The Life of L.S. Lowry

Hancock Gallery is proud to exhibit a collection of limited editions by infamous northern artist, L.S. Lowry. His life and career were riddled with hardship and despair, which plays as an undercurrent in his work, which wasn't truly appreciated until the final months of his life.

In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, The Royal Jubilee Exhibition was held in Old Trafford, Manchester. On 1st November 1887 it was reported the exhibition saw 4.5 million visitors pass through the gates of the exhibition. However, what was not mentioned at the time, was the birth of Lawrence Stephen Lowry to mother Elizabeth and father Robert Lowry.

Lowry was an outsider for the majority of his life, and experienced a reasonable amount of childhood trauma at the hands of his mother, who had wished for a daughter and made no effort to hide this fact. Often dressing the young boy in white frocks, Elizabeth Lowry’s relationship with her son was particularly strained for the entirety of the artist’s life until her death.

As a result of the sad childhood Lowry endured, he was a particularly shy and quiet child, preferring his own company and avoiding social situations. Living with Asperger’s Syndrome, Lowry’s ability to relate to his peers was almost non-existent as he struggled to find his place in society.

“I have no really happy memories of childhood, it was not a nice time.”

Although he projected an image of a jovial self-effacing individual, the artist was often depressed and felt quite lonely for the majority of his life. Lowry never married, finding relationships ‘almost impossible’. The snobbish London art establishment didn’t take him seriously, with critic Brian Sewell calling the Manchester artist a ‘cloth-capped nincompoop’.

In March 1910 at the age of 23, Lowry began his job for Pall Mall Property Company as a rent collector. The job saw Lowry walk the streets of Pendlebury and its surrounding areas daily collecting rent. The artist was particularly taken by the sights and atmosphere of the industrial town, relating to the down-trodden workers and dingy smog coated buildings. 

“Nobody really cared that it took me three days to collect rent when it could have been done in two,” he said, “I was busy drawing my surroundings. As long as you didn’t fiddle the books…you had a job for life.”

Despite the continuing positive development of his artistic practice, Lowry’s mother repeatedly professed distaste for the artist’s work and goals, criticising them as ‘devoid of beauty’. This could arguably be the point of Lowry’s earlier works - the artist found solace in landscapes that exhibited little to no pleasing aesthetic, the perfect metaphor for his experience of life.

After leaving Manchester Art School, Lowry began taking evening classes at Salford School of Art, where his work continued to fall under criticism. The artist recalled taking paintings to his life drawing tutor who deemed them ‘too dingey’. However in October 1921, Lowry exhibited 25 oils and 2 pastels with an amateur group of painters. Although his work went unsold, The Manchester Guardian reported “Lowry has a very interesting and individual outlook and interprets street scenes of Manchester with technical means as yet imperfect but with real imagination.” Up to this point, the consistent battle with his mother, inability to sell art and criticism from his academic mentors had pushed Lowry to the point of considering the end of his artistic career. However this review gave Lowry the much needed confidence to soldier on with his creative practice. In 1926 The Manchester Guardian requested three of Lowry’s works to feature as part of their Civic Week Celebration, resulting in the literary editor purchasing one of the paintings, and the artist began seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

However, the 1930s reintroduced darkness and despair to Lowry’s life beginning with the death of his father. Lowry was well exhibited, having shown in Canada, Paris and multiple places across Northern England, but still unable to sell his work. “I spent 30 years creating paintings that nobody wanted”. The passing of the artist’s father in 1932 further restricted his life, as he became inundated with his father’s debts and the sole carer for his mother who became bedridden.

Lowry faced seven solemn years caring for his mother who began ruling his life, constantly demanding his attention all the while belittling his pursuit of an artistic career.. With his new bleak way of life, Lowry was only able to find time to create work late after his mother had fallen asleep. “It was quiet and lonely,” he said, “but it is the only thing that kept me sane during that time.” Lowry’s work truly captured his despair during this period, with many pieces portraying derelict buildings, wastelands and dark quiet areas. Though the artist found solace in his art-making, he could not completely escape the deep depression he carried with him. One of his most stand-out pieces, ‘Head of a Man’, actually began as a self portrait, but as the artist continued to progress with the piece, the subject morphed into a grotesque head, further reflecting his despair. Lowry’s mother passed away just one year before the start of the second world war. 

After World War II, during which time Lowry acted as a wartime artist, Lowry was finally earning a good income as a painter and decided to move to Londendale where he began building his own art collection, including works of Rosetti. In this final progression of his artistic career, Lowry would often stare at desolate buildings for hours, and felt their empty structures resembled his own identity. 

Later in life, Lowry ‘became bored’ of focusing solely on landscapes, and moved to include figures in his work which are now known as ‘Matchstick Men’. Lowry recalled finding joy in becoming the observer, shifting his focus from seeing his own reflection in depraved landscapes, to recording moments he observes of people’s lives around him. “I love observing individuals, women conversing while their bored children act out, men on the trudge to work…”

Towards the end of his life, Lowry regularly visited Sunderland and painted studies of the view from his room at Seaburn Hotel. Some of these pieces are thought to be the most honest representation of life of the working men on the docks of that time.

In 1976 Royal Academy London approached Lowry for a solo exhibition of works, which was rare, as few living artists are given this accolade. Lowry accepted, and joked that it was too late, regarding the extreme struggles he’d endured over decades to get his artwork the respect and recognition he felt it deserved. This comment, however, became ironically prophetic, as Lowry passed away just a few months later on 23rd February 1976 to Pneumonia. 

The following September, Lowry’s exhibition opened at the Royal Academy, and was credited a major success as one of the most popular academy shows in the 20th century.


Hancock Gallery's Lowry prints form part of our Signature Collection, and can be viewed both online and in the gallery.