A few years ago I was lucky enough to have the Tate Britain exhibition of L. S. Lowry to myself for my birthday.
Well, maybe for a minute.
But it was mine.
About twenty years ago I went to Salford for a job interview and looked at the Lowrys on display in the Salford Museum and Art Gallery, which was since moved to a purpose-built gallery on Salford Quays. In the meantime I’d visited Berwick on Tweed and South Shields — Lowry holiday spots — an exhibition of drawings (at Sunderland?) and the Jerwood Lowry and the Sea exhibition.
All of this showed he was more than the naive artist of the matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs claim; for a start he was taught painting for a number of years in the Manchester and Salford area.
Going to the Lowry — the largest public collection of his art — reveals an even richer story, although there are perhaps too many pieces of work to deal with in a single trip.
It all hangs on the mysterious Portrait of Ann and his repeated claims that his art — even of phallic columns in the sea — is a series of self portraits.
He was born into a reasonably well off family and lived in a nice part of Manchester — his father a lay preacher and a clerk expecting to become a partner and his mother a piano teacher. But they were living beyond their means and moved to Pendlebury, with Lowry having to get a job as a rent collector rather than becoming an artist. He used his first wage packet to pay for lessons, but his growing interest in representing the industrial north west did not win him British customers — although he was successful in mainland Europe. The death of his father left him in debt and led his mother to take to her bed until she died.
Lowry had found his vision after a Manchester Guardian critic had told him his paintings were too dark — he started priming his canvases with layers of white paint to create a lighter background. Frequently he adds a railing or a curb or a brown shade along the bottom edge of his canvas as if it is a proscenium arch.
At the Tate Britain show, they were selling copies of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author without any explanation – apparently it was a favourite play and it expires a certain amount of meta drama and the issue of representing the real.
Meanwhile we have the Portrait of Ann,his offering to a Royal Academy show and atypical of how he was thought. Who was this woman? Sometimes he said she was a model, a daughter of a Yorkshire industrialist, a god daughter, other times a prima Donna ballerina, presumably for the Rambert. She was Ann Herder or maybe Ann Hilder. But apparently she has never been traced and yet she appears across dozens of paintings.
An ex? A model glimpsed in the streets?
In footage shown at the gallery, a suited Lowry — looking for all the world like a William S. Burroughs — explains his favourite composers are Donazetti and Bellini, the latter recommended to him…
Once Lowry started earning money from his paintings he started buying art — an early Lucian Freud, various late Dante Gabriel Rosettis. These, apparently, were hung in his bedroom and were mostly portraits of Jane Morris.
These were perhaps his impossible girl, a woman forever out of reach.
The guide to the exhibition pointed to a painting The Funeral Party (1953) with nine distinct and disconnected figures — possibly Lowry’s father to the far right, a Lowry as child on the left, apparently wearing a dress. The boy is looking at a young girl in shorts. Cross-dressing or a phenomenon of hand me downs, I wonder? Nine figures in search of an artist.
Would this make one of the women his mother?
There’s a double portrait where a Lowry-like figure over laps with an Ann; male and female. His nightmarish self portrait Head of a Man is apparently painted over an earlier self portrait on top of a portrait of a woman, possibly of his mother. There is, apparently, a portrait of Ann of the same dimensions.
It seems as if Lowry could never quite please his mother, could never be the son she wanted — more to the point, could never be the daughter she wanted. The Anns and the later pictures of miniskirted young women clearly offered an erotic charge for him — given a comment in the gallery’s documentary about “innocent girls playing tennis”, I wonder if he ever saw that Athena poster of a tennis player — but we also need to remember that he saw all of his art as a self portrait. He also painted erotica, found after his death, destroying or tearing up some of it.
Whilst we must not ignore the class analysis at the heart of his art — the thoughts of a friend that Salford gallery or art school was not the place for the likes of them, the social climb and fall, the thin line between making do and poverty, the snobbery of the London sophisticates — there seems to be an attempt to heal a wound in his art. This seems to have failed.
Lowry never married — perhaps he was too involved in supporting his mother, perhaps he wasn’t interested in women that way… It’s a wild kind of speculation, but was there some kind of masquerade or cross dressing, did he try to become — in art or reality — the daughter? Was Ann an imaginary friend?
I honestly don’t know. Maybe Ann was just Ann, but why mislead so often and wildly about her in interviews?
And meanwhile, crazily, I hear the strains of a Bernard Herrmann score and a vision of Mrs Bates….