Derbyshire in the life of L.S. Lowry

PUBLISHED: 16:00 04 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:51 20 February 2013

Derbyshire in the life of L.S. Lowry

Derbyshire in the life of L.S. Lowry

Peter Seddon reveals some county connections to the 'People's Painter'

A number of celebrated artists are linked indelibly to Derbyshire usually by birth, residency or schooling. The peoples painter L.S. Lowry fits none of those criteria. Yet the artist himself expressed a pronounced affection for the county. For almost 40 years he lived so close to its north-west border that the Peak scenery around his Mottram-in-Longdendale home became a familiar part of his life. He died in Derbyshire too in 1976 at the Woods Hospital in Glossop, the town which for three decades had been his regular haunt.

Of course he is most closely associated with Lancashire, notably the urban backdrops of Manchester and Salford. His trademark nave streetscapes and matchstalk figures are universally recognised. Yet Lowrys work extended far beyond those stereotypes and some of his less vaunted rural landscapes drew directly on the Peakland scenery right at his doorstep.

Lawrence Stephen Lowry was born in Stretford, Manchester, on 1st November 1887, the only child of estate agents clerk Robert Lowry and his wife Elizabeth. From early childhood Lawrie developed a pronounced enthusiasm for drawing and painting indeed art seemed his only focus. This led to serious disagreements with his parents when he came to leave school.

His mother derided the very idea of art as a living. She had in mind an office job. In the event a compromise was agreed upon Lowry began work at a Manchester firm of Chartered Accountants, but in 1905 also enrolled for evening classes at the Municipal School of Art.

Although this satisfied his artistic bent, becoming an artist remained just a hope. But a change of job in his early twenties shaped Lowrys destiny in 1910 he joined the Pall Mall Property Company in Manchester as a rent collector. On his daily rounds through the grim but vibrant streets he observed real life at close quarters. Casting his quirky eye on local characters and buildings he began recording what he saw in his trademark primitive style.

He remained with Pall Mall for more than 40 years, retiring at 65 in 1952. By then he had achieved a measure of success as an artist. Yet he always went to great pains to keep his day job quiet indeed he developed almost a paranoia that if people knew that he had worked for a living then he would be considered just a Sunday painter and never a professional artist.

Throughout his twenties and thirties he adopted a steady but unspectacular routine employment by day, painting weekends and evenings, and often into the small hours. Still living in Manchester at home by then in Pendlebury he declined to drink alcohol, didnt smoke, and never had a romantic interest. Thus unburdened by the usual distractions of adult life, his spare energies and emotions were poured into his pastime. Much of his output was shot through with a gentle humour, but many other canvasses not his most widely known betray the disquieting torment that lay within him.

But despite these efforts, genuine recognition as a painter eluded him for two decades. Only in 1930 by then in his early forties did his first breakthrough occur. Manchester City Art Gallery bought his painting An Accident and at last the art critics began to notice this singular talent and unorthodox character.

Four years later he was elected to the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts and to the Royal Society of British Artists. His work began to sell yet his name remained obscure. Not until he had turned 50 did the second break occur this one by chance after the London art dealer A.J. McNeill Read of the Lefevre Gallery noticed several of Lowrys paintings at a picture framers. He gave the artist his debut one-man exhibition in January 1939. The first stirrings of celebrity followed the artist L.S. Lowry began to be talked about.

His raised profile garnered him new honours. During the Second World War he was appointed an official war artist. But that period also delivered the event that further changed his life. Having nursed his ailing widowed mother for almost a decade, her death in 1939 precipitated a change. Lowry became deeply depressed and neglected his rented house to such a degree that he was threatened with eviction. As soon as the war ended, the troubled but liberated only child began searching for a new home.

Fellow Manchester Academy artist Frank Bradley alerted Lowry to a house in his own village. Mottram-in-Longdendale lay three miles from Glossop on the fringe of the Peak. It comprised little more than a stark group of isolated houses, but Lowry had already visited Bradley there previously, and was swayed by familiarity and friendship. In August 1948 he decamped from Manchester into The Elms on Stalybridge Road and stayed for the rest of his life.

In truth the house was quite unsuitable. The dining room became his studio, cramped and stacked with canvases. Facilities were rudimentary but Lowry steadfastly refused to make improvements. His home needed what in those days was routinely labelled a womans touch unfamiliar territory to a man who once declared the only approval I ever craved was that of my mother. The confirmed bachelor artist settled into a life of semi-ordered chaos.

Yet the insular existence suited his character. And the changed surroundings influenced his work. Mottram afforded extensive views of the wild Peak a landscape entirely opposite to the industrial backdrops he had captured almost to death. A newly-enthused Lowry began increasingly to paint rural scenes one of his own favourites House on the Moor (1950) was inspired by an isolated Peak dwelling he had spotted on one of his outings.

Lowry appeared to take great comfort from the open spaces. Indeed he suggested that the proximity of the Derbyshire countryside was a factor in his never leaving Mottram. His opinion of the village itself appeared almost hostile. In a letter to a friend in 1968 he remarked: Mottram is getting uglier and uglier if that is possible. But it is as convenient a place to live in as any other, and is only a few minutes away from the wonderful moorland country of Derbyshire.

He also developed a genuine affection for Glossop, where he became a familiar figure. His regular bus trip to town generally embraced lunch at Lords Caf in the High Street, where he invariably ordered salad evidently a man hidebound by a love of routine... but a rare talent for all his eccentricities.

Glossop also pleased him because he was largely left alone there after he attained celebrity. He became a household name after the Arts Council organised a travelling exhibition of more then 100 of his works during 1966. The general public discovered him and he never relished the attention. But the well-grounded folk of north-west Derbyshire treated him as Glossops own.

How extensively Lowry travelled elsewhere in Derbyshire is not widely recorded, but he was a great one for outings. With his friend and loyal patron Dr Hugh Maitland a professor at Manchester University and a keen amateur painter Lowry enjoyed exploring the Peak District. And he certainly traversed the county into Staffordshire. In Burton-on-Trent he produced six works several depicting the brewery level-crossings which once characterised the town and when Maitland and his wife moved to Burton in 1966 he visited their home 9 Rowbury Drive off Ashby Road on a number of occasions. Maitland taped their conversations, hoping to write Lowrys biography, but died without ever starting in earnest.

L.S. Lowry himself passed away at the age of 88. In February 1976 a caller to The Elms found him collapsed on the floor having suffered a stroke. He was taken to the Woods Hospital in Glossop and died there of pneumonia on 23rd February.

His artistic legacy is widely recognised. And scattered reminders of his life lie close at hand. Derby Museum and Art Gallery holds a solitary work in Houses Near a Mill (1941). Mottram boasts a fine statue of the artist, and a Blue Plaque adorns The Elms.

Given Lowrys prolific output over 1,000 paintings and 8,000 drawings a few originals must surely hang in Derbyshire homes. Some fine examples have certainly passed through Belper, where Neptune Fine Art is run by Lowry specialist David Smith. But for those of us just looking there is a rare opportunity currently close by a major Lowry exhibition in Nottingham includes works seldom shown, including those inspired by his three decades in Mottram. That aside, might Derbyshire yet yield its own Lowry surprises an undiscovered gem loitering in Glossop? They do surface still and his record price is 5.6 million worth searching those attics!

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