Street life

L S Lowry - Glyn Hughes on the art and the man

Laurence Stephen Lowry must be our most endearing artist. We are charmed by the matchstick figures, by the decorative disposition of factory landscapes and shabby crowds. He seems to have more going for his reputation as time goes by. In the past 50 years, we have become positively nostalgic for what he painted - now that we have forgotten the rickets and the poverty, and the burn of coal smoke in the throat. Even while Lowry painted, he held a nostalgic appeal (he was once asked why everyone in his pictures was dressed in an old-fashioned way). In terms of popular iconography, John Constable might be a rival. But Lowry has an advantage even over a chocolate-box view of rural life: Constable's painting is clearly beyond the competence of most of us, whereas Lowry's images seem to be within reach of us all. Our love of the amateur - which is what Lowry seems to be - is a specifically English weakness: a gentlemanly view of not taking anything too seriously. He wins over, say, Constable or Turner, on that count, too. His pictures do not overawe. In fact, they are slightly humorous. Or wry. At any rate, they are very human. And his value continues to rise in the salerooms.

He paints, it seems, as everyone's favourite uncle might, and his whole image is avuncular. We see a man without pretensions, who is modest, and who avoided giving himself graces as an artist. He wore a dark suit, a tie, a trilby hat and an old raincoat. He thus stood out in an age when British artists were generally expected to be flamboyant; when Augustus John, with unruly hair and beard, and unruly life, was the romantic standard. ("Never trust an artist with a beard," Lowry said.)

Innocence was an image that Lowry both cultivated and kicked against. He was a highly conscious artist, who protested that he had laboured at it through years of academic study. But lacking both parental sympathy and early success, he timidly followed in his father's footsteps, and worked for a Manchester property company as a rent collector. Despite his mid-period success, he remained at his job until he reached the age for a pension, whereupon he gave it away to a colleague in need. (Was Lowry "a miser in a greasy mac", as I once unkindly described him in a poem, or was he a spontaneously generous man?)

He carried on with the day job for reasons that were not financial. It was tramping the streets and knocking on doors that gave rise to his original vision of Salford and Manchester (though it may not have been an entirely unique vision, as it bears a resemblance to the early work of Van Gogh, who was exhibited in Manchester during Lowry's formative years). Later, rent collecting was the perfect excuse for studying the streets, and for a passionate involvement with them. Intriguingly, to the very end, Lowry kept his profession secret from all but a few friends, perhaps out of fear of not being taken seriously as an artist.

Secretiveness seems one of the marks of Lowry as a person. When I was a young man, I lived in the same village as him, in Mottram-in-Longendale, ten miles east of Manchester, and would see him waiting for a bus into the city. I had been an art student in Manchester, where, in the 1950s, none of my tutors had a good word for him. Though he was by then highly successful, much of the local art establishment dismissed him as an amateur. I would come across him in the City Art Gallery and in the Kardomah Cafe opposite. Shy myself, I found him impenetrable, unapproachable.

He was not so secretive as to pretend that he was anything other than a virgin until the end of his life. But what that declaration covered or implied is another matter. We do know that Lowry formed a succession of innocent relationships with girls or young women. I believe that there were around 12 of them, some fleeting, and two of them major. All of his central characteristics came into play in these relationships: his avuncular character (when he did not expect the formal "Mr" from everyone, he was "Uncle Laurie"), the generous, the secretive and, above all, the irreproachable virgin.

The aspect of his fantasy that he kept most secret - a need to punish and restrain - appeared in one part of his legacy: a set of pictures of a female figure, at once juvenile and grotesquely mature, bound, dangled like a puppet, punished or cruelly decapitated, which remained hidden until after his death.

Glyn Hughes's play, Mr Lowry's Loves, was recently broadcast on Radio 4, with Tom Courtenay playing Lowry

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Best of young British