe specific places) typical" scenes, painted in his room at
home, at night. It had to be at night when he painted because
throughout his career he worked for his living as a rent collector
employed by a Manchester firm, rising to head cashier before
retiring on a pension.
This was a fact that he kept secret when he became, late in
life, an enormously popular and much exhibited artist. He was
apparently embarrassed that people might dismiss him as a mere
"Sunday painter an amateur, painting as a hobby.
He was far from that, but he did have an ambivalent attitude
toward professional painters all the same, and the character of his
work did not prevent artists dyed in the wool of the "art world"
from scorning his pictures. He is still, despite continuing
popularity, by no means a notable artist in the eyes of many art
writers and historians.
Once, at a crucial, early point in his development as an artist,
there was (as he told it) one art critic who angered him by showing
how comparatively ineffective the overall dark tonality of his
paintings was. He was angry - and then he listened. His tones had
been aimed at capturing the soot-blackened character of what Blake
called "the dark satanic mills" and their environs; what was
missing as a result was strong contrast. His buildings, his
figures, everything merged in the universal gloom.
The criticism had a remarkable effect. Lowry switched to his
characteristic off-white ground, over which he painted, in a spare
range of colors dominated by black, brown and gray, his settings of
industrial buildings, chimneys, gas works, churches, and row upon
row of workers' terraced housing. This universal off-white became
in his hands a kind of bleak, foggy, smoke-hung atmosphere
thickening away toward the most distant horizon and
indistinguishably meeting the sky. It became the setting of his
His scenes (and they are rather theatrical) are often viewed as
if from a high window or from the brow of some steep street
opposite - a "world view" of the industrial wasteland that had once
been "England's green and pleasant land" but had long since been
devastated by the Industrial Revolution. The undulating mounds and
humps of this scene were slag heaps and coal tips; "lakes" and
"rivers" were virtually stagnant, unreflecting mirrors, fishless in
their depths. Canals were what they were intended to be: oily
waterways for barges laden with raw materials. Lamp posts,
telegraph poles, pylons, brick walls, stone walls - here, in such
unpastoral places, trees had no part. If they were once or twice to
be found, they would be alone, surrounded by iron railings.
Railings were everywhere, keeping out and keeping in.
Yet, as Lowry's pictures abundantly and entertainingly show, it
is possible to feel actual affection for such places, and to
discover vitality in them. Lowry's character, as expressed in his
art, had its share of hard irony, grim realism, an awareness of
hopelessness and poverty; but he was also a humorous, mischievous,
contrary kind of man, proudly unpretentious, warm-hearted enough to
be forever guarding against "sentimentality. …