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L. S. Lowry

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L. S. Lowry

L.S Lowry at work. Front cover image from
the biographical book of Lowry's life & work
by Shelley Rohde
Birth name Laurence Stephen Lowry
Nationality British
Field Painting
Training Manchester Municipal College
Salford Technical College
Works Going to the Match (1928),
Coming from the Mill (1930)
Industrial Landscape (1955)
Influenced Helen Bradley, Sheila Fell, Harold Riley
Awards Freedom of the City of Salford
Honorary Master of Arts
Honorary Doctor of Letters

Laurence Stephen Lowry (1 November 1887 – 23 February 1976) was an English artist born in Barrett Street, Stretford, Lancashire. Many of his drawings and paintings depict nearby Salford and surrounding areas, including Pendlebury, where he lived and worked for over 40 years at 117 Station Road (B5231), opposite St. Mark's RC Church.

Lowry is famous for painting scenes of life in the industrial districts of Northern England during the early 20th century. He had a distinctive style of painting and is best known for urban landscapes peopled with human figures often referred to as "matchstick men". He also painted mysterious unpopulated landscapes, brooding portraits, and the secret 'marionette' works (the latter only found after his death).

Because of his use of stylised figures and the lack of weather effects in many of his landscapes he is sometimes characterised as a naïve 'Sunday painter' although this is not the position of the galleries that have organised retrospectives of his works.

A large collection of Lowry's work is on permanent public display in a purpose built art gallery on Salford Quays, appropriately named The Lowry.


Early life

Lowry was born at number 8 Barrett Street (now a community centre on Shrewsbury Street, Old Trafford, previously a district of Stretford).His family called him Laurie. It was a difficult birth, and his mother Elizabeth, who had been hoping for a girl, was uncomfortable even looking at him at first. Later she expressed her envy of her sister Mary, who had "three splendid daughters" instead of one "clumsy boy". Lowry's father Robert, a clerk for the Jacob Earnshaw and Son Property Company, was a withdrawn and introverted man who Lowry once described as "a cold fish" and "(the sort of man who) realised he had a life to live and did his best to get through it."

After Lowry's birth his mother's health was too poor for her to continue teaching. She is reported to have been gifted and respected, with aspirations of becoming a concert pianist. She was an irritable, nervous woman who had been brought up to expect high standards by her stern father. Like him she was controlling and intolerant of failure. She used illness as a means of securing the attention and obedience of her mild and affectionate husband and she dominated her son in the same way. Lowry often maintained in interviews conducted later in his life that he had an unhappy childhood, growing up in a repressive family atmosphere. Although his mother demonstrated no appreciation of her son's gifts as an artist, a number of books Lowry received as Christmas presents from his parents are inscribed to "Our dearest Laurie." At school he made few friends and showed no academic aptitude. His father was affectionate towards him but was, by all accounts, a quiet man who was at his most comfortable fading into the background as an unobtrusive presence.


After leaving school, Lowry signed himself up for some private art lessons in the evenings on antique and freehand drawing. In 1905 Lowry managed to secure a place at the Manchester Municipal College of Art, where he studied under the French Impressionist artist Pierre Adolphe Valette. In 1915 he 'graduated' to the Salford School of Art where he was to continue studying until 1925. Here, he developed his interest in industrial landscapes and began to establish his style.

Death of his mother

His father died in 1932, leaving debts. His mother was subject to neurosis and depression, and became bedridden. Lowry's mother had always been a very important figure in his life and now he had to care for her. He painted from 10 pm to 2 am,or depending how tired he was he would stay up another hour adding features. After his mother had fallen asleep. Many of the paintings produced during this period were damning self-portraits (often referred to as the "Horrible Heads" series), which demonstrate the influence of expressionism and may have been inspired by an exhibition of Van Gogh's work Lowry saw at Manchester Art Gallery in 1931. He frequently expressed regret that he received little recognition as an artist until the year that his mother died and that she had never been able to enjoy his success. From the mid-1930s until at least 1939 Lowry took annual holidays at Berwick-upon-Tweed. With the outbreak of war Lowry served as a volunteer fire watcher in Manchester and accepted an invitation to become a war artist, eventually becoming an official war artist in 1943. In 1953 he was appointed Official Artist at the coronation of Elizabeth II.

With the death of his mother in October 1939, Lowry became depressed and neglected the upkeep of his house to such a degree that the landlord repossessed it in 1948. He was not short of money and bought "The Elms" in Mottram in Longdendale, Hyde, Cheshire. Although he considered the house ugly and uncomfortable, he stayed there until his death almost 30 years later.

Personal life

In his later years, Lowry would often spend holidays at the Seaburn Hotel in Sunderland, County Durham, painting scenes of the beach, as well as nearby ports and coal mines.

When he had no sketchbook with him, Lowry would often draw scenes in pencil or charcoal on the back of scrap paper such as envelopes, serviettes (napkins), and cloakroom tickets and present them to young people sitting with their families nearby. Such serendipitous pieces are now worth thousands of pounds; a serviette sketch can be seen at the Sunderland Mariott Hotel (formerly the Seaburn Hotel).

He was a secretive and mischievous man who enjoyed stories irrespective of their truth. His friends have observed that his anecdotes were more notable for their humour than their accuracy and in many cases he set out deliberately to deceive. His stories of the fictional Ann were inconsistent and he invented other people as frameworks upon which to hang his tales. The collection of clocks in his living room were all set at different times: to some people he said that this was because he did not want to know the real time; to others he claimed that it was to save him from being deafened by their simultaneous chimes.

The contradictions in his life are exacerbated by this confusion. He is widely seen as a shy man but he had many long-lasting friendships including the Salford artist Harold Riley and made new friends throughout his adult life. He often bought works from young artists he admired, such as James Lawrence Isherwood whose 'Woman with Black Cat', hung on his studio wall. He kept ongoing friendships with some of these artists. He befriended the 23-year-old Cumbrian artist Sheila Fell in November 1955 and supported her career by buying several pictures that he gave to museums. Fell later described him as "A great humanist. To be a humanist, one has first to love human beings, and to be a great humanist, one has to be slightly detached from them." As he never got married this had an impact on his influence, but he did have several lady friends. At the age of 88 he said that he had "never had a woman".

As his celebrity grew in the late 1950s he grew tired of being approached by strangers, and particularly disliked being visited at home in this way. Another of his unverifiable stories had him keeping a suitcase by the front door so that he could claim to be just leaving, a practice he claimed to have abandoned after a helpful young man insisted on taking him to the railway station and had to be sent off to buy a paper so that Lowry could buy a ticket for just one stop without revealing his deceit. However, he was unfailingly polite to the residents of Mottram, who respected him and his privacy; he used the bus to get about the area in his retirement. A bronze statue of him has recently been erected at the traffic lights in that village.

Despite his attempts to present himself as a "simple man" and, by default, unable to appreciate post-classical art, Lowry seems to have been aware of major trends within 20th century art. In an interview with Mervyn Levy he expressed his admiration for the work of René Magritte and Lucian Freud, although he admitted that he "didn't understand" Francis Bacon's work. When he started to command large sums for the sale of his works, Lowry purchased a number of paintings and sketches by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Many of these works were portraits of Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris and William Holman Hunt's muse Annie Miller. Lowry considered Rossetti to be his chief inspiration. Although seen as a somewhat introvert person, Lowry was a supporter of Manchester City Football Club.


Lowry retired from the Pall Mall Property Company in 1952 on his 65th birthday (McLean, 1978). During his career he had risen to become chief cashier but he never stopped collecting rents. The firm had supported his development as an artist and he was allowed time off for exhibitions in addition to his normal holiday allowance. It seems, however, that he was not proud of his job; his secrecy about his employment by the Pall Mall Property Company is widely seen as a desire to present himself as a serious artist but the secrecy extended beyond the art world into his social circle.

Margery Thompson first met him when she was a schoolgirl and he became part of her family circle. He attended concerts with her family and friends, visited her home and entertained her at his Pendlebury home, where he shared his knowledge of painting. They remained friends until his death, but he never told her that he had any work except his art.

In the 1950s he regularly visited friends at Cleator Moor, Cumberland (where Geoffrey Bennett was the manager at the National Westminster Bank) and Southampton (where Margery Thompson had moved upon her marriage). Lowry painted pictures of the bank in Cleator Moor, Southampton Floating Bridge and other scenes local to his friends' homes.

In 1957 an unrelated 13-year-old schoolgirl called Carol Ann Lowry wrote to Lowry at her mother's urging to ask his advice on becoming an artist. He visited her home in Heywood, Lancashire some months later, and befriended the family. His friendship with Carol Ann Lowry was to last the rest of his life.

In his later years Lowry often joked with friends about retiring from the art world, citing his lack of interest in the changing landscape as a reason. Instead, he began to focus upon groups of figures and odd imaginary characters. Unknown to his wide circle of friends and the general public, Lowry was also producing a series of erotic works which would not be seen until after his death. The paintings themselves depict the mysterious " Ann" figure, who appears in a number of portraits and sketches produced throughout the artist's lifetime, enduring sexually-charged and humiliating tortures. When these works were finally exhibited at the Art Council's Centenary exhibition at the Barbican in 1988, art critic Richard Dorment wrote in the Daily Telegraph that these works "reveal a sexual anxiety which is never so much as hinted at in the work of the previous 60 years."

Death and legacy

Entrance to the Lowry Centre on Salford Quays
L.S. Lowry memorial at Mottram in Longdendale

He died of pneumonia at the Woods Hospital in Glossop, Derbyshire on 23 February 1976 aged 88. He was buried in Chorlton's Southern Cemetery in Manchester, next to his parents. He left his estate, valued at £298,459, together with a considerable number of artworks by himself and others to Carol Ann Lowry, who, in 2001, obtained trademark protection of the artist's signature.

Lowry left a cultural legacy, with his works often selling for millions of pounds and even inspiring other works of art. The Lowry in Salford Quays was opened in 2000 and cost £106M; as well as being named after L. S. Lowry, the 2,000 square metres (22,000 sq ft) gallery houses 55 paintings and 278 drawings by the artist – the world's largest collection of his work – with up to 100 on display. In January 2005, a statue of Lowry was unveiled in Mottram in Longdendale, Cheshire. Lowry lived 100 yards away from where the statue stands in a linked detached property, "The Elms", in Stalybridge Road from 1948 up until his death in 1976. Unfortunately this has become a target for local vandals with the statue being vandalised several times since being unveiled. In 2006 the Lowry Centre in Salford hosted a contemporary dance performance inspired by the works of Lowry.


Lowry was awarded the honorary degree of Master of Arts by the University of Manchester in 1945, and that of Doctor of Letters in 1961, and given the freedom of the city of Salford in 1965. In 1975 he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the Universities of Salford and Liverpool. In 1964, the art world celebrated his 77th birthday with an exhibition of his work and that of 25 contemporary artists who had submitted tributes to Monk's Hall Museum, Eccles. The Hallé Orchestra also performed a concert in his honour and prime minister Harold Wilson used Lowry's painting The Pond as his official Christmas card. Lowry's painting Coming Out of School was the stamp of highest denomination in a series issued by the Post Office depicting great British artists in 1968.

Lowry twice declined appointment to the Order of the British Empire: as an Officer (OBE) in 1955, and as a Commander (CBE) in 1961. He turned down a knighthood in 1968, and appointment to the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in 1972 and 1976. He appears to hold the record for the most honours declined.


On the industrial landscape:

  • "We went to Pendlebury in 1909 from a residential side of Manchester, and we didn't like it. My father wanted to go to get near a friend for business reasons. We lived next door, and for a long time my mother never got to like it, and at first I disliked it, and then after about a year or so I got used to it, and then I got absorbed in it, then I got infatuated with it. Then I began to wonder if anyone had ever done it. Seriously, not one or two, but seriously; and it seemed to me by that time that it was a very fine industrial subject matter. And I couldn't see anybody at that time who had done it - and nobody had done it, it seemed."
  • "Most of my land and townscape is composite. Made up; part real and part imaginary [...] bits and pieces of my home locality. I don't even know I'm putting them in. They just crop up on their own, like things do in dreams."

On his style:

  • "I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me [...] Natural figures would have broken the spell of it, so I made my figures half unreal. Some critics have said that I turned my figures into puppets, as if my aim were to hint at the hard economic nescessities that drove them. To say the truth, I was not thinking very much about the people. I did not care for them in the way a social reformer does. They are part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way: as part of a vision.
  • "I am a simple man, and I use simple materials: ivory black, vermilion, prussian blue, yellow ochre, flake white and no medium. That's all I've ever used in my paintings. I like oils [...] I like a medium you can work into over a period of time."

On painting his 'Seascapes':

  • "It's the battle of life - the turbulence of the sea [...] I have been fond of the sea all my life, how wonderful it is, yet how terrible it is. But I often think [...] what if it suddenly changed its mind and didn't turn the tide? And came straight on? If it didn't stay and came on and on and on and on [...] That would be the end of it all."

On art:

  • "You don't need brains to be a painter, just feelings."
  • "I am not an artist. I am a man who paints."
  • "This art is a terrible business."


During his life Lowry made about 1,000 paintings and over 8,000 drawings. The lists here are some of those that are considered to be particularly significant.

Selected paintings

  • 1906 Still Life — a bowl of fruit for the first evening classes
  • 1910 Clifton Junction Morning
  • 1912 Portrait of the Artist's Mother
  • 1917 Coming from the Mill — early example of what has become known as the Lowry style
  • 1919 Frank Jopling Fletcher — portrait demonstrating that Lowry's stylisation was a choice and not a consequence of any lack of skill
  • 1922 A Manufacturing Town — archetypal Lowry industrial landscape
  • 1922 Regent Street, Lytham — pastoral scene in sharp contrast to A Manufacturing Town
  • 1925 Self Portrait — a large-nosed young man (he would have been 38 years old) in a large flat cap
  • 1926 An Accident
  • 1927 Peel Park, Salford — an art gallery and museum that Lowry particularly liked and that held Salford's excellent collection of his work before the opening of the Lowry Centre
  • 1927 A view from the bridge
  • 1927 Coming Out of School — the first Lowry painting to be bought by the Tate Gallery by the Lord Duveen Fund
  • 1928 A Street Scene — the first Lowry painting to be bought by Salford City Art Gallery
  • 1928 Going to the Match — a crowd heading for a football match at Burnden Park, Bolton
  • 1930 Coming from the Mill
  • 1934 The Empty House — an isolated house in grounds
  • 1935 A Fight
  • 1935 The Fever Van
  • 1936 "Laying a Foundation Stone" — the mayor of Swinton and Pendlebury, laying a foundation stone in Clifton
  • 1937 The Lake — an environmental nightmare against an industrial background
  • 1938 A Head of a Man — it has been suggested that this red-eyed man might be a portrait of Robert Lowry (who would be much older than the portrait suggests) or a form of self-portrait
  • 1940 The Bedroom – Pendlebury — his late mother's room
  • 1941 Barges on a Canal
  • 1942 The Sea — a mournful painting off the Berwick coast
  • 1942 Blitzed Site — a man stands amidst the bombed ruins
  • 1943 Britain at Play — huge busy urban scene which clearly depicts St. Michael's Flags and Angel Meadow Park, Manchester
  • 1943 Going To Work — painted as a war artist and on show in the Imperial War Museum, London.
  • 1945 V.E. Day]
  • 1946 The Park
  • 1946 Good Friday, Daisy Nook
  • 1947 A River Bank — bought by Bury Council for £150 in 1951, it was controversially sold by the Metropolitan Borough of Bury in 2006 to fund a £10 million budget deficit for £1.25 million at a Christie's auction
  • 1904 Iron Works
  • 1947 Cranes and Ships, Glasgow Docks — acquired by Glasgow City Council at Christie's in November 2005 for £198,400, presently on display at the Kelvin Hall, it was bought specifically for display in the new Riverside Museum
  • 1949 The Canal Bridge
  • 1950 The Pond] — used as a Christmas card by prime minister Harold Wilson in 1964
  • 1953 Football Ground — fans converging on Bolton Wanderers's old football ground Burnden Park; painted for a competition run by the Football Association, it was later renamed Going to the Match and was bought by the Professional Footballers' Association for a record £1.9 million in 1999
  • 1955 A Young Man — a haunted youth stares at the viewer
  • 1955 Industrial Landscape
  • 1956 The Floating Bridge — one of a pair owned by the City of Southampton, where the bridge operated until 1977
  • 1956 Factory at Widnes Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, Christchurch, New Zealand
  • 1957 Man Lying on a Wall — note the gentle joke that the man's briefcase bears the initials 'LSL'
  • 1957 Portrait of Ann — a fiction
  • 1959 On the Sands — oil on canvas
  • 1960 Gentleman Looking at Something
  • 1961 River Wear at Sunderland — one of Lowry's favoured holiday destinations
  • 1962 Two People
  • 1963 The Sea — typically understated seascape
  • 1965 Industrial Scene
  • 1967 Tanker entering the Tyne


  • 1908 Head from the Antique — very accurately observed
  • 1914 Seated Male Nude — realistic rendition with no trace of 'matchstick men'
  • 1919 Robert Lowry — the artist's father
  • 1920 The Artist's Mother
  • 1931 Pendlebury Scene
  • 1936 Dewars Lane — Lowry Trail in Berwick
  • 1942 A Bit of Wenlock Edge
  • 1956 Berwick Pier and Lighthouse
  • 1957 Woman with Beard — a woman Lowry saw on a train
  • 1958 The Elms — Lowry's house in Mottram-in-Longdendale
  • 1961 Colliery, Sunderland
  • 1969 The Front, Hartlepool
  • undated Palace street Berwick
  • undated The Match

Stolen Lowry works

Five Lowry art works were stolen from the Grove Fine Art Gallery in Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire on 2 May 2007. The most valuable were The Viaduct, estimated value of £700,000 and The Tanker Entering the Tyne, which is valued at over £500,000. The Surgery, The Bridge at Ringley and The Street Market were also stolen.


Lowry's work is held in many public and private collections. The largest collection is held by Salford Council and displayed at the Lowry Centre. Its L. S. Lowry collection has about 350 of his paintings and drawings. X-ray analysis has revealed hidden figures under his drawings - the 'Ann' figures. Lowry's "Going to the Match" is owned by the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) and is also on display at the Lowry Centre in Salford.

The Tate Gallery in London owns 23 works. The City of Southampton owns The Floating Bridge, The Canal Bridge and An Industrial Town. His work is also featured at MOMA, in New York.

The Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu in Christchurch, New Zealand also has a Lowry work in its collection, "Factory at Widnes" (1956). The painting was one of the gallery’s most important acquisitions of the 1950s and remains the highlight of its collection of modern British art.

Tributes and legacy

To mark the centenary of his birth, Royston Futter, director of the L. S. Lowry Centenary Festival on behalf of the City of Salford and the BBC commissioned the Northern Ballet Theatre and Gillian Lynne to create a dance drama in his honour. A Simple Man was choreographed and directed by Lynne, with music by Carl Davis and starred Christopher Gable and Moira Shearer (in her last dance role) and it won a BAFTA award as the best arts programme in 1987. It was subsequently transferred to the stage and first performed in Manchester in 1987 and in London at Sadler's Wells in 1988.

Shelley Rohde is known to have completed a one-man-play about the artist for which Christopher Eccleston was at one time engaged to perform. However, following her death in December 2007 it is unclear whether the play will be produced.

In 1978, two years after his death, Mancunian duo Brian and Michael hit number one in the UK pop charts with their only hit, the Lowry tribute Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs. Written by Ancoats-born Michael Coleman and produced by Kevin Parrott, the record sold 750,000 copies.

Terry Gilliam's dystopian fantasy film Brazil pays homage to Lowry through both the incorporation of 'Lowryesque' cityscapes and the name of its chief protagonist (Sam Lowry).

The Manchester rock band Oasis paid tribute to Lowry by releasing a music video for the single " The Masterplan" in October 2006 which uses Lowry style animation.

Burberry designer Christopher Bailey drew influences from Lowry's work for his autumn/winter 2008-09 collection.

In August 2010 Figures Half Unreal an immersive theatre piece on Lowry was performed in a semi-derelict house in Berwick-upon-Tweed, a town the artist used to visit regularly.

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