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One of Britain’s most distinctive artists, L.S. Lowry, was born 130 years ago today, on November 1st, 1887.

Many of his best-know paintings, famous for their characteristic “matchstick men”, depict industrial landscapes in and around Manchester, where he lived and worked for 40 years. Despite their outwardly bleak settings, his paintings are full of life and capture a time now gone, when textile mills dominated the urban landscape and the lives of the people there.

Laurence Stephen Lowry was born in Stretford, then in Lancashire (now Greater Manchester), and was by his own admission, a disappointment to his mother, who had wanted a girl. It was a difficult birth and Lowry would remain an only child, and not a particularly happy one. His mother’s health declined, making her irritable and domineering, while his father, a clerk for a property company, was an introverted and distant man.

At school Lowry made few friends and showed no real academic prowess, although he was keen on art. Much of his early life was spent in the leafy Manchester suburb of Victoria Park, but when he was 22 the family moved to the industrial town of Pendlebury. Here he found the landscape of mills, factory chimneys and smoke-filled skies which would dominate much of his later work.

On leaving school, Lowry gained employment similar to his father’s, as a clerk for property business the Pall Mall Company, later collecting rents for them. He was sketching regularly and used part of his income to pay for private art lessons. In 1905 he gained a place at the Manchester School of Art, where he studied in the evenings. His tutor there was French Impressionist Pierre Adolphe Valette, who had a major influence on Lowry.

After 10 years he moved to the Royal Technical Institute, in nearby Salford, where he continued with classes in his spare time for another decade, while still working for the Pall Mall Company. By now Lowry had developed his distinctive style and while he gained a small local following and some encouragement, several mainstream critics dismissed his work as “naïve” and Lowry himself as a “Sunday painter”.

At this time Lowry gave away many of his paintings and drawings to his few friends, fellow art students and even customers on his rent collecting rounds, all unaware of the value his gifts would one day hold. After his father died in 1932, Lowry’s mother became bedridden and increasingly dependent on her son, who still lived at home. It limited his time for painting to a few hours each night after she had fallen asleep, and his misery at this time was also reflected in his work, including a series of grim self-portraits.

After his mother died in 1939, Lowry became more depressed and neglected the upkeep of the family home until it was repossessed by the landlord. Lowry used what money he had to buy a house in the village of Mottram, now in Greater Manchester, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Finally, though, his art gained growing recognition and praise, partly due to changing attitudes to art in the post-war years. Although known as a man who ‘kept himself to himself’, Lowry had many long-lasting friendships in the Manchester area and, as his celebrity grew, further afield. He befriended the families of several young artists who approached him for advice and would occasionally go and stay with them. He also sketched constantly, using anything that was to hand if he didn’t have a sketch book with him, and often gave the finished sketches away.

Lowry finally retired from the Pall Mall Company on his 65th birthday, in 1952. Despite rising to the role of chief cashier, he never stopped collecting rents as it enabled him to visit the city streets and observe their characters. The company had been supportive of his artistic career, allowing him extra time off for exhibitions, and he felt a fierce loyalty to his employer.

In retirement Lowry continued to paint and draw and his work became more widely celebrated, rising considerably in value, but he still shunned the limelight and only rarely gave in to reporters and TV stations keen to interview him. He also holds the record for declining the most honours, having been offered an OBE twice, a CBE, two appointments to the Order of the Companions of Honour, and a knighthood. He did though accept fellowships and honorary degrees from several universities and the Royal Academy of Arts, as he felt these recognised his art rather than his person.

Lowry died from pneumonia in February 1976, at the age of 88 and was buried next to his parents. With no family of his own, he left his estate of almost £300,000 and his collection of artworks by himself and others to long-time friend Carol Ann Lowry. Despite sharing his surname, she was no relation and had first contacted Lowry when she was a young artist.

Today, Lowry’s paintings and drawings are highly sought after and command strong prices whenever they come on the market. The largest single collection of his work is housed at a specially built gallery in Salford Quays, opened in 2000 and named “The Lowry”.

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