L S Lowry and the dark heart of Manchester

As a teenager, I was wrong about Lowry and the subjects he painted. He was not a nostalgic Sunday painter, but an uncompromising, uninvolved and self-centred witness of suffering and turbulence: the indirect colleague of Orwell, Grierson and Hoggart, keep

An unsettling industrial landscape by L S Lowry.
The end of the world as we know it: Industrial Landscape (1955) by L S Lowry.

When I was growing up in Stockport during the 1960s, turning 13 in 1970, I paid little attention to the vast brick viaduct that soared above the sunken town centre carrying trains to and out of Manchester, six miles away. It was just there, doing its humdrum job, high above Mersey Square, the busy bus terminal abutting the Merseyway shopping centre that had been built in 1965. Merseyway was the first of its type in the country, a bold attempt to mend and modernise a depressed, broken town, drag it out of the shadow of the viaduct and the rundown hat warehouses topped with the forlorn chimneys that would never smoke again.

Of the two great structures, I gravitated to the post-industrial, 20th-century Merseyway and the sudden new glamour of wellstocked shops; becoming an early primitive version of the mall rat, hanging around a carless, smokeless futurepark, a world of exciting time-wasting possibility safely shielded from the surrounding irrelevance – all that stubborn, morose past. The grand, 19th-century viaduct was as invisible to me as the high and mighty Victorian buildings in Manchester that had survived the wartime bombing that contributed to the depletion of the great world-changing shock city. As pop culture picked up speed throughout the 1960s and 1970s, pleasure-seekers hunted underground thrills in battered old buildings – side-tracked, sinister remnants of industrial glory revamped as clubs and music venues, planning escape routes into a future that was surely the other side of landing on the moon.

At the time, the extremely non-pop, nonspace- age paintings of L S Lowry were as invisible to me as the viaduct, as distant as the ghostly, forbidding gothic Manchester buildings of Alfred Waterhouse and others: once visionary emblems of cresting 19th-century civic pride that sternly loomed above the city-centre streets, a long way from becoming home to boutique hotels, loft apartments, arts festivals and coffee shops. Back then, many of them were boarded up and banished, because the action had moved elsewhere, perhaps forever. Lowry in his own crooked, needled way had recorded exactly that dark history that seemed to be impeding any sort of progress. It was not where you looked if you craved recovery and a restoration of volatile, demanding Manchester energy.

The effects of the Second World War, post-industrial concussion and necessary social and political optimism, had combined to encourage deeper engagement with the idea of the future, of what on earth was next, after all that building up and falling down, and deprived, dispossessed masses crowded under toiling clouds that could yet become nuclear. The new buildings that appeared in Manchester in the 1960s broke away from the claustrophobic, intimidating Victorian and Edwardian, exploiting curves, glass and steely, sky-scraping pretension to reconstruct devastated civic confidence. Granada Television confidently beamed its flashy red logo from its recently built city-centre studios on Quay Street. Even though it gave the world Coronation Street, an apparently rosetinted yet grouchy relative of dated, domestic Lowry concerns, it was determined to generate the future and coat an expectant north – glowing with suddenly flowing Beatle juice – in new media pride.

Lowry’s paintings stopped well short of imagining the future; they were a flat, unevolved reminder of a disgraced world, studies in unglamorous endurance, apparently painted with a coarse understanding of form and content that verged on the cartoonish. He seemed on the outside of the fast-flowing currents of British art that were interested in the smashing new subjects and glittering found objects of the 1960s. Lowry’s own interests were out of place and out of time, somehow quaintly grotesque. He was labelled a Sunday painter, a sentimentalist best reproduced on tea towels; his typically dry, terse response was that if this was the case, then he was a Sunday painter every day of the week.

My new book The North: and Almost Everything In It is a history of Stockport, its viaduct and the Mersey as much as a history of the wider, wilder north, of its inventive vigour and complicated deterioration, of the region’s caricatured position as the deprived other half in the classic north-south divide. While writing it, the story seemed to fan out from the Stockport Viaduct, once dead to me, now coming to life in my imagination not least as an impassive, cryptic symbol of the solitary Lowry himself. It consists of 22 million bricks and is now more modern-looking than the still-serving but shrivelled-up 1960s shopping centre. It is now so visible to me when I visit Stockport I marvel at my childish ignorance and teenage blindness, that such a monolithic structure seemed less apparent than the gaudy C&A in the shopping centre.

I discovered it was a favourite structure of Lowry, the unlikely centre of his universe as well as mine, each brick a miracle, each arch a cathedral, and he would contemplate it at length – its productive inertness, its unruffled certainty, as though it was as natural even supernatural as the nearby eerie moors – and regularly slip it into one of his composite, panoramic industrial paintings.

The epic viaduct became for me a route to the unknown power of Lowry. Not, as he once seemed, an irrelevant artist, nostalgically even morbidly clinging on to a warped world swarming with freakish stick figures lacking character and emotional depth, but as a complex, experimental artist who transferred ideas first explored by the dazzling, new city-thinking of Poe and Baudelaire and the touch-sensitive French Impressionist painters into a setting that just happened to be northern, because that was where he was.

The journey across the viaduct into the complicated urges of Lowry took me beyond the silly, comical man in the silly novelty song who had been turned by critics into a crude, limited painter of a lost fantasy world. It took me further and further into a northern heart of darkness, into a vital, often unsettling dreamscape, disorientating and chocka-block with stimuli. To an artist tracing the broken contours of an antiquated labyrinth, examining the once very strange and modern on the dirty road to extinction. To an exploratory painter of mood, memory and menace, attuned to the political value of history and the uncanny beauty of ruins.

The journey across the Stockport Viaduct into the territory inhabited by Lowry now takes me to Tate Britain, where there is another attempt to revise his reputation, to lift him beyond the condescension of those who have branded him as a part-time artist, indiscriminately prolific, deeply incurious, miserably obsessed with relics, rituals and railings, ordinary people, uninspiring bleakness and congealed monuments.

At Tate, the former Berkeley art historians T J Clark and Anne M Wagner come to Lowry and Lancashire intrigued but unswayed by the haughtiness of an incestuous London art world that generally classifies him as narrow- minded. They are not put off by his quirks, or his repetitive content, seeing it as being in its own way exotic and also thoroughly investigative. They’re enthralled by how the exiled Lowry gazes across fields of rubble into an industrial working-class history that has been marginalised by those following allegedly cooler, smarter trends. Lowry was never fashionable, because he was following his very own, often very square interests: Victorian bricks, factory gates and monotonous terraced streets more than flags, fame and fortune.

Lowry has been dismissed as provincial, regional, and therefore inferior, as if his matter-of-fact subject matter means a backward, whimsical view of life and living. Lowry, it seems, cannot be great because what he painted was, apparently, only the mundane, unsophisticated images of industrial life stuffed with the common, ugly riff-raff, the stunted, sordid remains of social ambition. No flowers, no stormy seas, no stunning breakthroughs, no sudden shifts of perspective, no innovative application of paint, no mystical conceptual ingenuity, no artistic progress: therefore, surely, quite futile.

This exhibition collects many paintings that are now better known at home in Salford and Manchester, where Lowry has become slowly more celebrated, loved and named after, but still unfamiliar in London. The show unapologetically presents Lowry with big-time London pizzazz as a serious artist experiencing an entire industrial era with melancholy, mischievous, sometimes tortured intensity; one who painstakingly developed a distinctive if eccentric compositional technique.

We can observe the origins of his swarming, battling, often reviled skeletal figures, distant cousins of those more generously honoured peasants in a Van Gogh field, and discover that they looked that way not because he lacked ability but because he was painting a manmade landscape that looked entirely wrong without hordes of preoccupied and harassed people. His landscapes were often crowded with the hard-up masses serving, or avoiding, their masters. But he didn’t want to finish these people off as compositions, giving them richer, sharper, more generous detail, which he was capable of doing as draughtsman. That would have obstructed his view, the view, of harsh ignoble reality turning into a dream, where ungraspable history can be better stored and interpreted. His people haunted the pictures, not as crude, jerky-jokey stick creatures, but as wasted, savaged presences, smeared across canvas, etched into time, curtailed by circumstances, incomplete fragments of his own restless mental state.

Elsewhere, in those emptier, sparer paintings less associated with him – the more abstract ones, less formulaically strewn with emaciated forms, from outside dead-set, dead-end 1930s Lancashire – there is a less cluttered sense of Lowry. We see what is hinted at in all of his paintings: a deeply personal artist, the inheritor of Impressionist impulses, working his lonely, mournful way through the 20th century, getting the job done, creating hiding places, avoiding eye contact, observing his own journey across and under the viaduct, towards the vacant lot of oblivion.

His paintings detail a storm that had just passed through – the 19th century falling apart, the ruins of past promises, the capitalist technological dream of progress leading to catastrophe – causing one hell of an impact. But he also anticipated in a less specific way that there would be another storm along soon, completing the wiping out of these sorts of communities and the places where people settled because they had no choice.

All is not completely right at the well-intentioned Tate Britain show, nicely set up to be the kind of publicised national cultural event once deemed beyond the range of an artistic commoner such as Lowry. But inside the gallery, you will still hear dumb, nutty George Formby, turning out nice again amidst all the nastiness. Lowry was funny and Lancastrian and working at the same time as Formby, but the music creates the kind of tackiness that sticks Lowry to the humble and farcical, where on the whole this exhibition wants to take him away from that.

You wish you were hearing William Walton or the Durutti Column, the Unthanks or Roy Harper (also born in Rusholme and much closer to Lowry in peeved, vagrant spirit than Formby). At the end, when you inevitably emerge into the shop – stocked with peculiarly perky Lowry souvenirs, including ties and mugs, and a less perky copy of my book, which relishes how Lowry turned the down-to-earth into something other-worldly – you will be able to buy a flat cap, as if such a thing will always be on top of the north, holding it in, keeping it down, even after Laurence Sterne, Lewis Carroll, the Brontës, the Pankhursts, Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Burgess, Ted Hughes and Joy Division.

Still, mustn’t grumble, and here for sure is a new Lowry, better served through six mind-opening rooms as the surreal, discerning documentarian of traumatic modern times. The uncompromising, perhaps uninvolved and self-centred, lurking at the tatty edges of life but extremely present and alert witness of suffering and social turbulence, the indirect colleague of Orwell, Grierson and Hoggart, keeping history alive.

He was remembering the end of the world, as he saw it, picturing it as best he could just in case anyone paying attention in the future gave a damn about the world he lived in and the crying-out-loud sadness he felt at how it all just disappeared. The drifting artist who always seemed to be behind the times, incapable of escaping an embarrassing past and accepting a changing world dedicated to wiping out the negative, loaded past, turns out to have been ahead of his time.

Paul Morley’s book “The North (And Almost Everything In It)” is published by Bloomsbury (£20)