As I look back on my first and only meeting with LS Lowry, what an extraordinary experience it was! In late summer or autumn 1970, when just a trainee at Manchester (City) Art Galleries, I was invited by Mark Haworth-Booth, Assistant Keeper of the Rutherston Collection*, to accompany him on a visit to view the artist’s collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings. Naturally I was familiar with Lowry’s work, but had no idea of his interest in a type of art so different from his own. This was intriguing, especially as the Gallery owned some major Pre-Raphaelite works, and I willingly agreed.
Mark cannot now recall how he found out about Lowry’s Pre-Raphaelites, nor how he made the arrangement to visit. However, we think it was probably through a conversation with Geoffrey and Jan Green who owned the Tib Lane Gallery in Manchester and represented Lowry locally with occasional exhibitions. In August, at Queens Park Art Gallery, Harpurhey, Mark displayed the major paintings by the French artist Adolphe Valette, Lowry’s teacher at the Manchester School of Art, owned by the Galleries and previously in store. In November he re-displayed them at the City Art Gallery alongside paintings by Lowry and other pupils of Valette. This show was extremely popular with the public and received an enthusiastic notice in the Guardian newspaper (3 December 1970). The display also coincided with the Tib Lane Gallery’s first exhibition of works by Valette, including many Manchester scenes, which Geoffrey had discovered through meeting the artist’s widow in Jersey.
Unfortunately, there appears to beno existing correspondence of our visit to Lowry, so the exact date and arrangements are unknown. Most likely Geoffrey secured Lowry’s agreement, then Mark wrote formally and Lowry telephoned to make the arrangements. (It was not possible to telephone Lowry directly as his telephone apparently barred incoming calls to avoid him being pestered). It was a Saturday and we took the bus from Manchester to Mottram-in-Longdendale where Lowry, an increasingly well-known artist, relocated after his retirement from the Pall Mall Property Company. I recall it was an early start and that the journey through Gorton and Denton took well over an hour. I had never visited these areas to the north east of Manchester before so I was interested to see them. The journey, however, past rows of mean Victorian and Edwardian redbrick housing, interspersed with industrial buildings and the occasional post-war modern development or park, turned out to be rather uninspiring so I was relieved when we finally arrived at Mottram village with its more attractive grey stone buildings.
I don’t recall how we knew where to get off but presumably Lowry had given Mark directions. The Elms, although detached, looked neither distinctive nor attractive. It had a small, neglected front garden with stone steps leading up to a glazed wooden front door. Behind was a porch but, being polite, we did not peer and just rang the bell. After a minute or two a shadowy figure could be seen at the frosted inner door. Then the front door opened and the tall, gangly figure of Lowry – in a shabby old-fashioned suit – looked down at us. Mark and I, both in our early ‘twenties, were small and slim, and must have appeared very young to him. As we entered through the vestibule I noticed his outdoor clothing hanging up on a wall rack and an umbrella stand containing various walking sticks, etc. The hall was dark and gloomy, the predominant colour being brown, with a staircase to the left. We were led into the room immediately on the right which was Lowry’s sitting room. It was equally dark and very cluttered with furniture, objects and pictures. Any immediate, awkward silence was masked by the ticking of the many clocks the room also contained. We were not invited to sit down (which would have been difficult anyway). Nor were we offered any refreshment, despite our long journey. (I learned later that his ‘daily’ Mrs Swindells gave him breakfast in the morning before doing her cleaning and he probably rarely entertained visitors).
As it was Mark’s initiative, he was the principal spokesperson with me just chipping in occasionally. The Pre-Raphaelite works were interspersed with Lowry’s own and those of other artists. One of the most appealing was a beautiful Rossetti drawing of a female head (Annie Miller). He also showed us a Ford Madox Brown drawing (Moses and the Brazen Serpent) hung over a large bureau to the right of the fireplace. I greatly admired Brown’s murals in the Town Hall and clearly Lowry did too and wanted to own an example of his work; but it did not seem a particularly good or appealing one to me.
Unfortunately, I was not then especially knowledgeable about the Pre-Raphaelites so I focused instead on what interested me, for example a striking portrait drawing by Lucian Freud. On the same wall was a bright, colourful painting of boats by Lowry (Yachts at Lytham) which was not in his typical style. However, I thought it was lovely and very expressive and said so, which seemed to please him. On the cluttered mantelpiece of the fireplace, an unframed small empty seascape by him also caught my eye. I expressed admiration for this too, commenting on how abstract and modern it looked. Obviously delighted, he responded ‘Do you really think so? Would you like to have it?’ Taken aback, I replied that I couldn’t accept such a gift. Whether he meant it, or was testing me to see, as he had experienced with others, if we or I had an ulterior motive for our visit, I shall never know. The moment passed but the memory of the painting is still vivid and his empty seascapes remain amongst my favourite Lowry works.
Mark must have convinced him of our genuine interest in the Pre-Raphaelites as Lowry next suggested going upstairs. On the half landing there was a stunning Rossetti oil painting of Jane Morris (Proserpine) to which we both responded enthusiastically as this was clearly a major work. Then, to our surprise, he led us into his bedroom on the walls of which were hung a variety of female portrait drawings mostly by Rossetti. Mark now says he remembers them as a row of redheads in red crayon or chalk. In response to our obvious admiration of these, Lowry then began to drag a couple of additional drawings out from under his brass bed**. I think I remember (possibly erroneously) one of these being a powerful ¾ length pastel drawing by Rossetti of Pandora with her casket. Whether in relation to this, or another beautiful chalk drawing of Jane Morris (Reverie) which hung to the left of the door and almost opposite his bed, Lowry suddenly said ‘Just imagine being kissed by those lips’. I shot a glance at him, realizing he was teasing or testing us, and just smiled. I cannot remember if he looked back, or if his gaze was focused on Mark which seems more likely; nor if Mark responded. If so, most probably he would have pursed his lips, raised an eyebrow and replied, noncommittally, ‘Yes, just imagine!’
It’s only now that I realize what an extraordinary and unique privilege it was to have been given access to Lowry’s bedroom which few could have experienced. Did the fact that we were from the Gallery, or possibly our youth, sincerity and interest, lead him to allow us into this private inner sanctum to share his obvious attachment to those sultry visions by Rossetti? We will never know.
On returning downstairs, Lowry enquired how we were getting back to Manchester and offered to come with us on the bus. I think we went upstairs and sat on the left together with Lowry behind us, so if he spoke we had to turn to respond. I cannot recall if there was much conversation, or what it was other than him suggesting we have lunch together to which we agreed. He asked where we should go. Mark thought for a minute and suggested Rowntrees Café (on Corporation Street) which was both respectable and reasonable in price. Lowry then countered, ‘Oh. I thought we might go to a soup kitchen.’ This was an intriguing suggestion. As it seemed in keeping with his paintings of tramps and other ‘down and outs’, I replied ‘what a good idea’, thinking it would be interesting to see him in that context. Mark looked displeased at Lowry’s teasing suggestion and was possibly irritated at my support of it. The subject was immediately changed and no decision reached. By then I was feeling tired and extremely dehydrated (nowadays I would carry bottled water but then it was not commonly sold) so, regrettably, the rest of the journey is a blank.
When we reached Piccadilly we walked up Mosley Street and Lowry made the decision about lunch for us by announcing that we were going to the Midland Hotel. I was stunned, excited and worried about whether I could afford it as my trainee salary was so modest. The Midland Hotel was very grand and at that time served traditional English fare (roast meat and two veg. etc.). He was obviously a frequent client as the waiters all seemed to know him. I was in awe and cannot remember what I ate, nor any of the conversation. Possibly, I was too focused on re-fuelling. Needless to say, Lowry treated us and paid the whole bill. Afterwards we all walked to the Gallery to view the Pre-Raphaelites. Mark vividly recalls Lowry standing for a long time, with an expression of rapt adoration, in front of Rossetti’s large oil painting Astarte Syriaca. After the Gallery Lowry seemed up for spending more time together but by then Mark and I were both exhausted and tactfully brought our long day to an end.
In December Mark was appointed to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Circulation Department (which, like the Rutherston Collection, toured art objects to educational institutions, but also to regional museums at a national level) and we never spoke about that day again until recently. It soon faded in my memory until seven years later when Lowry died and his heir (Carol Lowry) offered many of his Pre-Raphaelite and other works on loan to Manchester City Art Gallery. Our unique visit was instantly re-lived in my mind and I persuaded the Gallery to let me produce a very modest publication to accompany a display of these loans. I titled it A Pre-Raphaelite Passion: The Private Collection of L.S. Lowry because, for me, a genuine passion is what it seemed to be. Ironically, some years later I was also involved in the reconstruction of Lowry’s sitting room and studio at the Gallery so the memory of that special and remarkable visit was once again resurrected – but that’s another story…..
Mark now freely admits that his real interest was in meeting Lowry but the pretext to do so was a visit to see his Pre-Raphaelite collection and I must confess that was also my main motivation. Lowry had enormous physical presence and a mischievous smile neither of which I shall ever forget.
With thanks to Mark Haworth-Booth for sharing his memories.
* The Rutherston Collection was a collection of modern art, lent in groups to schools and colleges in the north of England. Remarkably, it included several Lowry paintings which Mark withdrew from the Scheme because their value was common knowledge by 1969 when he administered it.
** Mark and I both recall it being a brass bed but a photograph taken by Denis Thorpe the day after Lowry’s death shows a bed with a wooden headboard. Presumably Lowry acquired a more modern bed at some point after our visit.
Photos by kind permission of Denis Thorpe.