For as long as I can remember, Lowry has been one of my favourite painters. It’s nothing to do with the ‘song’ (pah – I spit on your simplistic rendering of his work into matchstalk men) and all to do with the landscape he captures. No one quite caught the Industrial Revolution‘s effects on a land and people like he did. Most never even tried. And while we might not like the reality of the smoke-bound grey skies, the black chimneys, the bowed necks of the people, they hold a truth far more relevant to this country than any number of still life, no matter how rotted the fruit in the bowl.
“I began to wonder if anyone had ever done it…It seemed to me that it was very fine subject – industrial subject matter. I couldn’t see anybody at that time who had done it…I found that nobody had done it seriously. They hadn’t made a job of it – so I tried to do it as well as I could.”
So, wandering from room to room, drinking it all in, ducking around the people, I’d come up against paintings that caught, without celebration, without romanticism, the reality of life in the early 20th Century, in the land my grandparents came from. Where the NHS was just a dream and if your child was carried off in a fever van, chances were they wouldn’t return. Where landowners and pit owners and factory managers could make or break your life with little more than a stroke of a pen. Where overcrowding was rife, schooling limited and means of escape just pipe dreams.
Despite this, there is nothing unremittingly bleak about Lowry’s work. Colours sing out from the grey: red jumpers, flashes of green grass, pink brick houses. There is something glorious about the crowds hurrying to the football match or the fair, the Sunday stroll in the park. And for me there was the added pathos of coming across the picture above: painted in Ashton-under-Lyne, my Nan’s once-home, I could suddenly hear her talking to me, telling me about her Dad’s bakery, the long hours, the Aunties sat in black in the parlour. She narrated me all the way round.
And I could see the women coming home from a hard day at the textiles mill, and hear the heavy trudge of the men returning from the mine:
I’m in danger of romanticising and that will never do. “That’s how my obsession with the industrial scene started: Saturday night walking the road to Bolton, and hearing the thump, thump of the machine at Kearsley Colliery. And coming back in the dark: thinking and thinking, thinking of the mystery of it all.” As we move further away from those times, as our grandparents die, are we in danger of becoming so enamoured of the ‘mystery of it all’ that we forget how dire things could be? The slums, the inequality, the high mortality, the cheapness of human life – it was the struggle against those wrongs perpetuated by the people in charge that led to some of the most interesting political times we have ever seen.
We certainly don’t see it now with our identikit, comfortable, career politicians, all shouting the same shade of diatribe and blame in an attempt to keep themselves elected.
What was particularly clever about this exhibition was the way it linked Lowry with the wider social and political scene of the time. Quotes from Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, the Manchester Guardian and even George Formby (Snr) songs (don’t dismiss, behind the humour lies social messages), place Lowry firmly in the context of those times. He is harder to write off as a painter of ‘matchstalk men’ when you stop considering him in isolation. Amidst the backdrop of the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression and the looming World War II, those mocked figures have a poignancy and depth that few artists have ever managed.
“And where do you think I fit in, Mr. Marshall? As a painter – d’you think I’d ever been heard of if I hadn’t lived through the time, as you might say, of social awareness? … Social awareness – aye, but for that I’d possibly gone to the grave unsung.”