L S Lowry: Master Painter of Industrialized England


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LS Lowry (now on at the Tate Modern) was the painter whose visualization of England between the wars – a waste land England filled will anonymous hollow men scurrying to dehumanizing factory-belching jobs – offered a dramatic and shocking change from the idea of England as one of Romantic Wordsworthian lyricism.

It’s an epic vision of a post war, ruthlessly industrializing England, painted in a style that’s distinctly, idiosyncratically Lowry.

In the catalog to the exhibition, the artist is quoted as saying, “I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it.” You bet! Lowry’s range of topics is very limited and focused. He painted how he saw, what he felt about the country – mainly centered around the –sordid- lives of working class urban Manchester and Salford in the 30’s and 40’s.

His large canvasses articulate a strong and uncompromising social conscience with great clarity, and without any hysteria or the appearance of polemic. These are not rabble-rousing paintings illustrating any political agenda – they’re one man’s own perspective of a world where the weight of the city and the industrial fires that sustain its inhabitants, have combined to make urban anomie visually tangible. He is England’s Hopper.

His parsimonious palette – for he used very few colours: ivory, black, vermillion (red), Prussian blue, yellow ochre, flake white – offers us a world that’s drained of colour, of light. In this world, there are no shadows. The colour of the sky is a sort of jaundiced yellow-grey. It’s the same colour as that of the earth, as if the artist were suggesting that looking up offered no better view than looking down.

And his people, the thousands that fill his canvases, are all mainly looking down even as they slant forward, as if pulled by forces beyond their control; pulled either toward packed football stadia or toward blank, feature-less edifices topped by towering chimneys that dissolve into smudges of grey smoke. The buildings, the houses, the landscapes are all as faceless and anonymous as the people that congregate around them.

Lowry’s world seems to be one where winter has settled in for the long haul. But not the winter of white wonderland picturesqueness, but a winter of long coats and mackintoshes that help weigh down his people who seem to cluster together in knots as if the anonymity of the crowd offers some sort of solace, an emotional warmth against the cold, unyielding emptiness out there.

This painting shown above is, to me classic Lowry. It’s called “The Match”. There, dead center of the painting is the stadium to which the crowds are hurtling. Lowry’s bare economy of lines and colours offer just enough information to illustrate his point and evoke a perspective. There’s no sense of jubilation here. These people are as hunched over just as they are in the paintings where he has them slouching to work. And the artist has arranged them in formal patterns, in clusters of souls, not as a suggestion of friendly socialization, more as a reflection of almost intuitive tribal behavior. Even as they rush to entertainment their lives are regimented and, it feels pre-ordained. In the background, as they almost flee the belching chimneys, Lowry seems to be offering us the dynamic of working class life: work all day and then escape to the gladiatorial arena – their only opiate and relaxation.

As we noted earlier, the sky and the earth blend into the same dull tone – a distorted version of Larkin’s “milky sunlight”. They could be reflections of each other. Within this dimensionless backdrop, he arranges the spatial clusters in the painting. On the left is the football club; a solid massive place; on the right, fading into a twilight distance are the mills and manufacturing places from whence the crowds flow. This area of the painting – the area of work – has an ironic lightness to it, an emptiness. It is from this work/emptiness that the crowds are fleeing. And it is in the need to stand against this emptiness that they clump together the way they do.

This is TS Eliot’s world. Listen to him from “The Waste Land”

“   Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.”

It’s also the world of a more modern poet, Adam O’Riordan, whose poem Manchester laments:

“You’re the blackened lung whose depths I plumb,

The million windows and the smoke-occluded sun”

To Lowry, painting eighty years before this poem was written, here’s what his “smoke-occluded sun” looked like:

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There has always been a clear divide between the idea of England, which has tended to be one of city life v rural life, with the latter often suggesting not so much innocence as honesty and shelter. Shakespeare in ‘As You Like It’, summed up the two worlds succinctly:

“Are not these woods

More free from peril than the envious court?”

It was the divide between Seamus Heaney’s city, with its Lowry-like…

“          …safety of numbers,

A crowd half straggle-ravelled and half strung

Like a human chain, the pushy newcomers

Jostling and purling…”

And Anne Bronte’s idyll…

“I’ll rest me in this sheltered bower,

And look upon the clear blue sky

That smiles upon me through the trees,

Which stand so thickly clustering by.”

Lowery’s landscape makes a mockery of this divide. For him the smoky detritus of the city has seeped into the idyll of the country. The trees have disappeared and have been replaced by collapsing electricity poles; the barges and boats that you’d expect to glide upon a sparkling river are half sunk into a grey quagmire. His landscape has deliberately removed the usual crowds that surge through his paintings. It’s as though the feral collusion of the city’s dark Satanic mills and the once free flowing river – source of easy navigation, angling and rustic bliss – have edged man entirely, literally, out of the picture.

This is an art of such timeliness and relevance (oh those clever boffins at the Tate) that you’d wish some sneaky guide could lead Cameron, Osborne and his city slicked mandarins to this exhibition where, oh it would be nice to hope, some of them might be tempted to ruminate on what life in England was and is so hurriedly returning to.

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