I had never seen the picture at the head of this post before. We stumbled across it in a corner of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. I couldn’t track its background anywhere in the Lowry Gallery at Salford Quays the following day. Neither is it in the excellent book I bought there by Shelley Rohde.
It is in the same tradition as his 1949 painting entitled The Cripples, for which he was much criticised by those who wrongly thought that he was mocking the people he depicted. What seems more likely to have been true is that he identified with them, feeling that, ‘but for the grace of God,’ as he put it, he could have been the same. He had been deeply scarred by his mother’s unrelenting denigration of him, hungry as he was for her appreciation more than for all else in the world it sometimes seemed. That he continued, against her scathing opposition, to pursue his vocation as an artist says much for the power of that calling and for his own steely determination, wounded though he was by her contempt.
Spotting the previously unknown Lowry painting where I had not expected to see any trace of him rather set the tone for my whole experience. The Lowry I found at the Quays was far more complex and wide ranging than the Lowry I thought I knew.
I knew he was not reducible to the stereotype of the clumsy painter of matchstick people, too popular to be any good really, as the art establishment tended to think for decades during his lifetime, driving him to hide his job as rent collector behind thick veils of misdirection. Heaven help him if the art pundits could justify their attitude by pointing out he was a mere amateur, and his painting was only hobby!
What I hadn’t ever seen were his haunting seascapes, capturing his apparent isolation for all time.
I have no recollection of being previously exposed to the gaunt portraits that held my attention for minutes on end in the gallery itself. The portrait below was triggered after he had looked in the mirror during an exhausting and stressful period of his life, when he was the sole carer of his demanding and by this time bed-bound mother, who had decades of experience in using her apparent illnesses to exact compliance to her every whim from those closest to her.
I was also unaware of his teasingly repeated variations on Anna’s face, leading those seeking to understand him to wonder who she was and whether she existed outside his imagination at all.
I’d been confined to an awareness of his industrial cityscapes, peopled by lonely crowds, and of his empathic renderings of the disadvantaged and the handicapped.
An additional source of fascination is that my childhood was rooted in a similar townscape to the one he explored for three decades in his art. I was born and grew up in Stockport, where red brick factories and smoking chimneys abounded. I went by train to Manchester many times, mostly to buy books. I walked through Piccadilly Gardens on innumerable occasions. A print of his version of that scene hangs on my wall to this day.
His painting is close to the literal truth of the scene, something that was not always the case as he often pulled in details from his walks in different places to create a composite effect.
Currently there are no traces of the fountains as my shot from a different angle indicates: they are hidden behind temporary fencing and placards while some kind of ongoing work blocks any sign of water. Road works are a recurrent feature of the Manchester townscape at present. Lots of intriguing figures still in interesting poses though.
The title of this post is a bit of a boast. Even my relatively sketchy reading so far indicates pretty clearly that Lowry dedicated much energy to preserving his elusiveness.
Most now agree that Anna, as one specific person, did not really exist even though to one interviewer Lowry gave the impression she had died young and been the love of his life. Personally I like Rohde’s explanation of the Coppelia/Swanhilda theory, but if you want to know more I suggest you need to read her excellent book. To spell it out here would be a real plot-spoiler.
He may not have been as lonely as many people thought. Edith Brill, a very close writer friend and wife of Harold Timperley, was (Rohde – page 105):
. . . . . deeply hurt, even angered, when having believed Lowry to be friendless she arrived with [her husband] to spend an evening at the home of a certain professor at Manchester University, to find Lowry happily ensconced in the best armchair eating macaroni cheese. ‘We had assumed he had no friends at all, because that was what he had led us to believe; not in so many words, but by implication.’
What is certainly the case is that the best way to understand him at all is through his art.
He devoted his every available moment to using his art to search for the meaning of his life in his surroundings. That he told reporters he had found no meaning at all that he could understand is not a statement to be taken at face value, anymore than we should implicitly believe many other such statements that are clearly only half-truths at best. It was probably true, though, that any meaning he ever found could not be captured in words, only in paint.
We see in his art how deep the connection was between this apparently isolated and detached man and the places and people around him. The connection with people deepened over time and caused him to suggest that his later, more people-centred paintings were better than his townscape-focused earlier work. Many of those interviewed after his death spoke of his genuine compassion and humility. That he chose to present himself as lonely and friendless may have been his way of protecting the vulnerable self that had been scarred by the disparagement of his status-conscious hypochondriacal mother: he was far closer to people than he seemed, perhaps. He just preferred not to show it.
There are those who seek to apply the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome as a way of explaining his idiosyncrasies. While I immediately felt comfortable with that label’s being applied to Lucien Freud, I am resisting its application to Lowry largely because of the empathy, humour and warmth those to whom he grew close strongly detected in his presence. The distance he felt compelled to keep seems to me to have been more strategic than inherent, and was almost certainly the result not of his genes but of the acquired scars he was protecting, which did not leave him with any other viable option in his view.
In the end, though, we should look to his work for any answers about what he really felt and believed – and by his work I don’t mean rent-collecting, though he used that job as an important window into the lives and environment of others.