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Much more than matchstick men

09 August 2019

Rod Garner finds a longing for transcendence in the life of L. S. Lowry

Peter Barritt/Alamy

The Fever Van, L.S. Lowry (1935)

The Fever Van, L.S. Lowry (1935)

MORE than 40 years after his death in 1976, Lawrence Stephen Lowry, better known as L. S. Lowry, remains one of the most recognised and appreciated artists in Britain. The familiar scenes that he painted — the northern industrial towns, terraced streets, and mill-workers that he desired to “put on the map” — retain an evocative power even in a post-industrial age, in which so much of what he obsessively chronicled has vanished.

For all the fame and recognition of his later years, when the Beatles bought his work and his paintings appeared on Prime Ministers’ Christmas cards and Post Office stamps, critical approval did not come easily, and was often harsh. His ubiquitous “matchstick” figures were labelled the slapdash or primitive efforts of a minor and moderately competent artist.

Such condescension ignored his long years of study, and the originality and breadth of his artistic vision, which encompassed more than the faithful depiction of factories and chimneys and scurrying crowds, and, in the deepest sense, may be seen as religious.

LOWRY’s figures are invested with pathos and, occasionally, tenderness. He was rarely sentimental about his subjects, and they reveal his abiding preoccupations: his struggle with what he called “the great battle of life” (a term he borrowed from a Dickens short story); his sense of “aloneness” in a world seemingly devoid of God; and an inchoate longing for transcendence — for “something more”, that might give purpose to the burdened, comic, and sometimes grotesque or crippled individuals who people his landscapes.

As a child, he went with his mother to Sunday school. A talented musician, she played the organ, and collected clocks and china. She showed little affection to her son, and, in later life, was openly scornful of his achievements. After the death of his father — a clerk who never realised his ambitions and left the family in debt — she took to her bed, and remained there until her own time came.

Lowry lived for her, but was locked into a controlling relationship fuelled by love, devotion, and resentment. He later recalled that he had no happy memories of childhood, and saw himself as a “drifter” who had “never been abroad, never travelled, never robbed a bank, never had a serious relationship”.

It is true that he never married, and professed with regret that he had lived a celibate life. But he undoubtedly enjoyed the company of women, and was strongly attracted to them, as can be seen in the darker and more erotic elements to be found in his private paintings.

THE early religious leanings acquired from his parents eventually faded, but, among his treasured books, he kept a collection of sermons, The Graver Thoughts of a Country Parson, first published in 1876. The book opens with a reference to Christ’s apostles, whose “special powers” enabled them to “cast out unclean spirits and bring back the morbid and miserable soul to cheerfulness and sound health”. Perhaps this was the “something more” that Lowry longed for: the restoration of the stunted and fragile figures that he saw daily.

When the family moved from the genteel surroundings of Victoria Park, Manchester, to Pendlebury, a dismal suburb of the neighbouring city of Salford, people passed their new home day and night — “all my material was on my doorstep.” Lowry also walked the streets incessantly. He was an emerging northern artist when time permitted, but, by day, he was now a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company, a job that he held (and rarely disclosed ) until his retirement at 65.

For almost 30 years, he had little commercial artistic success. Galleries were not interested; but he persisted. As he collected rents, he carefully observed how the poor lived and moved: their shuffles and limps; their worn-out shoes; and the women’s shawls, worn on even the shortest journeys. His vocation was to set all this down. Confirmation came in 1916, at the top of the local railway-station steps, when he saw the Acme Mill, “a great dark-red block with the low streets of mill cottages running right up to it. I knew what I had to paint.”

It was an epiphany of sorts — a summons to paint people who were more than they seemed; who, however small, made a difference through their struggles, and possessed their own particular dignity.

ENERGY, violence, cruelty, and laughter constitute the recurring themes of Lowry’s creations. Workers toil, and stoically share their routines and rituals, celebrations and losses, under the grey sky of an inscrutable Providence. The book of Ecclesiastes presents us with the same vision, and it is one not far removed from any truthful telling of the Christian story. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams writes that “the resurrection is not properly preached without an awareness of the human world as a place of loss, and a place where men and women strive not to be trapped in that loss.”

Lowry understood this very well, and sought release through reading, especially the writings of the 17th-century writer François de La Rochefoucauld, the poetry of Christina Rossetti, and the novels of Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Music consoled him, and the genius of J. S. Bach “transported him to the other side”: a telling reminiscence, suggesting that — despite his strong sense of the tragic in human affairs — he was not entirely devoid of hope for himself or others who found life baffling or unfair.

AS HE advanced further into old age, he became more eccentric, but remained observant and astute. He moved to a rough, grey-stoned house on the edge of the Pennines, where he lived until his death, aged 88. He was surrounded by 16 clocks, all telling different times, and an impressive collection of classical records and ceramics.

He continued to paint, at one level waiting for death, but also startling visitors by his forceful and yet gentle conversation, and his blue eyes that held their gaze. Life was still a dark wood in which he found himself astray, but it remained interesting, and there was still work to be done.

In his search for meaning, and his unswerving commitment to life as something strange, spare, and various, he transcended the caricature of a provincial painter of limited distinction. With acuity, empathy, and imagination, he captured what Wordsworth once described as the “ache that lies at the heart of things” — and how it might be endured, and, finally, overcome.

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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