Helen Little, Assistant Curator of the Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life exhibition at Tate Britain, talks on how Lowry's love of the theatre may have influenced his painting of the street

Lowry at the back of Oldfield Dwelings in the 1960s Courtesy The Lowry Collection, Salford and Popperfoto
Lowry at the back of Oldfield Dwelings in the 1960s

Accidents interest me… What fascinates me is the people they attract. The patterns those people form, an atmosphere of tension when something’s happened. Where there’s a quarrel there’s always a crowd.

Lowry was a painter of modern life and his paintings are complex records of the British working class. Cramped and monotonous, life in the slums during the early twentieth century was often played out in the street. Lowry’s job as a rent collector at the Pall Mall Property Company gave him unique access and intimacy with the inhabitants of some of the poorest areas of Salford and Manchester created by industrialisation and suffering from the economic slump of the 1920s and 30s.

Lowry was not a social reformer but saw a great beauty in the life he saw. Like the Impressionists, he believed it was vital that modern painting should continually adapt to the world to capture new and unexplained subjects. Hence his fascination with the rituals of everyday life: football matches and protest marches, evictions and fist-fights, workers going to and from the mill. And although many of Lowry’s early paintings including An Accident suggest the gloomiest of circumstances, Lowry knew how regular, ordinary and un-dramatic these occasions were and presented them as such. In fact, a quiet humour and wit is often at play, just like George Formby Senior’s popular music hall song When father said he’d pay the rent which you can hear in the exhibition while looking at pictures such as A Removal, a picture about the urban displacement and domestic break up after an eviction.

I like to think about the relationship between Lowry’s love of theatre and how he captured the dramatic events he saw unfold on the street. In the same year that he began sketching and painting the urban landscape and its inhabitants, Lowry saw Stanley Houghton’s 1912 play Hindle Wakes. A gritty working class story set in the Lancashire town of Hindle, Lowry recalls this being the first time he saw beauty in the industrial environment. Lowry’s class and profession may have meant he was ‘exterior’ to the turmoils and happenings of street life but perhaps his love of theatre goes a little way to explain the complex construction of his images, often positioning the viewer at a distance looking down at a scene from above.

For me, the ‘Lowry effect’ lies in the strange lack of sentiment he expresses in his paintings - a world of streets but no interiors - as if to communicate not quite knowing where in the world we belong.


As art over the years has often been, this was a great social commentary on a piece of British history. Yes gloomy, but somehow up-lifting. Whilst not a huge fan it is clear Lowry was certainly more than matchstick men. As with all these 'block buster' exhibitions, however, it was just too crowded. Patrick Caulfield on the other hand was a delight.

Dear Ruth Thank you for taking the time to write your response to the Lowy exhibition. I am sorry that you found the exhibition to be too crowded. You might be interested to know that Lowry has special extended evening opening hours which offer very peaceful circumstances to view the works. These are until 20.00 every Friday, Saturday and Sunday* (last ticket sale 19.00). If you are a Member, we also have special early morning Members Hours on Fridays and Weekends 28 June – Sunday 29 September 2013*, 9.00 – 10.00. *Please note date exceptions to late and early openings: 14–15 September. Our timed-entry system helps us to ensure that a reasonable number of visitors are entering the show at any one time so that we offer a safe and enjoyable experience to our visitors. However, our Visitor Experience team will continue to monitor the situation at peak visitor times, which are 12.00 - 14.00 daily. Thank you once again, Information Team


As a lifelong fan of Lowry it was lovely to see some of my favourite paintings and some I had not seen before. Almost makes up for the Tate's consistent snobbery of years gone by where they have stored these beautiful paintings away not to be shown. Better late than never I suppose!

I was disappointed by Lowry. The French artists that exhibited alongside him at the salons were far more exciting and impressive. The more I saw the more this was reinforced.

Visiting the Gary Hume and Patrick Caulfield exhibition immediately afterwards I felt a gust of fresh air.

Having recently retired I was fortunate to be able to visit the exhibition on a Friday afternoon, when it was relatively quiet. I'm not a great fan of Lowry, and only went to the exhibition as entry was free (I am a Member) and I had visited Tate Britain primarily to view the Patrick Caulfield exhibition.

It was useful to see so many of Lowry's works in one place, but this proved somewhat monotonous, as far as the 'Manchester' street/fair scenes were concerned, by the end. However, I had never before seen the large paintings commissioned by the Festival of Britain, nor the 'Welsh' series. These were most impressive to seemed to me to be influenced by Cezanne's panoramic landscapes.

Probably the one thing that I have learned (about Lowry) from the exhibition is the answer to "why does it always look as if it has been snowing in his cityscapes?" (which as a result reflect Pissarro's work). It had never before occurred to me that an artist's style would be fundamentally influenced by the fact that reference books books used during his education would only have contained monochrome plates.

Only chance for a brief look and exhibition was crowded on Friday so plan to revisit - thought I was familiar with Lowry's work from my mum's love of it when I was growing up in the sixties - but found out a lot to draw me back from my brief visit - shall read your articles and return....

The Exhibition was laid out in a clear and well lit way. I came away having learnt a lot more about Lowry as a painter with the use of the Audio equipment. Thank you for a great time.