Laurence Stephen Lowry (1 November 1887 - 23 February 1976) was an English artist born in Barrett Street, Stretford, Lancashire. Many of his drawings and paintings depict nearby Salford and surrounding areas, including Pendlebury, where he lived and worked for over 40 years.
Lowry studied intermittently at art schools at the Municipal College of Art and Salford School of Art from 1905 to 1925. His tutor in the life drawing class in Manchester was the Frenchman Adolphe Valette, who brought first-hand knowledge of the Impressionists to his classes. “I cannot over-estimate the effect on me at that time of the coming into this drab city of Adolphe Valette… He had a freshness and a breadth of experience that exhilarated his students.” By 1915 Lowry had begun attending evening classes at Salford, based in the Royal Technical College on the edges of Peel Park. One of his tutors there, Bernard Taylor (art critic for the Manchester Guardian) advised Lowry that his paintings were too dark. In response, Lowry tried painting on a pure white background, a technique he was to retain for the rest of his career.
Lowry painted in his free time while working as a rent collector for a Manchester real-estate company, where he was employed from 1910 to 1952. His initial drawings were made outdoors, on the spot, often rough sketches on the back of an envelope or whatever scrap of paper was to hand. More finished drawings were made later and, after about 1910, he only ever painted at home in what he referred to as his workroom, rather than his studio. His palette was very restricted and he used only five colours – flake white, ivory black, vermilion (red), Prussian blue and yellow ochre.
In 1915 Lowry became interested in depicting the industrial landscapes of Salford, Manchester, and other locations in the East Midlands region. He developed a unique approach to cityscapes, painting industrial structures such as factories, cotton mills, and stark residential buildings, in front of which crowds of small, sticklike figures, known as “matchstick men”, go about their everyday activities. Lowry used a drab palette—the gray buildings are often set against a hazy, white background—but he created powerful and subtle tonal relationships.
In 1932 Lowry had work accepted at the Royal Academy in London but in the same year his father died suddenly. It was only then that the full extent of Robert Lowry’s debts became apparent and Lowry undertook to pay all of these off over time.
Elizabeth Lowry, whose health had always been poor, took to her bed permanently. Not surprisingly, Lowry produced fewer works during the 1930s. In 1938 he painted Head of a Man which began as a self-portrait but was turned into a grotesque head. He was later to say that ‘all the paintings of that period were done under stress and tension and they were all based on myself.’
After years of painting and exhibiting in and around Manchester and Salford, Lowry received his first one-man exhibition in London at the Lefevre Gallery (1939. The exhibition was successful, and many of the works sold, but in October that year, Elizabeth Lowry died. Lowry described his life as altering ‘utterly and completely’ after her death. With the outbreak of the Second World War Lefevre cancelled his next exhibition.
An inveterate draughtsman throughout his life, Lowry continued to draw into old age and his characters sometimes took on the surreal appearance of cartoon-like half animal, half human creatures. The most extreme works, however, came to light only after his death. These ‘mannequin’ drawings depict young women, partly clothed in restrictive bodices or wearing versions of male evening dress, their forms squeezed into the clothes, making movement impossible. Although they are almost certainly private images, not intended for display, some are highly finished drawings, kept by the artist although he must have known they would be found after his death.
On 23 February 1976 Lowry died of pneumonia at Woods Hospital in Glossop following a stroke at his home. There had been many exhibitions of his work in the years leading up to his death and Lowry had been consulted by the Royal Academy on the major retrospective they were planning for later the same year. By the time that exhibition closed it had achieved record visitor numbers for an exhibition by a British artist.
A purpose built art gallery dedicated to his work is on Salford Quays, Salford.