Meet Claire Stewart, Curator of The Lowry collection in Salford

For more than forty years of his life, L.S. Lowry dedicated himself to paintings and drawings representing industrial scenes in the north of England. Unmarried and childless, Lowry passed away in 1976, leaving behind a legacy of art with great historical, social and cultural significance.

We are thrilled to talk to Claire Stewart, Curator of The Lowry Collection in Salford about her experience of life at The Lowry, and the significance of some of the most popular Lowry prints in our fine art print collection.

Through our long-standing collaboration with The Lowry in Salford we're delighted to offer a selection of Lowry fine art prints from the museum’s world-renowned collections. We talk to curator Claire Stewart, about her experience of life at the museum and the significance of some of the popular artworks in our Lowry collection.

Q: Hi Claire, can you tell us a bit about yourself? What drew you to this role at The Lowry, has his art always been an interest of yours?

A: I studied History of Art as a student in Edinburgh and my first job was at the National Galleries of Scotland, which is still one of my favourite galleries. Before I came to The Lowry I was working at National Museums Liverpool but more on the special exhibitions programme than with the fine art collections.

I missed that side of it and was intrigued about working with a single artist collection. I only had a fairly general knowledge of Lowry when I started. He’s an artist who is often represented by one or two works in a bigger, broader collections of British art and I knew him in that context really. You learn a lot quite quickly though working with one artist!

Q: Lowry was a debt collector before he became a full-time artist. Can you tell us more about this transition and what kind of art education he had?

A: In fact, Lowry never did become a full-time artist. He worked for the Pall Mall Property Company until he retired in 1952 and his career as an artist fitted around this. 

He worried that he would be dismissed as a ‘Sunday painter’, or amateur artist, if people knew he had a nine to five job and he tried to keep that information private. After his death, that’s exactly what many people did say and his reputation suffered as a result. 

His training was very traditional. Never a full-time student, he spent years attending evening life drawing classes at Manchester School of Art and then Salford School of Art, partly because he liked the company of other students. 

The Lowry Collection includes a number of Lowry’s art school drawings and although he eventually settled on a more stylised way of depicting the human figure, he believed throughout his life that life-drawing skills formed the basis of all art.

‘Lowry liked to walk around making pencil drawings of his observations, sometimes scribbled on the back of envelopes or on a bank statement he happened to have in his pocket.’

Claire Stewart

Q: Lowry had a fondness for capturing modern urban life, can you tell us more about his desire to depict these northern industrial scenes?

A: Lowry always said that he wasn’t trying to make a political statement through his work, but just painted what he saw. He also said that he wanted to put the industrial scene ‘on the map’ and it is still the subject matter he is best known for today. 

Although some of his drawings and paintings depict particular places, far more of his industrial scenes are imagined views, sometimes incorporating recognisable buildings and structures such as Stockport Viaduct in the mix. 

He liked to walk around the streets of any town he visited making pencil drawings of his observations, sometimes scribbled on the back of envelopes or on a bank statement he happened to have in his pocket. 

People going about their daily business or, on the other hand, doing something unusual, fascinated him and his first instinct was to capture that on paper. He drew incessantly while he was outdoors but his paintings were all created in his studio (or ‘workroom’ as he preferred to call it).

Q: Though he is perhaps best known for his mill scenes, Lowry had a very varied body of work, producing several seascapes and landscapes, can you tell us more about them? 

A: Lowry’s seascapes and landscapes still take people by surprise, even now, as he is so well known for his mill scenes. He also painted striking portraits, usually of imagined characters. 

The Lowry Collection has an excellent range of his work, from all periods of his career and we like to show visitors the full breadth of Lowry’s subject matter. 

Some people find his seascapes very relaxing; others find them rather unsettling, feeling that something sinister may be lurking beneath the surface of the waves in these empty landscapes where the view is simply sea and sky. 

The Sea, 1963 in the Collection is a lovely example of just that. One of Lowry’s very best pictures, I think, is one that we have had on loan in the past – a portrait titled Father and Two Sons, painted in 1950.

Q: There’s an element of humour in some of Lowry’s figurative works, particularly Man Lying On A Wall, 1957, and Gentleman Looking At Something, 1960. Can you tell us more about how Lowry observed people?

A: Walking the rounds as a rent collector certainly helped Lowry see people in all walks of life and observe them closely. He tried to capture, as discreetly as possible, whatever caught his attention. 

Even if many of these drawings didn’t result directly in a finished oil painting, it was all material for his work. His eye was definitely attracted to people behaving out of the ordinary (such as the Man Lying On A Wall, 1957 who he saw from a bus) and quirky characters. 

At the other end of the scale, some of his characters are quite surreal, even grotesque, and can seem more cruelly caricatured than others, but human beings generally, with all their faults and foibles, were a constant fascination. 

And yes, there is often humour in his work, even in the way his dogs sometimes mirror his people as can be seen in A Fight, c.1935 in The Lowry Collection.

Q: You were responsible for curating a highly-regarded exhibition in 2013 called ‘Unseen Lowry’. What was it like to organise, did you uncover anything new?

A: Unseen Lowry was the perfect exhibition for The Lowry in 2013, when Tate Britain held their major show ‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’, as it complemented Tate’s exhibition with a different aspect of Lowry’s work. 

The vast majority of the works, all on loan from The Estate of L.S Lowry, had not been exhibited before and the exhibition would not have been possible without the Estate’s generosity. 

Most of the pictures were works on paper and included a large number of life drawings, including Head of a Woman in a Feathered Hat, which is full of character and really showed Lowry’s life drawing skills at their best. It really brought home to the viewer how much he loved drawing. 

Q: Do you have a favourite artwork of Lowry’s?

A: I’ve always really loved his View from a Window of the Royal Technical College which was drawn in 1924. Salford School of Art was located in the Technical College and he made a number of drawings based on views from the windows. 

This one is so striking and modern looking. It’s a bold move to fill the whole height of the paper with a factory chimney up front and centre. The view to the right stretches far into the distance and the terraces in the middle distance, while people out on the street seem small and domestic on the one hand, but completely overwhelmed on the other. 

I’m also very fond of Francis Terrace, Salford 1956 which again is drawn using a dark, soft velvety pencil. That’s partly because of the child (a little boy I think) in the foreground, holding on to his mum with one hand and the string of his toy dog on wheels with the other.

Q: Lowry also had an interest in collecting art, can you tell us more about who he admired?

A: He bought quite a few works by students – often to show support rather than because he necessarily wanted to hang their work on his walls at home. 

One of his favourite contemporary artists was his friend Sheila Fell whose landscapes he admired. He also owned a striking pencil drawing of a young man by Lucian Freud. 

The works he loved best, though, were by some of the Pre-Raphaelite artists of the late nineteenth century – particularly Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti

He owned several drawings and one oil painting by Rossetti and a single drawing by Ford Madox Brown. The Rossettis were usually hung in his bedroom but the Ford Madox Brown held a prominent place in his living room where visitors could see it. 

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