L.S. Lowry: Tanker (c1965) The Lowry Collection, Salford
Artillery Row On Art

What Lowry saw in the sea

The philosophical side of the painter of “matchstalk men” adds to his charm

When someone mentions Lowry, what’s the first thing that springs to mind?  You probably picture his industrial cityscapes — the dark satanic mills and smoking chimney stacks of his native Lancashire. This intriguing show, in an old granary in Berwick-upon-Tweed, reveals an entirely different side of LS Lowry — his lifelong fascination with the sea.

Lowry spent most of his time in Manchester, where he was born and raised and became an artist, but for the last 40 years of his long life, from the 1930s to the 1970s, he spent his summer holidays beside the seaside here in Berwick. This was rather an eccentric choice. Berwick has a bit of beach, on the south side of the River Tweed, at Spittal, but even in Lowry’s day it was a modest resort — a strip of sand, a windswept prom and a few rudimentary shops and stalls, nothing to compare with the bright lights of Blackpool or Skegness.

With his interest in working class street life, you might suppose that Lowry would have focused on holidaymakers having fun, but only a few of the pictures in this show depict the usual bucket-and-spade stuff. Rather than Punch & Judy shows and suchlike, Lowry concentrated on simple seascapes. What he sought on this windswept shore was solitude, not kiss-me-quick.

This wasn’t just a change of scene — it was also a dramatic change of style.  The bold contours of his urban panoramas (only five colours: vermilion, yellow ochre, Prussian blue, flake white and ivory black) make way for subtler, more layered brushwork Some of these pictures are impressionistic, others are almost minimalist. Only a couple feature the “matchstalk men” that made his name. Most of them are utterly bereft of human life. Even the ships on his horizons seem like ghostly apparitions, a phantom mirage on a grey day. Several of his finest pictures simply depict empty seas beneath empty skies.

These enigmatic paintings uncover the inner life of this introverted artist, a world away from his public image as a shy, reclusive bachelor — eking out a dead-end job as an inner-city rent collector, living with his widowed mother, painting unpretentious pictures as a harmless pastime after his bedridden mum had drifted off to sleep. “I’m a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week,” he said. In fact, Lowry was properly trained and entirely devoted to his vocation. His mundane day job and his austere lifestyle freed him from the fickle foibles of the art market. This enabled him to cultivate his own style, and paint exactly as he liked.

One side of his oeuvre was the landscape of his working life — the cobbled streets and back-to-backs of the tenants he called on to collect the rent. The other side was his annual retreat to this unfashionable seaside town. Here, far from the stress and bustle of his daily life, he had time and space to ponder life’s eternal mysteries, encapsulated in these tranquil, melancholy paintings. 

“How wonderful it is, yet how terrible,” he said, contemplating the vastness of the ocean. “It’s all there, it’s all in the sea — the battle of life is there, and fate.” He said he often wondered what would happen if, one day, the tide didn’t turn, and just kept coming in and coming in. “That would be the end of it all.”

You can follow a walking trail around the town, past many of the scenes he painted — round the Elizabethan Walls and across the River Tweed to Spittal. Along the way you’ll pass Lion House, an imposing Georgian pile looking out across the North Sea, which Lowry contemplated buying after his mother died — he was deterred when an architect told him it suffered from damp.

L.S. Lowry: July, the Seaside (1943) Arts Council Collection

And so he remained a perennial visitor, staying in the Castle Hotel beside the station, where he sat and doodled in the cosy lounge, ignored by other guests. There’s a quaint little sketch in this show, drawn on hotel notepaper, which he gave to the hotel receptionist, Anne Mather. She hung onto it for over 40 years before finally selling it at auction after getting it valued on the Antiques Roadshow (Lowry gave numerous other drawings to another receptionist, but she didn’t think they’d be worth anything, so she threw them all away).

The most northerly town in England, an enclave on the north bank of the River Tweed, Berwick is a fascinating place — attractive, atmospheric and full of history — but nowadays it’s a bit forgotten. Midway between Newcastle and Edinburgh, most travellers pass straight through without stopping. They don’t know what they’re missing. An important port until the last century, this disputed border town changed hands a dozen times during the Middle Ages, and although the English finally drove out the Scots in 1482, it still feels Scottish as much as English — the border is only a short walk away. It’s been knocked about a bit, and its high street has seen better days, but there are some quirky bookshops and antique shops, and a fine museum in the old barracks. There are lovely hikes along the coast or inland along the Tweed. 

Lowry died in 1976, at the grand old age of 88. The one man show which the Royal Academy had been busy planning became his requiem. The three-month run attracted over 150,000 visitors, a record-breaking attendance. 

Lowry’s work spoke to something deep within the British psyche (a household name in Britain, he’s still relatively unknown abroad). Not long after he died, he even inspired a number one hit single — the outrageously soppy (and infuriatingly catchy) “Matchstalk Men And Matchstalk Cats And Dogs”.

What was it that made so many people feel such a profound connection with him, people who often had scant interest in other artists? Because he portrayed the way they lived in a way they could understand. His seascapes are more elusive, but for me they add a new dimension to our understanding. They show us he had hidden depths, a more philosophical, haunted side. And in a strange way, they make his jolly “matchstalk men” even more moving. 

Lowry and the Sea is at the Maltings, Berwick upon Tweed, until 13th October (www.maltingsberwick.co.uk)

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