16 April 2011 | Looking for Lowry

Margy Kinmonth’s film looks for L.S. Lowry mostly through the eyes of his admirers, who include me.  Early on, she asked me to present and narrate the film: I said I was neither expert enough nor objective enough to do either.  Yet in the finished film I seem to be presenting and narrating Kinmonth’s words just as she intended all along: as well as speaking Lowry’s words and even trying for a sort of impersonation which is passable from the back only.  

Margy gets what she wants and what she wanted was a disparate group of mostly respectable Lowry fans to explain themselves.  She was one of us and at the outset what most interested her, was some definition of Lowry’s achievement.  She encouraged his heir to at last reveal the store of work he left behind.  Carol Ann Lowry (no blood relation) talks so freshly about her friend and benefactor, a relationship meriting its own film.  She can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t be in awe of his artistry.  And that goes for all but one of us in Margy’s film.  

I hope it might counter the traditional disaffection with which the art establishment regards Lowry’s immense popularity.  I hope my own advocacy, rooted as it is in northern origins, won’t be automatically discounted in London-centric circles.

I was brought up in industrial south Lancashire, down the cobbled road from where L.S. Lowry (1887-1976) lived and painted.  As Noel Gallagher says in the film, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Lowry.”  He was pre-eminent among other established local painters whom I admired: Theodore Major (from Wigan), Alan Lowndes (Stockport), Harold Riley (Salford), Trevor Grimshaw (Hyde), a varied group of northerners who flourished under the same polluted skies.  

Lowry didn’t paint shadows.  If he’d noticed any, perhaps he would have.  Over the Pennines in Bradford, David Hockney didn’t appreciate light and shade until he saw Californian sunshine in Laurel and Hardy films.  Hockney and Stan Laurel (from Ulverston, near the coast of Lancashire) emigrated to Los Angeles and the sunlight.  Lowry stayed put in Greater Manchester, perhaps because he, like Adolphe Valette before him, preferred a steady urban gloom.  

He travelled all over the country, on holiday with friends, sketching for his evocative oils of Scotland, the Borders, Wales, Cornwall and the Lake and Peak Districts.  There are, too, a few large seaside canvases, recording post-war holidays at Lytham St Annes, where our family went a few times.  Even there, in Lytham Sun Tans, as my sister aptly wrote it, there was still no sun for Lowry.  Even on his sandy beaches, with strollers, paddlers and dogs, of course, there are no parasols, sun-glasses nor shadows.

No Manchester smog in his paintings either: though he could sketch a dazzling smoky sky. He did not paint the weather, nor ever the night.  Except in the earliest oils of Salford, there are no Atkinson Grimshaw street-lighting effects.  His constant light is more Brechtian and presents the people in the paintings as if they have been lit for a performance where each character counts, where there are no stars but many walk-ons.  The streets are white or grey, the better to present their silhouette.  Whether sketched from afar in a crowd or painted in oily close-up, Lowry’s people dominate his work.  Through the thick of the waning industrial cityscape and beyond, he cast his steady, good-humoured gaze on his neighbours at work and play.

Still in his prime he abandoned his trademark cityscapes for less populated scenes. I am a recent convert to his empty paintings of sea and mountains but if you want any proof that Lowry was a great painter, look at his earlier work and look at his crowds.  

Until Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot nobody seems to have noticed that much of human life is to do with waiting, and until Lowry painted his crowds, no other artist had recorded how people (and animals) look and behave en masse.  Each individual is on his/her own journey across the canvas yet leaning to form the crowd with its own collective identity.  Once you have seen how Lowry saw us, you cannot ever see or be in a football crowd, nor watch kids playing, workers leaving the factory, queuing, or stopping to chat or hear the fairground barker, without saying “Lowry! It’s just like a Lowry painting!”  Going about our business or pleasure, we are all subjects of his vision.  Matching the “matchstick men” with film of living Mancunians, the point is strongly made in the film.  

Lowry was not a naturalistic painter and didn’t intend to be.  He was not a camera; he didn’t even own one.  He lived through the 30’s depression, the suffragette movement and the First and Second World Wars, but they are not specified in the paintings; he is a painter not a politician.  He wasn’t an insider, advocating social change, pleading on behalf of his less fortunate neighbours.  Yet his portraits and crowds reflect his good-humoured humanity and his unsentimental inquisitiveness.  He stood across the road from his subjects and observed.  Often enough there are a number of individuals in a crowd peering back at him.  They invite us momentarily into their world, like characters on a stage sometimes do, breaking the fourth-wall illusion in favour of a direct communication between subject and artist, performer and audience.

This flavour of theatrics is not surprising from a pre-television era, when alongside his gramophone records, live theatre was his favourite entertainment, modern and classic drama, ballet and pantomime.  Does that explain why often Lowry’s mid-air viewpoint is like a view from the dress circle, looking down on the scene below?  And across the bottom of the canvas, he often marks the limits of the street scene with curbstones or a pavement that feel like the edge of the stage where the footlights illuminate the action.   

Lowry’s popularity has survived his death and swelled.  Auction prices continue to rise.  Tom Rosenthal’s new biography and critical assessment is now published.  The Lowry in Salford champions their man and cares for its permanent collection, the largest there is.  I wonder what the estate will do with its newly revealed work.  

Why should it matter that the Tate Gallery in London (with its 23 Lowry’s) has chosen not to display any of them for many years?  His popularity needs no official endorsement from the Tate but it is a shame verging on the iniquitous that foreign visitors to London shouldn’t have access to the painter English people like more than most others.  

Over the years, silly lies have been thrown around – that  Lowry was only a Sunday painter, an amateur, untrained, na´ve.  The Tate’s current apologist tries a new attack in the film: Lowry’s popularity is why the gallery doesn’t show his work!  His fans are his problem.  

If the Tate feels no responsibility to give the art-viewing public their favourite painters to view, perhaps they could let their stash go elsewhere, pass them on to a gallery like the Lowry, who share their visitors’ tastes.  Lowry’s home in Pendlebury, where he lived and painted over 40 years, is still standing, empty, boarded-up and unmarked by a long-overdue blue plaque.  Many of the Tate’s pictures were painted in the front upper room.  It could make a unique addition to the Tate brand of museums.  

Beyond London, there are the other world arts centres, who know little about Lowry.  Imagine how costly his paintings would be if an international market were bidding.  It could be to the Tate’s advantage to tap that potential by promoting Lowry’s name abroad; perhaps with a touring Retrospective, with a twist?  The exhibits would be for sale. 

Ian McKellen, Wellington, NZ, 16 April 2011

LOOKING FOR LOWRY, a film by Margy Kinmonth, was shown on ITV Network UK on Easter Sunday 24th April 2011 at 22.15 www.foxtrotfilms.com

Photos by Ian McKellen

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