Room 1: Looking at Lowry

Banner for the Tate Britain exhibition on Lowry

Lowry was a ‘painter of modern life’. The phrase recalls French painting in the age of Édouard Manet and the Impressionists. The young Lowry was taught at the Manchester School of Art by a gifted Frenchman, Adolphe Valette, who preached the gospel of Impressionism and pictured Manchester’s mills and canals. Lowry himself had mixed feelings about Monet and company. He did not see in them ‘the battle of life’. But he shared with Valette the belief that if art failed to confront the new world made by industry it would become bloodless and inward-looking, mistaking novelty for innovation. Painting was Lowry’s obsession.

He was an aesthete through and through. But for him thinking about painting, in Manet’s and Seurat’s footsteps, meant always thinking about what is most vivid, and pictorially unfamiliar, in contemporary life. The crowd at a football match, or a sky full of chimneys belching smoke, or the red of a London double-decker bus: any of them might jolt painting back to life.

The works in this room are representative of Lowry at his strongest. They show his appetite for the life of the crowd, his wish to embrace the full enormity of the urban fabric, and his feeling for the packed spaces of the street.