Issue 231
May/June 2024

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Jun 17, 2024

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All at Sea, with Lowry

Nick Jones goes 'offshore' to discover the sea's attraction to the great painter

LS Lowry. July, the Seaside, 1943
© The Estate of LS Lowry. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2024. Image: © Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre.

I'M FLOATING about, talking to the North Sea, a mile out from the mouth of Tweed. The sea. Where we came from aeons ago, where we work, play, travel, pollute, overfish and exploit. A place of profit, pleasure, fear, pain, mystery and solace.

Whether or not he's your kind of artist, Lowry's work embodies its power and its importance to an island nation.

Luckily North Sea's feeling chatty. Listen..... You're more than half water. It's in the blood. Think about it. No sea, no ships; no ships, no discovery of far-off lands; no far-off lands, no Empire; no Empire, no colonies, raw materials to ship home, Lancashire textile mills, capitalists, working classes, Lowry "industrials", or need for him to get away to the seaside, to sit and stare at me all day!

She was right. Like so many back then, Lowry took the train to the sea on high days and holidays. But why to Berwick? That's the mystery. Not for the sea, surely? Not quite England, not quite Scotland, it's not quite seaside either. Inward looking, massive defensive ramparts keeping the big bad world at bay, it turns its back on the sea.

Apparently Lowry felt down after losing his father in 1932, so doctor advised a holiday. He chose Berwick and, once there, he holed up in the Castle Hotel, overlooking the station. It got to him though, and he carried on visiting until 1975, the year before he died.

I think, that, being an artist, Berwick appealed to him, as it appeals to artists today.So many interesting subjects.Buildings, courtyards, the lowering, towering Guildhall, boats,ships, bridges, busy streets, people wearing red, even lampposts!

In 1947 he considered buying the Lions House, towering over the easternmost ramparts. Was it the imposing gates, or the cheeky lions, or because it's the town's only building that looks seawards?

Lowry is a Marmite person. Brian Sewell described him as "inept, tedious, repetitive, lacklustre, stuck in a rut". Ouch! At art school in Manchester he was taught by Valette, a Frenchman influenced by the postImpressionism of Seurat and Utrillo, inspired by smoky, atmospheric industrial landscapes in the suburbs of Paris.

Jonathan Jones, writing in the Guardian is more insightful: "The intensity of his work is free from academic rules. He creates a world of his own, childish and primitive, seeing the cruel cityscapes of the industrial age. His exclusion is about class."

Although many subjects caught his attention, the sea paintings make such a contrast to Lancashire mill-towns. This exhibition embraces the stylistic and emotional range of his work inspired by the sea over a lifetime, starting with childhood trips to Lytham St Annes and the Welsh coast.

Back home in the Manchester suburb of Rusholme, I suspect that he had a Toy Theatre, that staple of the Victorian nursery. So many of his urban subjects, carefully framed, feature his trademark cardboard cut-out figures, separated by a fence, railing or gateway, along with props, like red lamp-posts, and smoking chimneys. A solitary observer in the audience, he's transforming the outside into his own make-believe places, often bleak, and, more disturbingly, constricting and alienating.

In contrast many of Lowry's seascapes like "Tanker" (c.1965) feel less controlled, more relaxed, freely formed and immediate, using plenty of "impasto"; paint laid on thickly, the brush strokes creating both depth and vitality.

The holiday mood of "July, the Seaside" (1943) shows his lighter side. But the dark, brooding, solitary, contemplative is never far away and becomes more prominent as age and the inevitability of death approach, as "Self-Portrait as a Pillar in the Sea", painted in 1966 graphically and disturbingly demonstrates; a gift to art-historians obsessed with Freudian symbolism!

It was not to Berwick but to the Seaburn Hotel in Sunderland that Lowry tended to retreat in later life, from 1960 onwards. It's there that he painted "The North Sea", which sold for a million in 2022. Cheap at the price, perhaps? "Sunday Afternoon" fetched more than five million at auction in March!

Ironic that the artmarket should profit, as it so often does, from the poverty, angst and obsession of a man who recorded "industrials"! That said, it's not just the wealthy who like Lowry. His work, so approachable, remains enormously popular.

So, if you can get to Berwick to see this show, make sure you allow time to take the Lowry trail around town. Better still, carry a sketch book for your own take on Lowry's places. Many have hardly changed since he was here, including, of course, the sea!

Best leave the last word to the man himself: "It's all in the sea. The Battle of Life, the turbulence of the sea. And Fate. I have been fond of the sea all my life, how wonderful it is, yet how terrible it is. But I often think, what if it suddenly changed its mind and didn't turn the tide? And came straight on?"

Lowry and the Sea at The Granary Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed. May 25 – October 13. Closed Mondays.

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