L.S. Lowry spent almost his entire working life as a rent collector. Born in 1887 and then raised on the edge of Manchester, he in fact lived a perfectly cinematic life. Mrs Lowry and Son proves a timely exploration of this. It wasn’t only the paintings themselves but the man, his character and his relentlessly generous perspective on the world around him that proves a sight to behold in Adrian Noble’s biographical feature. A survivor of trauma, a carer to a difficult parent, a devotee of the public that damned him; Lowry’s art captured both the resilience and ragged difficulty of his time.
With the release of Vertigo’s film Mrs Lowry and Son, audiences will be lucky enough to follow star Timothy Spall on a re-adventure in Lowry’s footsteps, as the Lancashire-born’s artistic vision and lifespan are brought back to life. Now is as good a time as ever to take stock of the pieces the artist conceived that bound Lowry even further into the humble ground of his time and place.
1. All Smoke Without Fire (The Colours)
Lowry did work as an official War Painter in service to his country – but it didn’t end when peacetime arrived. His follow up work still seems to smoulder with the desolate and decimated air of post-war Britain. The sky is often sparse and looming over the scenery, evocating a sense of dread, meanwhile his famous use of a simple five colour pallet (specifically – ivory black, Prussian blue, vermilion, yellow ochre, and flake white) says a lot. The charcoal hue he stayed closer to is a foundational element in the paintings, in the same way the coal mines themselves were the backbone of his northern community of working men and women.
As a fire-watcher for the North-West during air-raids, perhaps Lowry had seen enough shades of blaze; his art is always without those fiercer, fierier tones – perhaps because he, along with his country – having been scorched by history – just wanted to cool down.
If Lowry believed he could make the world on canvas out of greys and charcoals, he may have even believed that his wounded Britain could rebuild a society from the ashes.
2. Matchstick maker
In Mrs Lowry and Son, Timothy Spall gives a wonderfully understated performance as the titular painter – ‘There’s a beauty in everything, one just has to look’ – he mutters, deferentially. This was the Lowry way of seeing: simplistic (just look), but generous (beauty in everything).
Going against the grain of those high detail, full frontal portraits that centred on one bourgeois face like the other English painter before him such as Henry Blake, Lowry was content to take a step back. As a working class citizen, he had the aesthetic eye for the many — those too busy and poor of time to come closer and sit and model for him — rather than the privileged few. The definite subjects of a Lowry piece are his small, matchstick men.
His vision of his people, from the bottom of a hill, to a street, to a field, meant Lowry did justice to the sweeping, multi-faceted face of the community on the outskirt of Manchester by including them all – no matter how small – as if they were all too precious for him to bear excluding.
There was a sentiment of the struggling, striving Britain at the time, one that Churchill described as ‘vast numbers…who will render faithful service but whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded”. Lowry’s art may have been labelled childish with the dainty proportions and single brushstrokes, but there was a mature, gracious wisdom in his attempt to encapsulate all the faces and arms and legs the eye could see. He was a witness to a forgotten generation.
3. One more Forgotten (until now)
If Lowry was representing a unappreciated generation – the older, the poorer or the isolated – it is sadly fitting that he was undervalued as an artist, and even as a son.
Mrs Lowry and Son provides a tragic context for the modern British audience, who – thanks to multiple Tate exhibitions in his honour – might not know that he, like a lot of working class creatives, was belittled at home and in the critical sphere for his style and pursuit of the craft.
His art was called ‘ naïve’ by denizens of his plainer colour scheme and detailing, but maybe that was because the Britain he was curating out of paint was a naïve one – too narrow minded to appreciate him while he was learning and growing into one of the most iconic visualises of his time.
Although Lowry didn’t need hindsight, it’s handy for the rest of us, and Mrs Lowry and Son is a modern retelling of his story with a thoroughly modem appreciation for his creations. Director Adrian Noble and his set designers have even brought some of the paintings to life around Lowry as he travels, unerringly, (and this time with a celebratory audience) through his world.