Grayson Perry isn’t a fan of LS Lowry. In a 2013 interview for Radio Times, he dismisses his subject matter. ‘When you see all his work together you realize how repetitive it is… The style is quite twee, quite children’s bookish.’ It’s a very common view among my fellow artists and art fans. Lowry is one of the most Marmite of all painters, still capable of dividing the nation across lines of (perceived) sophistication. Highbrow gallery-goers may scorn him, but the general public still flock to see his work. Karl Pilkington, everyman co-presenter of the Ricky Gervais podcast and self-confessed idiot, makes no secret of his disdain for contemporary art, yet he sits the other side of the fence to Grayson. His favourite artist is Lowry – ‘cos you can look at them for ages and see someone different every time.’
I may not quite be ready to align myself with the views of Karl Pilkington, but I do see something else in Lowry’s work, and I’m happy to admit it – even though at art school this love felt like more of a peccadillo, and won me quite a few withering, disappointed glances.
A current exhibition at Jerwood’s charming new gallery in Hastings brings together a range of Lowry’s maritime pieces. It is a small two room display that reminds us he didn’t just paint industrial landscapes. In fact, the range of styles is about as broad as you’ll ever see in a Lowry display – from matchstalk men set pieces, to single figure caricatures, to unpeopled seascapes.
In ‘July, the Seaside’ from 1943, we find ourselves on home Lowry territory – a birds eye view of a grey, densely peopled beach. In its own way it’s a funny piece, painted with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It jars with our modern sensibilities, where the beach in Summer equates to sun and bronzed bodies. Lowry’s picture is an anti-homage to the English high ‘Summer’, which sees everyone hunched over in coats, some clutching umbrellas. Did men really, in living memory, wear bowler hats on the beach? It is salty, exaggerated comedy in a Northern, Coronation Street vein – yet it’s also the snapshot of a bygone era in our recent past that contains a truth about how quickly our lives have changed. For the workers in Lowry’s factory scenes, Easyjet was impossible to imagine. This really is as good as it got.
‘The Seaside’ is the only large scale figure painting in the show. In many of the pieces, figures are noticeably absent. Small scale panels like ‘Waiting for the Tide’ suggest that Lowry, like many of us, possessed the tendency to become quite reflective at the sea’s edge. The panels are framed unusually – floating free under glass so we can see how the oil paint envelops the edges of the wood. With their thick, creamy texture they almost feel like low-relief sculptural pieces – sea and sky merging to make images which shimmer on the edge of full blown abstraction.
Many of the paintings and drawings date from Lowry’s retirement. The artist had worked as a rent collector until 65, and a lifetime of hard graft and very little artistic recognition left him extremely cynical. One senses that, by the time he was in his seventies, he didn’t really care much about what people thought of him anymore, and had certainly given up on finessing many of his artworks. I think there’s something anti-art in his choice of late materials. A few of the pictures in this show are rendered in that stereotypically childish medium, felt-tip – while his caricatured and willfully naïve ‘Shark’ drawing (1970) is partly rendered in ballpoint pen.
‘Seascape’, from 1965, is a medium scale late work which sees Lowry edging once again close to abstraction – thickly painted yet sensitive, with a real sense of enormous receding open space. In a recent episode of BBC’s ‘Fake or Fortune’, much was made by the experts of Lowry’s love for flake white. He got through gallons of the stuff. He was obsessed with how his paints would age, and painted blank canvases white before shutting them away for years on end to see how the whites would soften to creamy yellow. ‘The pictures I’ve painted today’, he concluded, ‘will not be seen at their best until I’m dead.’
I once got into a heated discussion with a friend about whether art and music should be judged independently of its back story. Great art transcends the biographies, my friend argued – and if not, it isn’t great. View a picture by any anguished soul and you won’t need to be told there was pain there. Conversely, any work of art which needs a ream of explanation is by extension impotent.
I have some sympathy with this. Any Conceptual Art which requires special prior knowledge is a turn off to me – it’s elitist. Yet I don’t see anything wrong with deepening one’s insight and knowledge via the back story. For me, Lowry is a particular case in point. I used to see his work as mostly social realist in flavour – documenting a slice of England, a way of life now long gone. Yet reading about his life suggested to me there was something more to see. I became convinced that his great industrial landscapes and panoramic empty seascapes had intense personal loneliness as their fundamental common thread. They were inward looking far more than being the outward looking, social commentaries they were often interpreted as. These images, I realized, were not just about the industrial North, but were cries from the heart of a lonely man, subtler yet sadder to me than the swirling maelstroms of late Van Gogh. ‘Look at my seascapes’, the artist once said, ‘They don’t really exist you know, they’re just an expression of my own loneliness.’
The same could be said of a great many Lowry pictures. The artist lived a solitary life, for most of it denied access to an art establishment he longed to be part of. In his personal life he was intensely private. His job collecting rents allowed him to watch the world and wander through it, never quite feeling part of it. By his own admission he ‘never had a woman’ – neither fling nor love affair.
In 1957 he painted ‘Ann’ a stylized female likeness that he insisted was drawn from life. It was an image he returned to, re-painting several times. She, like the seascapes, is a pale ghostly vision of the artist’s loneliness. In her biography of Lowry, Shelley Rohde concedes that none of the artist’s friends had a clue who this lady was, and it seems highly likely that she never existed. She was the woman Lowry wished he’d met, a composite vision of empty wistful longing. Are the great industrial landscapes any different? People swarm through these scenes, living their lives, never seen close-up, always ignoring Lowry. He is removed quite definitely from the flowing river of life. ‘Had I not been lonely’, he concedes, ‘none of my work would have happened.’ I wonder if any artist before or since has explored the soul of loneliness quite so exhaustively.
The Jerwood show contains one painting which seems to come from a submerged, post-apocalyptic imagined future. ‘Self Portrait as a Pillar in the Sea’ is a small scale sketch from the artist’s last decade of life, bizarre even in the oeuvre of such an idiosyncratic painter. A marooned object somewhat redolent of a cock and balls is buffeted by the waves. It stands as an ironic monument to the artists achievements, seen by no-one. Though the sea will wear away the stone in time, the monument survives, alone yet defiantly standing out against the odds. It’s a fitting image of a man who ploughed such a stubborn furrow for so long.
‘Lowry by the Sea’ is at Jerwood Hastings til November 1st. Admission £8