Biography of L. S. Lowry, English Painter

L. S. Lowry

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L. S. Lowry (November 1, 1887–February 23, 1976) was a 20th-century English painter. He is most famous for his paintings of life in the bleak industrial areas of northern England, done in muted colors and featuring numerous small figures or "matchstick men." Lowry's painting style was very much his own, and he struggled much of his career against perceptions that he was a self-taught, "naïve" artist.

Fast Facts: L. S. Lowry

  • Known For: Lowry was an artist known for his paintings of industrial England.
  • Also Known As: Laurence Stephen Lowry
  • Born: November 1, 1887 in Stretford, Lancashire, England
  • Parents: Robert and Elizabeth Lowry
  • Died: February 23, 1976 in Glossop, Derbyshire, England
  • Notable Quote: "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."

Early Life

Laurence Stephen Lowry was born on November 1, 1887, in Lancashire, England. His father Robert was a clerk, and his mother Elizabeth was an aspiring pianist. Their household, Lowry later said, was an unhappy one; his parents did not recognize his artistic talents. Lowry did not get the chance to study art full time, but he did attend evening classes for many years. In 1905, he took lessons in "antique and freehand drawing," and he also studied at the Manchester Academy of Fine Art and the Salford Royal Technical College. He was still going to classes in the 1920s.

Career

Lowry worked most of his life as a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company, retiring at 65. He tended to keep quiet about his "daytime job" to reduce the impression that he wasn't a serious artist. He didn't want to be known as a "Sunday painter." Lowry painted after work and only once his mother, who he looked after, had gone to bed.

Eventually, Lowry did achieve critical acclaim, starting with his first London exhibition in 1939. In 1945, he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by the University of Manchester. In 1962, he was elected a Royal Academician. In 1964, the year Lowry turned 77, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson used one of Lowry's paintings ("The Pond") as his official Christmas card, and in 1968 Lowry's painting "Coming Out of School" was part of a series of stamps depicting great British artists.

L. S. Lowry
Smabs Sputzer / Flickr

Painting Style

Lowry is most famous for his paintings of bleak industrial and urban scenes featuring many small figures, sometimes dressed in colorful clothes. He often painted a background of factories with tall chimneys billowing smoke, and in the foreground a pattern of small, thin figures, all busy going somewhere or doing something, figures dwarfed by their gloomy surroundings.

The smallest of Lowry's figures are little more than black silhouettes, while others are simple blocks of color with long coats and hats. In the largest figures, though, there is clear detail of what people are wearing, though it's often something drab.

The sky is typically grey and overcast with smoke pollution. Weather and shadows are not depicted, but dogs and horses are common (usually half-hidden behind something as Lowry found horses' legs difficult to paint).

Although Lowry liked to say he painted only what he saw, he composed his paintings in his studio, working from memory, sketches, and imagination. His later paintings had fewer figures in them; some none at all. He also painted some large portrait-like single figures, landscapes, and seascapes.

Lowry's earlier paintings and drawings show that he did have the artistic skill to do traditional, representational portraits. He chose not to for effect because, in his own words, he was most interested in capturing a "vision" of "private beauty."

"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...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."

Colors

Lowry worked in oil paint, without using any mediums such as linseed oil, on canvas. His palette was limited to just five colors: ivory black, Prussian blue, vermilion, yellow ocher, and flake white.

In the 1920s, Lowry started applying a layer of flake white before he started painting. His teacher at the time, Bernard Taylor, felt that Lowry's pictures were too dark and that he should find a way to brighten them. Lowry was pleased to find, many years later, that the flake white turned to a creamy gray over time.

The flake-white base layer filled in the grain of the canvas and created a rough, textured surface that suited the grittiness of Lowry's subjects. Lowry is also known to have reused canvasses, painting over previous works, and to have made marks in the paint with objects other than brushes. Sometimes he used his fingers, a stick, or a nail to work the paint in usual ways, adding depth to his compositions.

Death

Lowry died of pneumonia on February 23, 1976, and was buried in Manchester, England, beside his parents. A few months after his death, a retrospective exhibition of his paintings opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Legacy

By the time of his death, Lowry had become hugely influential and his paintings were selling for millions of dollars. In 2000, a gallery called The Lowry opened in Manchester, featuring 400 artworks by Lowry from across his career and in all mediums (including oils, pastels, watercolors, and drawings).

Sources

  • Clark, T.J, and Anne M. Wagner. "Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life." Tate Publishing, 2013.
  • “L S. Lowry Dead; Artist of Bleak.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Feb. 1976.
  • Rosenthal, Thomas Gabriel. "L.S. Lowry: the Art and the Artist." Unicorn Press, 2016.
  • Schwartz, Sanford. “Discovering L.S. Lowry.” The New York Review of Books, 26 Sept. 2013.