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Cranleigh DFAS visits

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life

Tate Britain
Friday 11th October 2013

On Friday 11th October a coachload of Cranleigh DFAS members set off, in the rain, for London and Tate Britain, in high hopes of seeing an excellent exhibition of L.S. Lowry’s work.  We were not disappointed.

Linda Smith
Our lecturer at Tate Britain

Despite the rain, the driver made good time and we had plenty of time to fortify ourselves with coffee before the opening lecture by Linda Smith.  Linda has been to Cranleigh several times to deliver lectures for us, so we knew we were in for something good.  She proved to be very knowledgeable, and gave a most informative and thought provoking talk, illustrated with lots of slides.  She explained that the exhibition (the first big Lowry exhibition in London since 1976) was not in chronological order, but was set out in 5 themes to illustrate that Lowry was the greatest British artist of modern life in the 20th century.  His large body of work shows life in the urban landscape of Salford and Manchester, where he worked as a rent collector by day, and painted what he saw around him each day, in the evening.

Linda gave us pointers of things to look out for, which added to our understanding of the paintings, as we wandered through the exhibition.

In the 2nd room, entitled “the Idea of Modern Life”, we saw some paintings by Adolphe Valette, Lowry’s art teacher (about 1917) which showed a new art style depicting industrial landscapes.  From his teacher, Lowry learned how to organise a composition, and how to handle a restricted colour palette.  From these beginnings Lowry developed his own na´ve style, only using black, white and the 3 primary colours used sparingly, to depict real life - not romanticised in any way.

Lowry’s family was middle class, but fell on hard times when Lowry was in his 20’s.  His mother lived the rest of her life a lonely and disappointed woman, while her only child – Lowry – became the consummate observer of the working classes he found himself surrounded by.  We see them going and coming from work in the mills or school.  We see them occasionally having fun, at the fair or playing in the streets.  We see the tragedies of everyday life: families being evicted – the fever van taking away sick people to isolation wards (probably never to return); disabled people (war wounded?) struggling to get around.  We see the dark and looming buildings that line the urban streets, rows of terraced houses, huge factories and mills belching smoke from their tall chimneys and churches and hospitals that look as dark and gloomy as the rest.  We see what industrialisation has done to the English countryside.

But Lowry does not judge.  He records life faithfully.  His work has been criticised as “samey”, but I disagree.  If you stand and observe dispassionately in, say, Cranleigh High Street, or by Guildford Station, you see little people scurrying about, in ones, twos or small groups.  If you take a mental snapshot, you do not notice details, just images of lots of people going about their business. Lowry has got it exactly right.

In his later life, success brought Lowry money, and the time to travel further afield, and paint seascapes, and small country towns, but that variety was not seen here.  The exhibition was called “Lowry, and the painting of modern life.” We saw real life in a 20th century industrial town – I thought it was terrific!

Text by Gail Delamare

Photos by Jonathan Cross

Related Link (opens in new window):

Lowry exhibition website