Book review: LS Lowry. The Art and the Artist by TG Rosenthal

Norwich 2010, ISBN 978-1-906509-06-4. £45

Lowry (1887-1976) would be an excellent choice to illustrate a debate about the meaning of artistic reputation in the context of the 20th century British art world. Highly valued by the market (the author tells us that a picture has sold at auction for £3.77 million) and, correspondingly, by certain passionate collectors, Lowry’s work has achieved high commercial status. That, in itself, puts him among select company: Bacon, Freud, Le Brocquy, Hockney, Auerbach and so on. The million pound club is a small one. Nor is his reputation purely posthumous. He was taken on quite early in his painting career by Lefevre, which was one of the most prestigious West End galleries which an English painter could hope to have in the mid-century. His work sold well in his lifetime. He had a large Arts Council sponsored retrospective at the Tate in 1966. He was a member of the RA and they held an enormously successful exhibition of his work after his death. These things are not indicators of an unsuccessful artist and they go well beyond a man simply successful in commercial terms.

Yet people who are passionate about Lowry are not satisfied. They are resentful. Why this should be the case, apart from a normal human propensity to regard one’s hero as underappreciated, is worthy of examination. In many ways Lowry’s status could not really get any higher and yet there is this dissatisfaction.

Watching the televised debate between the author, Howard Jacobson, and the eminent art critic, Brian Sewell, about Lowry’s status and reading this book, one begins to identify the perceived problem. Is it a real problem? Jacobson (and the author) are from the North, where many of Lowry’s most famous pictures are set. They clearly regard Lowry as a Northern artist – specifically an artist of the Manchester and Salford area – of whom they are proud. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with characterising an artist as ‘local’ and then supporting him as a local boy. Perhaps the people of Suffolk are intensely proud of Constable; no doubt the tiny population of Great Bardfield in Essex are profoundly supportive of the marvellous work of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious and so on. These things are natural. But watching Mr Jacobson and reading this book, one senses that things regarding Lowry are on a different plane: this is not simply a local boy done good; it’s North v South, which is a much more emotive way to promote an artist’s reputation.

Unfortunately for its protagonists, putting the argument in favour of Lowry in this way simply diminishes him. If he was ‘merely’ a Northern artist, painting scenes in Manchester and Salford and so on, then the art world may be a little cautious about the general width of his reputation. To some extent it depends upon which British artists from amongst those painting at the same time as Lowry (roughly 1920-1970) one regards as the top artists. I would put Bacon, Freud, Sir William Nicholason, Matthew Smith and Stanley Spencer in the 1st XI. I would also look at Sickert, Sutherland, Yeats, William Scott, Hockney, Augustus John, Le Brocquy, Paul Nash, Bomberg, Bawden, Piper and Burra. (At a pinch I might stretch that to Ben Nicholson, but there are many, many others at his level). Of all those, the only one associated in the public’s mind with a particular location is Stanley Spencer and Cookham. But although he made such a fuss about being from Cookham and went out of his way to use village locations for some of his rather mad religious pictures, he did not make his name from doing ‘views of Cookham’. To my mind, it is not a strength to have one’s artistic reputation founded on depictions of a small area of the British Isles; it’s a weakness.

Another way to test the appropriate level of an artist’s status – that is, to probe the quality of his reputation – is to see whether his work was collected by the collectors who mattered in helping to form the substance of an artist’s reputation. The great collectors of the mid-century British art world are easily identified and a great deal is known about their collections. They generally owned a wide variety of pictures by British artists. The list includes that dominant person in the art world throughout Lowry’s working life – Sir Kenneth Clark – who bought innumerable contemporary British pictures but not, so far as I am aware, Lowry; Sir Colin Anderson (who seemed to have everything except Lowry’s); Jimmy Bomford (Bacon’s first substantive buyer); Sir Edward Marsh, whose eclectic tastes were legendary; Edward Le Bas; the absolutely extraordinary collection of Wilfrid Evill; Howard Bliss; and the great Maecenas figure of mid 20th century British art, Peter Watson.

It would require more research than is merited to say definitively whether these great private collectors, who dominated the British art world of the 1940’s and 1950’s , bought work by Lowry. On a quick, fallible, review, the only one who did was Evill. He, as is well-known, specialised only in British pictures, whereas all the others bought other pictures as well as those by British artists. At his death in 1963, Evill’s collection included 47 pictures by Stanley Spencer, 26 by Sutherland, 21 by William Roberts, 16 by Gilbert Spencer, 5 by Ivon Hitchens and Alan Reynolds and 4 by Burra. He had 3 by Lowry. Howard Bliss had a huge collection. When they were exhibited in 1950 (he died in the 1970’s), the show included 21 by Le Brocquy, 17 by Hitchens, 5 by Tunnard, 5 by Leslie Hurry and pictures by Piper, Sickert, Minton, Hodgkins, Vaughan, Collins, Evans, Scott, Spear, Smith, Heron, Gotlib and Craxton. No sign of Lowry. I am pretty sure Peter Watson had nothing by Lowry. If I am right, I think I can say that the great collectors of British art at the time of Lowry’s peak did not make much of Lowry. Who then, was buying them?

The sad possibility arises that they were being bought by people who largely did not buy works by other contemporary British artists. The author rather confirms this when he notes that he often comes across Lowry collectors who only own pictures by Lowry, and lots of them. To my mind, the purchase of pictures by obsessive collectors does not indicate that the artist’s reputation in the art world is securely based. For that, his work needs to be appreciated by sophisticated collectors who are able to gauge the ‘worth’ of the art, not commercially, but by comparison with the work of others.

What sort of status should Lowry have in today’s art world? He was an eccentric, like Stanley Spencer. He was skilled up to a point. (I would say he was less skilled than Spencer, but more skilled than Jack Vettriano). He was an artistic loner. Brian Sewell wanted to establish his context in the debate with Mr Jacobson. There were artists of whom Lowry was aware as a young man, including the French artist working in Manchester, Valette. Lowry’s years of intermittent training at art school must have exposed him to the work of many other artists, but his style did not closely resemble that of any predecessors. There are, however, other “Northern” artists not entirely dissimilar. Alan Lowndes’ work is fascinating and strong. His dates were 1921-1978 and he came from Southport. His Wikipedia entry notes that, although often compared to Lowry, Sir Terry Frost thought him the “greater painter”. The author won’t like that. Theodore Major (1908-1999) was another great Northern individualist artist. He came from Wigan and is also well-regarded, with some similarities to Lowry. Helen Bradley (1900-1979) was born near Oldham and only started to paint late in life. Her work now always appears in catalogues after Lowry’s and I assume she followed him in some way or another, with her rather crowded pictures of people scurrying about. Lowry himself appears to have had some contact with other artists, at least on a personal level. The enigmatic, interesting artist, Sheila Fell knew him and the personally charming but artistically insignificant amateur artist, David Carr, also knew him.

Lowry’s work seems to me to be a lot ‘earlier’ than it actually was. When he largely stopped painting his industrial scenes in the early 1960’s, no new houses of factories (or clothes!) were apparent and the depressed and depressing scenes were apparently unchanged for 30 (or even 50) years. People in the future will look at them with curiosity, as they might look at a crowd in a picture by Brueghel or Avercamp, and wonder how such people lived and what on earth they were doing. The odd thing about Lowry is that today’s viewer probably already thinks like that, only 50 or 60 years after some of the work was produced.

The best way to understand Lowry objectively is not to read or listen to the views of his supporters, for they are incurably biased; it is to read the words of John Rothenstein. The three volumes of ‘Modern English Painters’ contain the most balanced criticism of any art critic writing about 20th century British art. He is always trying to be fair and objective. He was a great supporter and admirer of Lowry’s work, causing the Tate to buy his work whilst he was its Director.

He has this to say about Lowry’s reputation:

“When I began to meditate upon the work of Lowry with the view to writing these pages about him, I looked forward to doing justice to a man who was dedicated to a forbidding subject and personally lonely and obscure. To a man for whom I felt affection; to painting which I believe has a unique place in the art of its time. However, I find that, in the case of Lowry, doing justice initially involves a degree of depreciation. Singularly enough, in the course of the little that has been written or broadcast about him, he was unwisely praised”.

The example Rothenstein gives is of the great art critic Eric Newton, boldly ranking Lowry as being “among the first artists of the second rank”. As Rothenstein says:

“such excessive praise is a consequence of a generous impulse, but I know of no standard of values in which Lowry could be placed among the first in a class which would include Goya, Dégas, Botticelli, Poussin, Dürer, Brueghel or Constable. Or in any in which he would stand in relation to such masters other than as a domestic cat to tigers”.

That should probably be the last word on Lowry. He was a skilled artist, but a curiosity; a footnote. Mr Rosenthal is a skilled and persuasive writer and he has produced a beautiful and important book. He does his best to mount the argument for the defence, but in the last resort those who insist on Lowry’s great artistic importance are not comparing him fairly with the wider artistic world. In order to get it into perspective, his status needs to diminish, not grow.