L.S. Lowry at Tate Britain – Grim Viewing

As a Scot who was brought up on Tyneside in the Seventies and Eighties, I feel more qualified than most to commentate on matters pertaining to the Grim North. Critics might object that I’m middle-class, and that twenty years of living in the South have made me soft. I did manual labouring jobs as a teenager, and as a student worked at Pizza Hut in the Bigg Market – probably the toughest drinking hole in the Britain. And if I wanted to be a geographic snob about it, I could challenge Lowry’s Northern Grimness as, well, a bit too southern for my liking.

The commentators were wheeled out before the exhibition opened. The broad line was that Lowry, being from Ye Grimme North, isn’t celebrated in the same way as his southern contemporaries; that his paintings lie unseen in London vaults because there’s a patronising Londonista view that his work is somehow inferior. I heard a spokeswoman for the Tate explain that there’s simply not enough wall space to display every artists’ paintings all the time. She’s absolutely right, but more to the point Manchester does have The Lowry. There’s a Van Gough museum in Amsterdam, but no Francis Bacon or a Lucien Freud space in London.

And this is the whole nub of the matter. What we see in Lowry isn’t so much the painting and the art, as the depiction of a lost Northern way of life. That’s why Lowry’s work touches a nerve in a way that no other 20th Century British artist does. To push a simile to breaking point, where Constable and Turner bequeathed us vanished landscapes, Lowry’s legacy is an entire social history. As my doctor-artist friend Liz, who accompanied me, said – “His paintings work best when he has people in them.”

The curators, thankfully, have got this. In room two we get George Formby singing about the day the family got evicted for non-payment of rent. There’s a commentary from the period about how fights would break out between women. A clean rent-book would be used as a demonstration that one household was of a superior social stratum to another working-class family from the same street. It’s a powerful quote, and probably a revelation to a lot of middle-class, armchair socialists from London. For most of us with any experience of life outside the South East it’s just confirmation that people are the same the country over. Poverty is as ugly all over the country – it’s just that its face has changed in the last half-century. And you don’t have to go outside the capital to see it; you never have. Hackney and Tower Hamlets today sit cheek-by-jowl with some of the most obscene wealth in the world.

If anything was a revelation to me, it was that Lowry had been so successful so early in the century. There was a price-list from an exhibition in the Twenties. The most expensive painting was about £20. Consider that the average male weekly wage was about £5 in 1925. A pint of milk was 3d, and with 240d to the pound, that’s 400 pints of milk. That’s £200 at today’s prices, but the cost of a pint of milk in real terms has plummeted below the cost of production. In reality, those paintings were up to £2,000 apiece compared to wages today (which are c.£25,000pa). A tidy sum. And he was getting rave reviews for his work, and the word ‘grim’ was always in evidence. In short, Lowry was peddling the myth of Northern Grimness. I’ve not had time to research it, but perhaps he – along with George Orwell – even invented it.

Yes, there is something wonderful and unique about his paintings. But this was also a man who knew his market – he refused to paint anything other than these stylised – even fictional – depictions of grimness. Sorry, did you catch on the word ‘fictional’? Didn’t you realise that, apart from a few studies from the window of the college where he learnt his trade, his paintings are mostly fictional? Oh, you caught again on the fact that he was taught; that he took lessons? Why, yes, he studied under the (to my mind) brilliant Pierre Adolphe Valette. (One of Valette’s paintings of Manchester in the exhibition blew both of us away.) The ‘fictional’ jibe? Please, it’s not a jibe – Lowry admitted the landscapes were ‘imagined’. It’s at its most joyously and laughably obvious when you see two paintings side-by-side one is called Going to Work, the other Coming from Work (I probably have those titles slightly wrong). The exact same building and gate are depicted on the left of the painting. However, the buildings in the background have changed, but the people are walking in the same direction. And no: Lowry wasn’t making some kind of smart post-modern social comment that people found life at home as hard as work – Liz explained that it was because Lowry was a right-handed painter, and this direction was easiest for him.

Lowry as folk hero

The myth, or otherwise, of Northern Grimness – let’s talk about it like mature adults. As we were waiting to get in, I couldn’t stop myself from singing the following lines:

He painted matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs,
He painted kids on the corner of the street who were sparking clogs.


Canvas and brushes were wearing thin,
When London started calling him,
To come on down and wear the old flat cap.

These are from the 1978 number one hit Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs by Brian and Michael, who were accompanied by the St Winifred’s School Choir and the Tintwistle Brass Band. Here’s the song, complete with lyrics:

This song dollops on the Lowry mythology in thick layers. We’re led to believe that he painted on ‘cardboard boxes from the shops’ because he was so poor. Lowry was never poor in adulthood (nor truly poor in childhood). For one thing, he could afford painting and drawing lessons at art school. Every painting in the exhibition was on board or canvas. It was only when on holiday and he ran out of sketch pads that he painted on envelopes, bus-tickets and serviettes. These pieces are today worth thousands of pounds. That’s right: he holidayed in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Sunderland. My grandparents were middle-class Scots from the Borders, and they also holidayed on the coast of the North East at around the same time – though they couldn’t afford hotels.

The Establishment and Lowry

What of being ignored by the Establishment in London? In 1943 he was appointed as a war artist. A decade later, he was appointed Official Artist at Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation. That’s certainly new information to me, and I didn’t read it at the exhibition. Apparently he also holds the record for the ‘most honours declined’, including a knighthood. I think that latter fact reveals a man who realised what his business was, and that business was myth-making. Would Sir Laurence Lowry be as revered or mythologised as plain L.S. Lowry?

Lowry – the man, the myth, the monetisation

The Tate’s attempts to peddle the myth in the gift shop are risible. There are copies of Paul Morley’s The North (And Almost Everything In It), as well as – and this bends the mind – flat caps. You read that right: flat caps, priced at £28. It’s as if they expect Southern Ponces to be so moved by the experience that en masse, they will throw up their hands in defeat, spit out their sun-dried tomatoes and declare for the North. Why didn’t the Tate go the whole hog? Where were the clogs, damn it? When we passed the café on the way out, where in God’s name was the pie, chips and mushy peas? Must we eat cake again?

How Grim was my valley?

When I was a lad and I lived in the North, to the much grimmer north of Lowry’s Grim North, I hated the South, London, and all it stood for. They had it easy, didn’t they?

I now realise that it’s grim pretty much everywhere if you’re trapped in poverty by circumstance or lack of opportunity. Lowry realised that in later life, and paintings like Bargoed in the Welsh Valleys are testament to it. I’ve been to Bargoed, and the depiction of Welsh grimness is painfully accurate.

Manchester’s been done proud by Lowry – a peculiar kind of proud – and it’s right that they celebrate him as he celebrated its communities. The man gave them a specific brand of Northern Grimness – the kind that persuades central government to subsidise a building to the man who did the most for the myth. It even persuaded Tony Blair to bully the BBC into spending hundreds of millions of pounds (of licence-fee payers’ money; your money) to move a chunk of its production up to Salford. Why not Tyneside or Teesside, both of which are equally as deserving? Well, they’re a bit too north, aren’t they? The Mancunian brand of Northern grimness is creatively authentic (think Coronation Street, think Madchester, The Smiths, Oasis and all those great Nineties bands). No, there’s grim and there’s grim.

Even the KLF in their song It’s Grim Up North mentions nearly 70 towns and cities, and not one is north of Yorkshire. And I’d also refute the grimness of some of them. Harrogate, for example, is rather twee. You could argue that it rains an awful lot up there (see video), but if you want to compete on rainy northerness, the whole of Scotland wins hands-down.

Oh dear. I’ve committed the sin described in room 2 – I’ve been trying to out-North and out-Grim Manchester. I’ve become the blogging equivalent of the housewife waving a clean rent-book. I guess my point is that Manchester needs to recognise that it hasn’t got a monopoly on grimness – just a particular brand of Northern Grimness.

A Grim manifesto

Here’s my advice to the impoverished residents of Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Forget rioting. The political classes – liberal, socialist, conservative – don’t like or understand violence, and the apparatus of the state is designed to deal with it. The political classes understand art, and they understand marketing. If you really want to end your poverty, paint it. Or, better still, brand it.

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