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L.S. Lowry - British Painter

The first time I saw the paintings of the British artist, Laurence Stephen Lowry, I was struck by their humor and sense of optimism. Later, when I read about him, I was surprised to be told that most of the paintings characterized the deep loneliness of the man. That painting - and classical music, his other passion - were buffers against the cold winds of his single existence. Lowry never married and was always something of a recluse - exactly the things to mark him out as odd in our society. But loneliness is not a permanent state and Lowry was certainly not socially handicapped - acquaintances and friends speak of his warm sense of humor - so it seems to me that perhaps he was just a person who simply preferred his own company the best and saw no reason to change the state of things.

Early Years

Lowry was born on 1 November 1887 in Manchester. He was the only son of middle-class parents. His father, Robert, was an Estate Agent and his mother, Elizabeth, a pianist, with a passion for collecting beautiful and artistic ornaments. Lowry seems to have inherited his artistic streak from her, but it wasn't appreciated. His parents didn't encourage him to take up art classes - they wanted him to complete his regular schooling and then settle down to a 'proper job' that would realistically pay the bills. This had also become a necessity. Their financial circumstances had changed for the worst and the family had been forced to leave their comfortable, middle-class existence and move to a definitely low-class neighborhood. The move had depressed them all, but it seems to have particularly shattered Mrs. Lowry's pride. She gave up her public piano performances and turned into a semi-recluse.

Lowry left school when he was sixteen and the next year, overcoming his parents' misgivings, enrolled as a part-time student at the local Municipal College of Art. Mr. And Mrs. Lowry must have been tremendously relieved when, at the age of 22, instead of taking off to lead a bohemian artistic existence, he joined the Pall Mall Property Company as a rent collector; he stayed with this company until his retirement at the age of 65, retiring as the Chief Cashier. In after work hours, he kept on painting steadily. Ultimately it was to be his painting that brought him renown and wealth, not his rent-collecting - but it was the latter that made the former financially possible.

Lowry, The Artist

Lowry painted and studied art diligently for a very long time - it used to annoy him quite a bit in later years when people assumed he was a 'self-taught' artist, who came by his art easily, without all the practice and hard-work that goes into it. For all the child-like stick figures in his work, he had worked hard to develop a good proficiency at Life Painting and he sketched almost incessantly. He used to carry along a sketchbook on his work rounds and every time something interesting caught his eye, he would stop and make a quick sketch. These sketches were later incorporated into his paintings. Mostly of his early works were industrial scenes. His color palette was limited - vermilion, yellow ochre, prussian blue, white, and black mainly.

He was interested in art for art's sake - and his work shows a very sympathetic and observant eye for detail - and he never really bothered about trying to sell his works or try to set up an exhibition. He probably would have remained unnoticed if his works, sent to a shop for framing, had not been seen by an art dealer from London. Immediately impressed, he sought the artist out and insisted on giving him a one-man exhibition at the Alex Reid & Lefevre Ltd. Art Gallery in London. The exhibition was a success, with the Tate Gallery buying one painting, and from henceforth, Lowry was feted in the art world and his paintings sold for good sums of money.

Later Years

But the joy at being appreciated was mitigated by his personal losses - first his father and then his mother, which, given their close relationship, quite devastated him for a very long time. And then World War II broke out and his hometown, Manchester, being an industrial town, came in for some heavy bombardment. Lowry worked as an Official War Artist and recorded the devastation on his canvases. He often stayed by the sea at Sutherland to get away from the bombing. In 1948, Lowry left the house he had shared with his mother and moved to another one on the moors in Mottram-in-Longdendale. He didn't like the new house - it was too small and dark, he complained - he intended it to be a temporary move, but he ended up staying in Mottram till his death. Lowry never left the UK, but after his retirement in 1952, he traveled widely within the country, often staying over with the friends. His travels were reflected in his work. From painting just industrial scenes, he turned his hand now to a broader subject matter. As ever he used only a limited color palette, but he used it very effectively.

In his last years, much more public acclaim came his way. A stamp was issued in his honor, an art exhibition was organized to mark his 77th birthday, prior to which he was elected to the Royal Academy. He was offered a knighthood, but, preferring to be called 'Doctor' over 'Sir', he declined the knighthood and accepted instead honorary doctorates from Salford University and Liverpool University. He died in 1976 after a short illness, painting until the very last week. He left behind over 3000 artworks. He was 88.
By Sonal Panse
Bouquets and Brickbats