Loving the little people

L S Lowry’s 1939 oil painting Market Scene, Northern Town is a beautiful depiction of the hustle and bustle of working class life in humdrum settings. Like much of the English artist’s oeuvre it displays a genuine affection for the everyman and woman of the country, while other artists fawned over the aristocracy, grandiose landscapes, high drama and their own egotism.

There is a definite similarity between Market Scene and other Lowry scenescapes, as though the artist had found his formula and was more than happy to repeat it. An array of simply sketched figures litter the bottom of the frame, while the top is plain, smoky white sky, a few wisps of chimney belch and indistinct building silhouettes the only nod to detail or nuance. The crudely outlined people are defined by a smudge of colour, while the sky and background is virtually monochrome.

A Lowry picture can often appear highly detailed at first glance due to the mass of the crowd, a seeming explosion of people, before the basic roughness of the craft is noticed after a moment. Yet, these seemingly characterless figures possess the vibrant thrum of real life. Lowry was documenting contemporary England, discarding idealised rose tinted affectation to show the beauty in the ordinary as simply as possible. There is no single dramatic moment to fix the attention, the only story being told is the minutiae of everyday life, the many thousands of real stories ignored by the great painters of the day.

Lawrence Stephen Lowry was born in 1887 in Lancashire, and his family moved to Pendlebury in 1909, which would become the subject of much of his work. It was a city of mills and smoking factories, an industrial landscape that horrified him at first, before he fell in love with it’s brutal beauty. He worked at The Pall Mall Property Company until his retirement in 1952, as cashier and rent-collector, painting being an obsessive hobby rather than a way of paying the bills. This working life bleeds through his work, it’s simple honesty free of indulgence and luxury.

His matchstick men, and matchstick cats and dogs, were much derided for their childish naivety at first, before taking hold of the national consciousness in the 1950s, as he eventually found growing acclaim. There is now an extensive gallery in his honour, The Lowry, in Salford Quays, his painting sell for millions, and his distinctive style is much imitated by lesser artists.

He was a man of sincerity in both work and life, who also holds the honour of having turned down the most honours, having declined an OBE, a CBE, a CH twice and a knighthood. It would have been a betrayal of his working class background to have accepted. It is that decency that distinguishes his paintings. As well as being a historical document of industrial Britain, they show a genuine humanist love of simple folk.

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