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LS Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life


   'The Fever Van', L S Lowry, 1935
Oil on canvas, 43.1 x 53.5cm
© The Estate of L.S. Lowry. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2013
click here for enlarged image

At Tate Britain until 20th October 2013, ‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ is the first major retrospective of the enormously popular but divisive British artist since 1976, the year he died, aged 88. Although sometimes derided as a Sunday painter, naïve in style and sentimental in subject matter, Lowry remains much loved by the public. Co-curated by TJ Clark and Anne Wagner, this exhibition makes a bold re-assessment of Lowry as a serious artist in the Post-Impressionist mode.

The Painter of Modern Life

TJ Clark has been surprised by views in the London art world on Lowry, "It is extraordinary to me, this image of him as an amateur, as someone who could barely paint, won't die. To me it is absolutely astonishing. And coded into this conversation by the metropolitan elite is the idea that someone who paints this subject matter can't be taken seriously."1 The exhibition looks to place Lowry in the context of Post-Impressionism, when artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Georges Seurat depicted the margins of Paris and turned its industrial suburbs into subject matter for painting. Lowry was introduced to these ideas through his teacher at the Manchester School of Art, a gifted and under-rated French artist, "I cannot over-estimate the effect on me of the coming into this drab city of Adolphe Valette, full of French impressionists, aware of everything that was going on in Paris"2

In the north of pre-war Britain industry wasn’t confined to the suburbs; mills and factories occupied the centre of towns like Pendlebury. Lowry’s family had moved there from a leafy Manchester suburb when he was young, "At first I detested it, and then, after years I got pretty interested in it, then obsessed by it."3 The cityscapes Lowry went on to paint have become iconic images of the working-class life of this time; crowds leaving the mill, going to football matches, men fighting in the street, they have formed our collective idea of the industrial north.

Co-curator Anne Wagner defends Lowry against the other charge made against him, that he was sentimental and miserable, "Part of Lowry is that he's not kitsch. Kitsch is doing your thinking for you, telling you how to think and feel. Lowry never tells you how to feel... to have represented the lives of the working class and not become a propagandist is an astonishing achievement."4


 'Oxford_Road', Pierre Adolphe Valette, 1910
Oil on canvas, Manchester
image source Wikipedia

A Limited Palette

Lowry famously used a palette of just five colours, ‘I am a simple man, and I use simple materials: ivory black, vermilion, prussian blue, yellow ochre, flake white and no medium. 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".’5 He selected his colours exclusively from the Winsor & Newton Winton Oil colour range, and an in-depth analysis of his palette is available here. A comparison with the paintings of his teacher Adolphe Valette reveals Lowry’s claims to be ‘a simple man’ as rather disingenuous. Valette’s cityscapes are smog-bound, monochromatic paintings with very little colour. Lowry chose the same subject matter but adapted his palette to suit a more graphic, direct technique, ‘tougher and cruder and deliberately so,’6 is how Clark puts it.

Lowry made sketches and thumbnail drawings whilst out and about. In World War II he was a firewatcher which gave him wonderful aerial views of the city much used in his paintings.  He also worked as a rent collector for the Pall Mall property company, a job he maintained until retirement. At night he would use the drawings to develop his paintings, "Most of my land and townscape is composite. Made up; part real and part imaginary [...] bits and pieces of my home locality. I don't even know I'm putting them in. They just crop up on their own, like things do in dreams."7
Modern equivalents

‘… it seemed to me by that time that it was a very fine industrial subject matter. And I couldn't see anybody at that time who had done it - and nobody had done it, it seemed.’8 DH Lawrence and George Orwell are examples of a tradition investigating industrial Britain in literature, but Lowry’s claim to be the only artist with this subject matter has legitimacy, given there was nothing before and little since. Lowry’s work was acknowledged in his lifetime, yet in his modest way he refused an OBE, CBE and a Knighthood.

The centrality of working class life in northern British towns and cities evaporated with the industries that supported it. Perhaps Lowry’s legacy can be traced to contemporary artists such as Turner Prize 2011 nominee George Shaw. He paints the working class estate of Tile Hill in Coventry where he grew up. This area is on the edge of the city, and the paintings show an un-populated hinterland where Lowry’s crowds and rituals exist only as a memory. Made using small tins of enamel paint that have a nostalgic association with boys’ model making, Shaw’s paintings evoke the industrial decline of the 70’s and 80’s and the neglect that followed.


‘Lowry and the painting of modern life’ Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1. 26 June – 20 October 2013.


1. Charlotte Higgins,’ Tate Britain exhibition to pay homage to matchstick master LS Lowry,’ Guardian newspaper, January 15th, 2013

2. Mark Brown, ‘Exhibition for 'Monet of Manchester' who inspired Lowry’ Guardian newspaper, October 14th, 2011

3. Anon. "LS Lowry - His Life and Career". thelowry.com.

4. Charlotte Higgins,’ Tate Britain exhibition to pay homage to matchstick master LS Lowry,’ Guardian newspaper, January 15th, 2013

5. Anon. ‘LS Lowry, his life and career.’ thelowry.com.

6. Charlotte Higgins,’ Tate Britain exhibition to pay homage to matchstick master LS Lowry,’ Guardian newspaper, January 15th, 2013

7. Anon. ''LS Lowry, his life and career.' thelowry.com

8. Anon. "LS Lowry - His Life and Career". thelowry.com.