As Tate Britain gears up for its major exhibition on L.S Lowry, Assistant Curator Helen Little kicks off our revealing blog series and re-introduces a great British artist we all thought we knew

My ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map because nobody had done it, nobody had done it seriously.

‘What are you doing when you’re not painting?’ someone asked Lowry, ‘Thinking about painting.’

L. S. Lowry, 1964 (b/w photo), Lewinski, Jorge (1921-2008) Private Collection / © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth / The Bridgeman Art Library
L. S. Lowry, 1964 (b/w photo)
Lewinski, Jorge (1921-2008)
Private Collection / © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth / The Bridgeman Art Library

These two quotes, for me, sum up the aspirations and achievements of the remarkable artist L. S. Lowry, whose exhibition at Tate Britain I have been putting together over the last two years.

The exhibition, opening on 26 June, brings together the very best of Lowry’s urban scenes and industrial landscapes that encourage us to think about Lowry’s contribution to art history, arguing for his achievement as Britain’s pre-eminent painter of the industrial city. It is a long overdue exhibition – the first in a public London gallery since his death in 1976, and we hope that its particular focus will enable visitors to look afresh at his best known work or perhaps discover it for the first time.

Lowry recalled that his ambition to make the industrial landscape a subject for his art began with his regular Saturday night walks from his home in Pendlebury to Bolton. Here, he would eat at Seymour Mead’s café with the clanking and thumping of the machinery at nearby Kearsley Colliery echoing in his ears, after which, in the dark on the way home, he would think about the beauty and mystery of it all.

Lowry devoted his life to painting the England of the Industrial Revolution and the everyday Salford of the working class. His paintings might seem narrow in range, but they are actually complex records that are hard to pin down. For many, his paintings recall powerful memories of a world that rapidly declined after the Second World War and during the later twentieth century, while for others, they continue to draw out different notions of beauty. His vision might look peculiar, but it was certainly intense. Lowry was always searching for the new.

Join me over the coming months as I explore Lowry’s unique vision and some of the themes of the exhibition. I look forward to posting more soon and to hearing your stories and views.

Helen Little is Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary British Art. Follow Helen on Twitter, @HelenLittle3 

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is on display at Tate Britain from 26 June to 20 October


I am looking forward to 'Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life', because, as Lynda Morris has noted, many social realist artists have long been overlooked on account of a modernist bias in art history. I am currently researching the life and work of Liverpool sculptor Arthur Dooley, who exhibited alongside Lowry at the opening of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool. Both artists were immersed in Northern industrial working class life. If Lowry's paintings are of an industrial world in decline, then Dooley's sculptures can be said to look to the resurrection of a working class culture in retreat. Dooley always said that he was lucky not to have gone to art school, relying instead on his shipyard welding skills and his ability to think for himself. Lowry, of course, came under the influence, of Adolphe Valette at Manchester Municipal College of Art, and then had to work to find his own unique language. Dooley, a life long member of the Communist Party, saw himself as an artist and a revolutionary. When, as a young boy, I first saw a selection of Lowry prints in a cafe in Stockport, I experienced it as a kind of revolutionary moment. I can remember being amazed to see, for the first time, art that pictured 'my world'. Until then, the only art I had seen was about 'elsewhere', and it felt exciting to recognise something of my own life in a painting. I can clearly remember trying to find our house in the pictures, and although i never did find it, I felt assured that Lowry must have been down our street, walked across the parks, the crofts, the edgelands we played on. Dooley's sculptures most certainly insist on workers claims to social rights, while Lowry's paintings redistribute 'la partage du sensible' by insisting that French impressionism isn't just for the bourgeois. Both have something revolutionary about them. As working class life and culture continues to come under attack today, we need artist like Dooley and Lowry to move from the footnotes of art history and into the main text. Hopefully, 'Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life' will be a move in the right direction.

I was very much looking forward to the exhibition and I was not disappointed. I found the comparisons between Lowry and some of the French artists interesting. I had not realised that Lowry's art teacher had been French and the influence that this brought to his own work. I was also fascinated by how cheap his original works of art were. Perhaps this is why so many art critics are so 'sniffy' about his work? His depiction of working class life and culture still hold true for me. The grimness and the desperation of people at that time are captured for all to see. The bleakness of the landscape and the joy of attending the park, seaside or the fair welcome relief from the daily grind. I would recommend the show whatever ones opinion of his work. It is thought provoking and interesting and for me - a delight.

I was very excited that there was going to be a Lowry exhibition, long overdue.And I wasn't disappointed. A thoroughly enjoyable show, beautifully brought together by the Tate. Thanks for an enjoyable evening

I've just been round the exhibition and I enjoyed it. One thing has struck me for the first time: there are no cars in the paintings of the industrial North, not even in the 1950s and 60s. This would not have been the case in reality and it reinforces the somewhat dreamlike (nightmarish?) character of many of these works.

I grew up in the northwest of England and Lowry's work has always stuck a chord with me. Looking at it from today's perspective, it's modernism alright, but not as we know it. Not the lyrical, romanticised visions of the French or the violent eruptions of the Italians. Lowry regards his world in a very matter-of-fact way, Whether his subject is a crowd going to a football match, an eviction or a funerals his view is equally objective.

However, it's unfortunate that this exhibition only concentrated on the cityscapes, because his portraits and seascapes showed him to be much more involved with his world than this exhibition would lead one to believe. How about the Tate shows some of them in the permanent collection now?

After visiting the Lowry gallery in Salford Quays with my husband we both felt a great fondness for the man and considered him human, expressive and versatile. This viewpoint for the exhibition 'painting modern life' was comparatively narrow, and I felt, strangely curated. The audio guide was slow and dull, the comparisons with contemporary French artists made him look very pedestrian, cold. The emphasis on poverty and hardship was, frankly, depressing! This may be within the constraints of the exhibition's theme, but for a more balanced view of Lowry, go to Salford.


On an Art College visit to Sir Kenneth Clark's home in the mid 60s, I asked him if he had a Lowry, I don't think he owned one... he indicated tactfully that he thought that Lowry was an interesting artist but not would what we would now call .. a major player... I agree with this and having visited Tate Britain's Lowry exhibition twice feel that although his individualism shines through and little vignettes in his paintings are quite touching it was trying to make too much of an issue of the social connections. I love his empty grey seascapes and bleak black churches and prefer them to the bustling crowds for which he is well known. We didn't need George Formby .. did we?

My paternal grandparents were from Blackburn, Lancashire and worked in the cotton mills. Later, my granfather ran a pub where my father lived as a child. He often told me of what life was like for working folk and Lowry's inspired art mirrors those grim recollections.

Yes, the viewing rooms were too crowded - even on the last day - but it was worth tolerating the relative discomfort to experience such moving work. These bold artistic statements had the power to make me want to return to the books I read as a 1960s student of British Social and Economic history of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.