I walked past an army recruiting stand on Williamson Square as I made my way to my meeting house one Saturday morning in January. ‘Go over and speak with them, ‘ nipped a small voice inside my head, ‘See what they’re here for.’ But I didn’t, not brave enough. I carried on walking. We were going to Salford to see an exhibition by contemporary war artists at the Imperial War Museum.
It was cold and wet and windy. I noticed there was a guided tour of the exhibition in the afternoon. ‘That’ll do me,’ I thought and made my way across the bridge to the Lowry.
I went up to the desk, ‘Excuse me, I feel a little silly asking this but are there any Lowry paintings here?’ It had occurred to me that, maybe, they had just named the building after him but I got a reassuring answer and a smile. ‘Oh, yes, there’s lots. They’re all in a room upstairs…and it’s free.’ ‘Even better, ta very much!’
All I knew about Lowry was that he drew ‘matchstick cats and dogs’. Was there more to him? From first glimpse, I thought there might be. The curator’s choice showed two paintings – a factory scene and a carriage. A hearse, I thought. I have attended two funerals recently, so death was on my mind…and life too. There was a lot of death around, living death, I would discover in Lowry’s paintings, of the type I remembered so well from my childhood, visiting my nan. Everyone wore black, coughed a lot and seemed old at 55 and then you were nearly dead people, just hanging on.
Some TV films of the time showed older men and women, unemployed, possibly past working age, holding their worldly possessions close to them on park benches in the 1980s. Life is better now.
Let’s see round the corner. Smoke, smoke, smoke pouring out of tall chimney stacks, surrounded by tightly packed 2up, 2downs in narrow streets, thronging with streams of people. Leaning, people leaning into the wind, blowing through the gaps to get somewhere: work, home, the football match, the market. Caps, scarves, heads down, bracing, better get there before the whistle blows or they’ll dock your pay. The crowds surged towards the factory doors and parted, like waves in a dark sea.
And then, we were in Llandudno, looking at real sea. Lowry adored the sea and the horizon. Endless sea and waves and sky. I love the sea too and I couldn’t recall anyone painting it better, even Turner. It was so arresting, calming. I didn’t expect to find this. And that wasn’t all.
There were lighter moods. He painted the portrait of a lovely girl, Ann, in the 1970s, very fetching, I can see why he painted her. And another of a neatly kept house, much appreciated in the making by his housekeeper, Mrs Swindell. He gave it to her as a gift.
A picture of a kind man was emerging, a generous man with both his time and money. He agonised over a self-portrait when a young man. Well dressed in a fawn gabardine overcoat and matching cap, shirt and tie, he looked out at you from the canvas, slightly missing your eye. But you looked straight at him. Or in him? Perhaps, that’s why he found it so painful and never did so again. Except he did, if the guide is right. There are two paintings, said to be of Lowry. One shows him as a man staring wildly with red, frightened eyes. A man who has nothing left to give? And the other is of a young boy in yellow with the same worried eyes. Life is a bit like this at times, isn’t it? For some of us, it may be like this most of the time. Things are better now.
And then there are always match days at Burnden Park, home to his beloved Bolton Wanderers, where thousands of men and boys and dogs – all men and boys and dogs in those days – streamed to the ground. And Sunday visits to Peel Park to sit and observe and sketch. He went there a lot, once saying looking across at the bandstand, ‘I have been very fond of this view’. I got this. Numerous of his paintings showed hundreds of couples dancing around the bandstand, while hundreds more watched on, waiting to be asked.
Lowry captured life. Two men fighting outside a doss house. Cripples in the workhouse. The prim and proper, well dressed housewives shopping at the Flat Iron market. The frames teem with lives and conversations. And he could also paint stillness with the minimum of brush strokes. One of my favourites is called ‘Houses on a hill’. It shows a short row of houses, painted in black silhouette on the brow of a hill, drawn by a single, curved black line on a white background. And that’s it. So simple, it spoke to me. Why? Because of the questions it asked of me. Who lived there? How did they get there? Where did they go to…and time passes? I checked my watch. I had a contemporary war artists’ exhibition to see too.
I’d thought of Lowry as a black and white artist but he did colour well. There is a painting of a street scene, a crossroads on the rise of the hill. It feels like the way Sunday used to feel. Everyone is wearing their best clothes. After church, on the way home for dinner or later…out for a stroll in the winter sun? It’s cold. You can tell by the overcoats the adults are wearing, the hats and scarves. But the children are playing out in their shirt sleeves. One holds what looks like a tennis racket while others chase, weaving in and out of the grown-ups, standing together in pairs or small clusters – skipping, playing tick. And there’s colour. Lots of it. It shows in the clothes – pinks, reds, turquoise, blues…You can tell it’s winter. Two trees stand bare, jagged and leafless.
And I saw time and again the same figure peering out of so many of his paintings. I call her the ‘ghost woman’. She stands side-on, neatly dressed in a bonnet and coat, looking at you out of sunken, dark eyes set in her pale face. She’s smiling at you, like death.
I didn’t know much about LS Lowry beforehand and I do now. He is fantastic.
I imagined the conversation I might have had at the recruiting stand, standing around the automatic weapon on show. ‘Why are you here?’, I ask. ‘No, really, why are you here? What purpose are you serving here?’ ‘Peacekeeping, training…there are some nasty people, places out there.’ ‘Yes, I know and can you tell me why Britain is always at war with someone, often it seems allied with America lately? Can you explain that to me? And why are you recruiting sixteen year olds and at the same time making experienced service personnel redundant? And what happens to them when they leave…?’ It is easier to have this sort of conversation in your head.
The tour had already started. I caught up with the guide as she pointed to a desert scene in Afghanistan, which showed an extensive area, pockmarked by giant mole heaps. ‘Landmines,’ she told us. ‘Don’t go any further…ill advised…for your own safety. The effects of landmining hang around for decades, longer even. And this one over here is the ‘Selfie’. Tony Blair photographing himself in front of Iraqi burning oilfields. Photoshopped, of course, and copyright free.’
I watched an old woman ‘dancing’, just using her facial expressions, her eyes, slowly fading into the darkness, reappearing. Next to her, snow fell on fields by a forest. The installation is called ‘Oswitch’. I watched her as her lined face turned towards the camera, then gently away again in a graceful arc before disappearing completely into the night. Images of the dance alternated with others of snow falling over farm fields and woods. They could be anywhere. At Oswitch, she had been a young woman when the guards ordered her to dance for their entertainment. When she said no, they made her stand outside all night in her thin dress with the snow falling. If she survived, she vowed to dedicate her life to Dance.
Next, I entered a video game, taking me on a tour of Bin Laden’s house. After a couple of minutes, it was no good. I had to stop. The jerky motions on screen, moving the game stick, made me feel sick. I had to leave. The nausea stayed with me.
A sock belonging to an amputated leg. A hat put away in a loft in a box. The latter belonged to someone’s husband, the artist’s grandmother, who wouldn’t need it any more. Discover what happened to the last Soviet, left alone in space, as the Soviet Union collapsed. Did those leaves really come from earth?
Towards the end, pull out a drawer, each one holding a sheet of stamps. There were so many of them. Each stamp displayed the smiling face of a dead serviceman or woman. It filled me with profound sadness. Why? No more. Stop, please. Not in our name…I thought of the army stand on Williamson Square; the young men wearing smart uniforms, surrounded by eye catching images and kit. I recalled the delighted faces of soldiers in the crowd jubilantly celebrating the end of the rugby international between England and Ireland. They seem well satisfied with life. Maybe, I will go and speak with them next time and not be afraid to ask why they are here, knowing that they also will have questions.