This is the second part of my two parter on Lowry (read the first part here). I’m fortunate in that my grandma, Kate Herbert, is a Salford born artist who knew Lowry. Kate studied at the Salford College of Art where Lowry could often be found and also had an exhibition alongside Lowry. Although I have grown up and lived in Manchester for most of my life, I don’t recognise the Manchester I know in Lowry’s paintings. I wanted to get a better understanding of the place that absorbed him for most of his life, so I decided to interview my grandma to learn more about Lowry’s Manchester and Salford.
When I arrived at Kate’s house she made tea and we sat down in the lounge, the walls of which are lined with her paintings. She began telling me a bit about her early life. She grew up in a poor part of Salford and was interested in drawing from an early age. Her ambition to become an artist was discouraged by school teachers, who told her that drawing wasn’t for girls. Fortunately her talent was spotted and she was awarded a scholarship to Salford College of Art at the age of 12. She remained at the college until she was 21, despite her mother’s misgivings and desire for her daughter to go out to work and bring in a wage. She had a promising career ahead of her and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
How did you come to know Lowry and what were your impressions of him as a person?
He had a lot to do with the art school. He was always coming in, He used to come in and look at our work. He was a regular figure. I remember looking over his shoulder, because he was very tall, and watching him draw through the window. The window looked down into the yard where all the domestic things went on, like the rubbish tipping, and he was drawing that. He was drawing all the uprights and brickwork, and I was watching him.
He was a very shy man and he stammered and stuttered quite a lot. he was very old fashioned in the way he dressed. He’d wear thin drainpipe trousers, which stopped about three inches above his ankles; a long colourless overcoat and a brimmed hat. He looked like one of his drawings. He was a really nice man. he was very kind. He was a gentle sort of person really, but a lot of people misunderstood him. He wasn’t liked in the sense of being popular or a figure that people flocked to. You’d see him shuffling down the corridor in the art department. Except for his weird appearance he was very unobtrusive. He was a very humble man. He wasn’t proud. I suppose that’s why people couldn’t make him out really – he should have been proud.
Why do you think Lowry painted The Sea? Its very different from his other work.
I remember when The Sea was first painted and it was exhibited in Salford Art Gallery. Everyone kept saying that’s not a Lowry! Nobody could believe it was a Lowry, but it was a Lowry because he did other work apart from those stick figures. His seascapes are probably typical of him because he was a loner.
Can you tell me about some of the places Lowry visited?
He used to go round the really poor part of Salford called Greengate. It sounds nice, but actually it was a slum. There were old, broken cobbles. It was very hilly and there were lots of mill workers living there. Greengate was perfect for Lowry because all the figures would be bent, trudging to the mill in their clogs. Then you’d hear the hooters go and they’d have to be in before the hooters finished. They were trapped in there for the rest of the day, until the hooters went and they’d all come tramping back again. The women wore their shawls and the men wore their greasy old clothes. That’s what fascinated him.
Sometimes I think his industrial scenes are like a fairyland because of the background and pale colours. Salford wasn’t like that. There was nothing pale about it. In those days, during the war in particular, it was all khaki and dark green. For him to depict street scenes with a pale background was quite strange – it didn’t fit. I remember as a child trying to look up at the sun, and you could look up at the sun then because there was always a thick layer of fog. I remember thinking that bricks were always black and shiny. They weren’t of course, they were black and shiny because they were covered in grime, dust, and grease. That was the reality of it, but he turned it into a fairy story.
What did you think inspired Lowry to paint people in the way he did?
Lowry was very unusual at that time in many ways. He was interested in the ordinary or less than ordinary man. Not even the working man. You’d have to be the man that was down and out. He was a rent collector. That’s how he started doing these sketches. He used to take his sketch pad with him and he’d collect the rents from a row of tumble down houses. I think he probably felt a bit guilty, so he started sketching.
Do you think he had an impact on the lives of the people he painted?
He certainly made an impact on the art world and on society, which is more important really. The art world is very pretentious. He made an impact on society by being himself interested in society. He was interested in the poor. I think he found a link with the people, although he was never able to relate to them. I doubt very much that he ever talked to any of them. He just painted the scenes and the people and where they worked. Their life style interested him and that’s why he made a big impact. Not because he set out to make an impact, but because through his work he was able to relate to the working man and the working man was able to relate to him.
You’ve got to think of Lowry’s work in the context of the era, because he would be a youngish man during the depression. Now we talk about depression, but it’s nothing like it was then. There was no such thing as the dole. There were no hand outs at all. If you didn’t have the money you starved and that was it. Nobody gave you any money, so it really was bad. Most of our neighbours didn’t have jobs at all. They couldn’t get work because there was no work to be got. Lowry would know all about that, so he would see people who were probably dying of hunger and a sensitive man like that would be very concerned. I don’t think he was able to articulate it, so it came out in his art.
Kate told me about the last time she saw Lowry.
I was walking through Deansgate Arcade and as I walked through I thought that’s Lowry. You couldn’t mistake his figure trundling along. I said hello and he said oh hello, what are you doing these days? You know it still stands. I said what’s that? He said you can come and use my studio any time. My paints, my brushes, anything you like, you can just come along. Well it was like saying come to Australia, because I had a baby, nobody helping me, and husband at work all day; and we were looking for somewhere to live. It was just a no-no. It was like saying come to Australia tomorrow, so I never went.
After Kate finished art college she got married and became a mother and school teacher. She continued to sketch and paint, often her children, but it wasn’t until she retired and her children had grown up that she began to reclaim her once promising career. Below are some of her recent works around the theme of the prodigal son.