Portrait of the Artist as an Old Fraud

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Life with Lowry by Tilly Marshall
    Hutchinson, 260 pp, £7.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 09 144090 4

‘I’m not a very nice man, you know,’ L.S. Lowry said of himself. Mrs Marshall, his friend, would not disagree. Although for the last 14 years of his life she and her husband spent some part of almost every day in his company, she now describes him as having been ‘a millstone round our necks’. No blame attaches to her for not subscribing to the old idea that if you are creative you need not be nice, but it’s usual for people to like their friends. In 14 years Mrs Marshall seems to have had one moment of fondness for Lowry, which was when he fell downstairs: ‘I can feel again the overwhelming sense of pity and affection for him as I recall him lying crumpled on the floor.’

She was introduced to him at an exhibition of his paintings in Harrogate in 1960 (he was then 73); some months later, he turned up at the gallery she and her husband own and run in Newcastle. She was pleased, of course (‘I took the artist’s finely boned hand in mine to greet him’), and then she was exasperated: ‘Hours went by. Inwardly I began to despair, wondering when on earth he was going to take his departure.’ Eventually they asked him out to supper – ‘heavy going’ – and afterwards drove him home, some thirty miles out of their way. Presumably he didn’t thank them, because the episode ends with the sentence: ‘No such inconvenience to ourselves ever meant anything to Lowry.’

Mrs Marshall wasn’t alone in finding Lowry a burden. At least three people, she says, moved house to get away from him. His knack was to make everyone think he was a recluse, that he had no friends, when in fact he liked company and had many friends, each of whom assumed that he was otherwise friendless. In this way he could be certain of having a special place in other people’s lives and exclusive control over his own. (Characteristically, the phone in his house was adjusted so that he could ring out but no one could ring him.) A nice sense of what was expected of him – which puts his relationship with the Marshalls in an interesting light – and an ability to vary his demeanour accordingly made it easy to win the friends he wanted and at the same time elude their grasp. When he became famous his act was equally well thought out: the image of a lonely old man, sad and slightly simple-minded, could be relied on to get him good reviews and the sympathetic attention he required. He wouldn’t even let himself be seen with his admirer Edward Heath lest anyone catch on to the fact that he could both paint the poor and be a Tory.

In order to create the impression he wanted he lied a great deal (different lies to different people), which he clearly enjoyed. He lied not only about his friends and present circumstances (with £250,000 in the bank, he told a man from the Observer that he couldn’t afford to try a new shoe-shining machine he’d seen in a local lavatory): whole years of his life were swept away to reappear in new guises. A central character was invented, a love of his life called Ann, who variously died young and poor and lived to be a prosperous middle-aged woman making clandestine visits to the Marshalls’ gallery: however much he changed her story, there was always an ‘Ann’ who was supposed to be the model both for the women in his paintings and for the sequence of similar looking young girls to whom as he grew older he became increasingly attached – the very last inherited all his money. Ann was invented: another, even more important figure was all but abolished. His mother, a morbidly disapproving woman to whom he was obsessively devoted, and whose death, when he was in his fifties and about to become successful, was widely said by him to have removed the entire point of his existence, scarcely appears in the account of himself that he gave the Marshalls. When she did appear, it was as a source of resentment rather than affection or sadness. In Mrs Marshall’s book there is very little that doesn’t turn to dust; and it would be hard to work out whether she is more bitter about Lowry or the Lowry she describes more bitter about his own life.

One reason for Mrs Marshall’s bitterness is a further, crucial lie which she, together with the public and the majority of people who knew Lowry, only discovered after his death in 1976. Over and over again he had said to her (and to the press and everyone else) that he had done nothing in his life except paint, that he couldn’t have conceived of any other occupation. Three months after he died Mrs Marshall found out that from 1910 until he reached the age of retirement he had worked for the Pall Mall Property Company in Manchester and that a large part of that time had been spent out on the streets collecting rents and no doubt evicting people. (According to a former colleague reported in one of the Lowry biographies, he enjoyed the work and was well liked by his tenants.) Later he was promoted to a managerial post.

It isn’t the nature of the job for which Mrs Marshall now condemns him: though she doesn’t like it, she had always known him to be a good businessman. She can also see, as anyone can, why he felt he had to keep quiet about it in public: the man who claimed that his ‘ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map’ would naturally have wanted to disown the fact that in that scene he had played the part of rent collector. What upsets Mrs Marshall is that this deception was practised on her: that all the time she and her husband spent with Lowry and everything they did for him had not been enough to win his trust. She quotes from a letter he wrote to a friend in which he says that but for the Marshalls his life wouldn’t have been worth living. Presumably it hadn’t occurred to him that after his death they would feel short-changed. And if it had, he wouldn’t have cared.

‘I can recall no instance when he was, prepared to do anything which didn’t suit his purpose or advance his interests’: if there was some reason why it was worth the Marshalls’ while to put up with Lowry it isn’t given here. He behaved badly and bored them on his first visit to the gallery, but on subsequent visits his behaviour was worse and with familiarity became more boring. ‘As his art was repetitive,’ Mrs Marshall notes unforgivingly, ‘so was the man.’ He was interested in the gallery, it’s true, and they liked going to see pictures with him, especially Pre-Raphaelites. But they also had to bear the fact that every day he spent with them, every outing they took together, was an exercise in getting his own way. If there was any danger of his not succeeding, he became purple with rage and sometimes wet his pants. When the Marshalls gave in his response was just as horrible: ‘Little Laurie’s happy now’ was what he said, giggling and hunching up his shoulders.

He was, like many children, at his most unbearable at mealtimes, particularly in restaurants. He required a table where he could be seen, and on occasion would move from table to table until he found a situation where he could command the gaze of the entire clientele. For months at a time he would insist on the same food at every meal, wherever he was, cooked exactly as he wanted it cooked, and if anything appeared on his plate that he hadn’t expected he would simply dump it onto the tablecloth. (In Shelley Rohde’s biography there is an account of a Royal Academy dinner where, angered by some of his fellow members’ lack of regard for him, he ate his way through a tureen charged with potatoes which he had persuaded a waiter to place in front of him.) He was rude, made a great deal of noise, banged his fist, shouted, and if the arrangements didn’t suit him was quite capable of pushing the table over. Finally, he never paid for a meal or even his share of it. ‘He was,’ Mrs Marshall says, ‘the meanest man I have ever known.’

Yet he wasn’t invariably mean. He didn’t like spending money: Shelley Rohde records that in 1972, a year in which he earned £65,335 from his paintings, his miscellaneous expenses came to £47. But he was remarkably generous to other artists, as Mrs Marshall points out in a rare passage of praise, buying pictures he didn’t even like in order to encourage young painters. (No one had done that for him: he was 52 before his paintings began to sell.) If he cadged off the Marshalls more than he cadged off anyone else, it was probably because, however much he had embedded himself in their lives, he still saw them as part of the art world, which he hated as much as he hated the Labour Party and the Inland Revenue. Out of the £65,000 he made in 1972, £15,000 went in agency commissions and accountancy fees. He had stopped painting, he said, because it was no longer worth his while. What must have been even harder to bear was that paintings he had once sold for next to nothing were now earning art dealers substantial sums of money. They’re all rogues,’ he would say, needling the Marshalls but meaning it too; and he used to shoo prospective buyers out of the gallery when the Marshalls were showing his work, so that he could sell his paintings privately and avoid paying the commission. The fact that he eventually acquired a financial stake in their gallery, and in that sense became a dealer himself, was neither here nor there as far as he was concerned: ‘He felt that everyone, without exception, wanted something from him for nothing.’

The idea that he was uniquely hard done by may have been painful, but for a practical man like Lowry it was not inconvenient. It enabled him, for instance, to do some very shady deals, signing reproductions of his paintings so that they could be sold at 20 times their value. He didn’t have any other illusions; he didn’t think he was nice (or honest). He had quite a high opinion of his talent, but he didn’t take the view, as others have, that his work showed him in a good or compassionate light. Nor does Mrs Marshall, though she is more troubled by the doubt cast on his work by what she knew of his character, finding it hard to reconcile the obsession with misfortune in his paintings with his disregard for misfortune in real life: ‘Was he only a voyeur? Was his sole purpose to make a picture? Easy for him to say, as he so often did, “There but for the grace of God ...” and reap the reward, albeit an insufficient one, as he would complain when pictures he had sold were resold by the owners at a profit to themselves.’ Lowry’s explanation was characteristically unembelished: ‘I’m very fond of sordid things. After all, most of m’pictures are sordid.’

By 1960 he’d lost interest in his famous mill scenes and was disappointed that ‘London’ wouldn’t show his more recent ‘single figures’, pictures of suffering and disability which he thought were better: ‘I’m saying more in those than I’ve ever said in the mill scenes ... but everyone seems to think they’re sordid – well, and so they are, I suppose – very sordid.’ Not as sordid, however, as the drawings and paintings of mutilated young girls that were found in his house after he died – ‘Ann’ had come to an appropriately ‘sordid’ end. A different artist might have destroyed these pictures, but Lowry liked causing discomfort as much as he liked recording it: he had, as Mrs Marshall says, ‘a sadistic streak within him’. The sadistic streak was also a humorous streak and the humour, together with a devotion to Rossetti, was what he and the Marshalls shared. It would also perhaps have enabled him to enjoy the rancorous picture of him which Mrs Marshall provides. He asked her to write about him, and he has got the book he deserved: in spirit no more generous to him than he was to its author.