Thursday, 25 July 2013


We visited the Lowry exhibition at the Tate the other day.  I do like Lowry; there is a naivety to his works that gives them an impact they might not otherwise have.  Some details indeed are distinctly childlike, such as, notably, his vehicles, as though accuracy was not the real point of the work.  You get the impression of a hurriedly taken snapshot, which may not be perfect, but which is somehow truthful.   It is indeed the overall impact of the scene that is important.

I suspect that most of his works may therefore not be exact replications of scenes (in fact Lowry himself explained that his half-real figures were to preserve the dreamlike nature of the imagined landscape); there are many entitled for example ‘a manufacturing town’ or ‘houses on a hill’, showing places which the curator or programme note writer has failed to identify.  If they were recognisable, real views, I’m sure someone would have explained.  Others are clearly marked, ‘Daisy Nook’ or ‘Angel Meadow’, which might even have been intentionally ironic, since there are clearly no flowers on the site and the meadow is hardly angelic.  There are also others clearly identified – Huddersfield or Lytham or Clifton – but mostly the pictures are impressions of scenes.

So this is a familiar image, entitled ‘Coming from the Mill’.  Which mill?  Any mill.  That’s the point – it is a scene that could be anywhere in Lancashire at the time that Lowry was painting.  The pics are of varied quality I'm afraid, since I was shooting secretly from under my jacket.

But if there is not irony in the pictures, there is a certain whimsy.  Although the scenes depicted are indeed grim, there is extraordinary activity in them.  They are full of people and life.  In fact they are almost devoid of vehicles and teeming with human beings.  Once you have absorbed the initial bleak impression, you can find so many signs of life going on.   You can just make out in the picture above for example (you might need to click on it and see it enlarged) a group of friends chatting in the street, some boys playing football, a lady waiting outside the mill – for a boyfriend?  A husband?  These are not sad, regretful, resentful, or even belligerent presentations, they are simply the way it was – life for folks in the environment in which they found themselves.  They are scenes that will be familiar to anyone who lived in pre- or just post-War Lancashire and probably viewed even then with nostalgia rather than chagrin.  Here is another called ‘Industrial Landscape’.  Again, even if it is a known town, it doesn’t matter much which one, probably Salford or Pendlebury, near where he lived.

Here too you can just make out a lady leaning on her garden fence exchanging words with a neighbour, dogs being walked, a girl being chatted up, what might be a ball game in progress, scenes in other words of daily life, not necessarily just of the daily grind.  Indeed many of Lowry’s pictures specifically depict such scenes – a football match, a cricket match, boats on the beach, etc, as though the industrial landscape was encroaching, but only so far, on life.

However you can’t help too but notice the chimneys.  And here is the grim reminder of why I didn’t want to live Oop North.  And at some level, maybe nor did Lowry, spending time, as he did, despite coming to be fascinated by Lancashire, also in Cumberland and Derbyshire.

But maybe that initial feeling of unpleasantness when he moved to Lancashire, or his continual contact with the ‘outside world’, did provoke some feelings of melancholy or loss in the artist.  The pictures which most forcefully struck chords with me were those, less often viewed, in which no people are shown – just industry and the impact of industrialisation.  Here is one which might also have been entitled ‘industrial landscape’, I forget now.


The horizon bristling with chimneys; the air black with smoke; an indeterminate foreground which gives the impression of industrial waste; as in all his paintings, indeterminate weather, but which seems to be miserable rain.  And yet there are houses.  Again industry has surrounded, but not wiped out, life.  But he must have meant us to ask, 'Who would want to live there?' 

And here, called ‘The Lake’, but now clearly a pool of effluent, dotted with broken boats and collapsed industrial structures, like some sort of metaphor for the land he knew, now lost, or the future of that land.  We must be intended to feel depressed and revolted at the lack of concern for the original beauty of the region.


And, in the same way, in this one, called ‘Entrance to X Park’ (I forget which one), the symbols of the land, as it was, now ruined and abandoned, we are encouraged I think to feel sorrow and nostalgia for what once was.


But what struck me most in these last two were the telegraph poles - not signs of progress and modernity (in a good way), but reminiscent of gallows or crucifixion crosses.  I have a South African painting, produced during Apartheid, in which water mills are depicted in the same way.  Lowry may not have been aware of such seditious symbolism, but, with the ramshackle fence posts, dotted around the scenery like tombstones, and the monumental gate posts of the park, now just memorial  pedestals in this necropolis, I can’t help but feel that there was something of these thoughts in Lowry’s mind too.

Anyway, the exhibition reinforced my view of my good fortune in living Darn Sarf.


  1. Nicely written review, Neil. I've always had a fascination for Lowry's work. Probably in no small part to the fact I originate from Birmingham, a metropolis also built on heavy industry. I grew up in the 60's there, where there were still plenty of signs of it's industrial heritage.

    1. I can't claim to know Birmingham, but I've been there several times over the years (as I have too to Manchester) and have been struck at how post-industrialisation both places have gradually transformed. Parts of Manchester are still a bit grim, but others are lovely. I have seen much more pleasant parts of Birmingham emerge too. Both city centres now look attractive and much has been done to prettify the canals in Birmingham. There is still a lot of nice countryside around both cities too.

  2. I dislike it when people say "interesting" when viewing art. But that is exactly what I felt. These works are so far from my existence that I would have to go there and see the original area before commenting. Think that I too feel sorrow.

  3. Once again Neil thank you for inviting me into your hemisphere so I can look around. There is an American poet/writer also called Lowry who paints a grim realism picture of the life around/within him.