Had I not known I was looking at a Lowry I probably wouldn’t have guessed it was his work. When I think of LS Lowry I think of crowds of match-stick figures and dream-like cityscapes. I certainly don’t think of blank canvases, but that is almost what The Sea is.
The painting is divided about two-fifths of the way down by a horizon line. Below this is a calm sea, its surface rippled by gentle waves and above it, an empty sky. The sea is a pale blue, with hints of yellow and green, becoming darker as it reaches towards an unseen shore. The sky mirrors this with a pale grey turning darker as it gets further from the horizon. That is it, just water and sky and nothing else; no land, no people, no birds, no boats.
Lowry was fascinated by the sea, morbidly fascinated even:
I often think… what if it suddenly changed it’s mind and didn’t turn the tide? And came straight in? If it didn’t stop and came on and on and on and on and on… That would be the end of it all.
When I first read that quote it didn’t quite make sense to me, I couldn’t see what would have caused Lowry to think that. It was only after I’d visited Arain, one of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, that I was able to make sense of Lowry’s point of view. As I stood at the island’s most westerly point, watching the wild Atlantic waves break onto the rocks, the possibility that the waves might not break before they reached me, that they might keep coming on and on, suddenly seemed terrifyingly real.
But Lowry’s sea is a far cry from the wild Atlantic waves I experienced. The water is lifeless and there seems to be an implication that there is no life below its surface either. The world of The Sea is a world without sound or movement.Even the waves in the picture do not suggest sound because there is nothing for them to break against.
Lowry certainly wasn’t an environmentalist, but the world he imagined, a world where the tide doesn’t turn and where there is nothing but lifeless water as far as the eye can see is a scenario that may actually become a reality as climate change takes effect and sea levels rise.
Despite initially thinking The Sea was completely different from the Lowry cityscapes I was used to, I started to notice some similarities. The crowds of mill workers look like waves, and like The Sea the crowd scenes convey a sense of monotony. The waves are all the same and seem to go on forever, just as the crowds appear never ending. The key difference between the seascapes and the cityscapes, however, is the sense of place. The Sea is a placeless painting, it could be anywhere and is in reality nowhere, whereas the majority of Lowry’s work is firmly rooted in place – and in particular the North West of England.
When Lowry was 12 his family was forced by debt to move from suburban Manchester to the mill town of Pendlebury. They were no longer surrounded by leafy streets and their new home was within sight, sound and smell of the mills.The young Lowry was awoken in the morning by the sound of the hooters and the mill workers in their clogs marching off to work, and a cloud of smoke and soot hung over the house.
At first Lowry hated his new surroundings, but gradually his opinion began to change. Although it was probably a myth created for the media, he later recalled the moment of revelation that transformed his view of the industrial North West:
As I got to the top of the station steps I saw the Acme Mill, a great dark-red block with the low streets of mill cottages running right up to it – and suddenly I knew what I had to paint.
From there on Lowry made it his aim to put the industrial north on the map and show that it could form the subject of an artist’s work. He was well placed to do so, not only did he remain in Pendlebury for much of his life, but his job as a rent collector provided him with ample opportunities to observe and familiarise himself with the church-spires, mill-domes, terraces, rivers and people that made their way into his paintings.
Lowry’s advice to aspiring artists was to paint the place you know and this seems to have been his philosophy throughout his career. His work grew out of a deep familiarity with, and sense of attachment to, his surroundings. He wasn’t merely interested in the places he painted, he was, as Rothenstein put it, enslaved by them.
Through his careful attention to his surroundings Lowry had transformed his vision of a place from one of hatred, to one of affection. He never stopped seeing the industrial north as an ugly place, but he came to find that ugliness deeply compelling, and through his paintings he was able to change the way other people viewed the grim north.
Lowry’s cityscapes are examples of the profoundly transformative impact that local attachments can have on the way a place is viewed. The world Lowry was painting may not have been a world we would want to preserve, but Lowry succeeded in achieving what he set out to achieve; he put the places he painted on the map and proved that they were worthy of art
My interest in Lowry having been piqued by The Sea I decided to visit The Lowry, an art gallery in Salford set up to permanently exhibit Lowry’s works. As I walked around the permanent exhibition it felt strange to see Lowry’s paintings up close, to see each brush stroke and know that it was done by his hand. I felt like I owned some part of those brush strokes.
Finally I entered the seascape section. The Sea was displayed in the centre, with a bench placed before it. I sat there for a long time looking at it, staring into the infinite waves. It no longer looked incongruous amongst Lowry’s industrial paintings – it is as placeless as his other paintings are rooted in place.
Read the second part of my Lowry two parter here.