th30K6TKU0LOWRY and the Painting of Modern Life.





26TH JUNE 2013-20TH OCTOBER 2013



Leonard Stephen Lowry was born in Stretford in Manchester 1887and died in Glossop Derbyshire in 1976.Lowry experienced a very desolate and lonely childhood with a father and mother who did not give him the loving attention he deserved. In spite of this Lowry was to harness a great talent painting and drawing. As well as painting in oils Lowry was adept at drawing in pencil. The Exhibition organised by the Tate of retrospective paintings and prints that Lowry painted are mainly confined to the Industrial area of Manchester.   Lowry paints scenes reminiscent of the poverty, degradation and exploitation so vividly recounted by Frederick Engels in his book

‘The Condition of the Working class in England written by Engels in 1845’. As I walked around the Exhibition what struck me was that Lowry had painted scenes of Working class Life in Britain. Lowry himself who attended the Manchester School of Art was influenced by the French impressionist painting foremost amongst them was Edouard   Manet.The impressionists had demonstrated the ability to paint what is called the modern life , but the major difference is that Manet and the impressionists mostly painted the Bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie at work and play whereas Lowry painted the working class    showing their  oppression and exploitation  in very drab surroundings  .These scenes are  discussed in detail by Engels. Much of the scenes that Engels describes in his Condition of the English working class were to be replicated by Lowry painting in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As I walked from room to room it was obvious that Lowry was interested in crowd scenes. Many of the scenes are of the working class either at play or work. “Lowry was a painter of the working class .I  have a one track mind .i only deal with poverty” [1]. Examples on show at the Tate are ‘Street Hawkers (aka the Hawkers cart) 1929’ [2]. Most of the paintings on show depict the depression and the slump of the 1930’s. His ability to use three dimensional effects in his paintings is evident. The picture space is tightly crammed with workers and their families, the colours and tones are drab and common place. Lowry was taught to portray scenes with a composition of black and browns but what is most effective is the sense of degradation and despair. The buildings dwarf the people. The painting itself shows the total effect of depth and precision in the way the scene recreates   a working class district of Manchester. The perspective, viewpoint and meaning are there for everyone to see.   “As a child before the First War I hardly knew a weekend free from the sight of brawling adults and inter-family dispute. It was then one saw demonstrated how deeply many manual workers and their wives were possessed with ideas about class. As well as crowd scenes there were also scenes of landscapes, but Lowry’s landscapes were of gloom and despair exhibiting smoke from chimneys and dark satanic mills which was the lot of the working class being ground down by scenes of absolute hopelessness. One important painting that Lowry painted in 1942 was the aftermath of war ‘Blitzed Site 1942.’ [3] .This  is evidence of catastrophe  and disaster as it is painted in very dark and menacing colours .The scene is replete with broken and smashed buildings with several people homeless and looking on with no future.


After the Second World War and with the election of a Labour Government Lowry turned to painting the social life of Labour Britain. Lowry responded profoundly to the new development of a Labour Government. The style of painting became different, there were clownish and comic scenes as depicted in the painting ‘Ancoats Hospital outpatients Hall 1952’ [4]. Lowry was very dismissive about the end of the Working class, although you had a Labour government you still had the class system and capitalism as a system remained. Lowry commented “I don’t think they look much better than they used to in the old days” [5].

In one of the rooms at the Tate there are paintings devoted to Industrial Landscapes. Lowry’s painting had changed with the election of the post war Labour Government, the creation of the NHS under Beveridge and a new social security system which the present Cameron government is trying to dismantle. Lowry welcomed all these developments and they are evident in much of his painting.

His last great work to be displayed was the celebration of the Festival of Britain in 1951. In a sense Lowry with this  scene ‘Hillside in Wales 1962’ [6] is the passing of the Industrial landscape from Old Industrial buildings of grim and dark forebodings signifying extreme deprivation under Capitalism to a portrayal of a future without having to work  in buildings which oppress and have no beauty. John Berger perfectly captures the significance of Lowry’s work   “These paintings are about what has been happening to the British Economy since 1918, and their logic implies the collapse still to come this is what happened to the Workshop of the World. Here is the so called production crisis: the obsolete industrial plants: The lack of capital investment at home and the disastrous reliance on colonial and neo-colonial overseas investments: the shift of power from Industrial capital to international finance capital” [7].

Although the Exhibition has ended I would still recommend a visit to Tate Britain which still has 23 paintings or drawings either on show or by appointment. They are all worth viewing showing the talent of Lowry who was able to capture crowd scenes and Industrial landscapes showing the working class form the period of the slum of the 1930’s to the first Labour Government of 1945, although they depict the working class in all of its facets, the main task remains the Overthrow of Capitalism and the construction of a socialist society.


  1. Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life  Booklet  [Tate Britain]
  2. Private collection on loan to the Lowry Collection Salford
  3. The Lowry Collection , Salford
  4. The Whitworth Art  Gallery, The University of Manchester
  5. Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life  Booklet [Tate Britain]
  6. Tate b, presented by the trustees of the Chantry Bequest 1963
  7. Berger.J [1966] LS Lowry New Society.

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