Helen Little, Assistant Curator of the Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life exhibition at Tate Britain, examines how Lowry’s art changed direction after the Second World War

L. S. Lowry VE Day 1945

L. S. Lowry
VE Day 1945

© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

I’ve a one track mind. I always deal with poverty. Always with gloom.

It is interesting to examine how Lowry’s art changes direction after the Second World War as he responded to the new political and social realities of Labour Britain.

After this painting, VE Day, Lowry’s world – like that of many people in Britain – became more coherent as the new Labour Government introduced the welfare state, and the health, wealth and happiness of the nation became a central political concern. For Lowry, the images of Social Democratic Britain centred on the new leisure and pleasure of the working classes – playgrounds and parks, funfairs and newly affordable seaside holidays, football and cricket matches. 

Yet this renewed optimism was a double-edged sword and as always with Lowry, poverty and gloom were the other side of the coin. After all, technical optimism and the welfare state bore little relation to the reality of many working peoples’ lives, and geography books from the early Fifties still described the North of England as ‘a dreary scene of tall chimneys, black smoke, old slag heaps, railway lines and neglected waste.’

It is interesting that Lowry’s expanded subject matter coincided with his moment of popularity and stature in the public eye. Around 1952, the year that Lowry retired from his job as rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company, the first monograph on his work was published and his paintings were acquired by more and more British Museums. In 1966, a Lowry retrospective organised by the Arts Council toured the country, and in 1967 his painting Coming Out of School was featured on postage stamps priced 1/6d.

I often wonder how much the public obsession with Lowry’s persona have obscured his strengths as an artist, the range of his work and his place in twentieth century art.

Comments

Like millions of others, we had a general, generic idea of a Lowry painting but this exhibition enhanced and enlarged our vision of his work. We were impressed by its consistency, significance and (certainly in the case of the five industrial landscapes of 1950-55) grandeur. His portrayals of human distress and disability were especially striking. The range, variety and arrangement of the paintings (and the occasional presence of work by other artists, e.g. Van Gogh, Utrillo) deepened our appreciation of their formal qualities, their geometry and colour. The contextual material – e.g. on Lowry’s prewar reception in France, on postwar British social life – was helpful, and we liked the video clips, particularly the shot of Lowry painting, with such economy, one of his famous dogs!