Odd Man Out
Our Art Critic assesses the achievement of L. S. Lowry, who died last week
Think of a Lowry. Sky overcast, pipe-cleaner figures scurrying to and fro, leaving work, off to the match, crowding to the scene of an accident. Trippers, millworkers, layabouts, passers-by: all strangers.
Lowry's view was detached. He kept himself at a distance, noting behaviour patterns and, at the same time, noticing individual peculiarities. When he singled people out it was to remark upon their limps, squints, and nervous habits. Individuals, he implied, are all freaks.
The more honorary doctorates he was given, the more celebrated he became; the more interviewed, and legendary, the further he withdrew. He was cordial but reserved, given to sudden chirrups of enthusiasm, canny about his art, reluctant to discuss it except in chatty terms. This encouraged people to imagine him to be a benign old simpleton. But when you really look at his work it becomes obvious that he was not simply a regional phenomenon with the knack of striking a common chord. The pallid daylight that pervaded his industrial Lancashire spread to Sunderland, Berwick, Scotland, Cornwall and Wales. Everywhere Lowry went the same mists closed in, distancing and isolating and menacing. Loneliness, he used to say, was the reason he became and remained a painter.
But there was also a profound caution. He spent 15 years as an art student in Manchester and Salford and still felt untrained. For a long time he stuck to being rather a pale imitator of Ginner and Bevan of the Camden Town Group. He didn't have a one-man show until 1939, when he was 52 and permanently set in his ways.
Once developed, the now-familiar Lowry idiom served as a means of surveying the whole world around him. By the 1950s he was producing his most elaborate panoramas of the human antheap: the style implied comment.
Later he became more economical with his effects - he was always thrifty. So much so that eventually he felt able to discard people altogether sometimes and show nothing but off-white sea and sky. So, far from being a realist, a documentary painter, Lowry was an intense romantic, an odd man out, increasingly reliant on hindsight. He was attracted to leftover places, all of conducive to melancholy. He observed cripples. The paintings are not wilfully naive as is often suggested. The are calculatedly bleak.
Lowry's popularity stemmed from his success in representing what everybody sees as the true North: dour but homely, once you get past the front door. The pictures reproduced well.
But his lasting reputation, his claim to greatness, is likely to rest on his formal skills: his fluent pencil drawings with their telling smudges, the extraordinarily brusque, yet delicate way he handled paint. The reserve was a front. Lowry was unique for his imagery, his attitudes, for what he meant to so many.