Outside of Salford, Sunderland is home to the biggest collection of Lowry art works. On the eve of the 125th anniversary of Lowry’s birth, Katy Wheeler explores the city’s links with the artist.
MATCHSTICK men they may look like – but LS Lowry’s almost child-like figures and the landscape they populate are an artistic representation of a bygone era in Sunderland.
The city’s sweeping coastline and once heavily-industrialised river banks were the source of much inspiration for one of England’s most famous painters.
So much so, that he spent countless hours at the River Wear and North Sea sketching its boats, people, factories and skyline.
Today, some of his greatest works, such as Dockside, River Wear at Sunderland and Girl in a Red Hat on a Promenade are housed in Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.
With 38 of this era-defining artist’s works, the venue has the biggest collection of Lowrys outside of his birthplace in the North West.
Jo Cunningham, manager at the museum, said: “The Seaburn Hotel became a second home to Lowry in the ’60s and ’70s. In the ’50s and ’60s he became quite famous but he was less well-known here and he liked the anonymity that Sunderland gave him.
“It had all the elements he liked: the sea and industry.”
Though a popular artist by the time he arrived in Sunderland, Lowry gave many of his sketches and paintings away to Wearsiders.
“He was a very generous man,” explained Jo. “He gave away a lot of work to friends but also to people who worked in the Seaburn Hotel or people he met in the street. We have one of his sketches in storage that was sketched on headed notepaper from the hotel.
“He would often sketch on receipts, envelopes and scraps of paper. There must have been lots of people in Sunderland at one point who had an original Lowry sketch and threw it away.”
Around eight of Lowry’s works are kept in a heat-controlled oil painting storage room at the museum at any one time.
They are often lent out to other galleries or are rotated with paintings on display to limit light damage.
Some depict the stick figures he became so famous for, while others portray dark, ghoulish figures like an old woman by railings or a man drowning in the sea surrounded by fish.
Jo said: “He is so well recognised for these small stick people but they actually have lots of movement and character. Even though they are tiny lines they are so skilfully done, and that’s not really appreciated when they are referred to as matchstick men.”
The man himself visited the museum in the 60s for an exhibition and asked to buy some of its Rossetti paintings.
Jo added: “He is our most well-known artist and biggest name. People come here just to see his work in particular, he still has a big fan base and schoolchildren do Lowry workshops here.
“He’s the perfect artist for children as they can appreciate the naivety of his work; the limited palette and stick like figures.”
Though the museum’s Lowry collection is probably worth millions of pounds, Jo says it’s a priceless record of Sunderland.
“We don’t tend to put a monetary value on it,” she said. “It’s worth more to the area than money, it’s a record of our social history and changes in Sunderland.”
LAURENCE Stephen Lowry was born on November 1 1887 in Manchester and died on February 23 1976.
In the 1920s he began to have his work exhibited throughout Britain and Europe.
In 1942 he had his first exhibition at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.
Over the years, he came to have close relationship with the North East which grew even stronger in the 1960s following a chance visit to Sunderland.
The Seaburn Hotel, now the Marriott, became his base for the many visits he made to the area in the following 15 years,
He once said: “I like Sunderland because of the shipping and shipbuilding and the countryside at the back ... I like the sea. I sometimes escape to Sunderland. I get away from art and artists.”
One of Lowry’s favourite views in Sunderland was of the River Wear, looking over the Lambton Drops, from his favourite viewing point on Gill Road. He drew and painted the scene several times.
Win a Lowry print
To coincide with the 125th anniversary of Lowry’s birth, Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens is giving away two framed prints.
One is The River Wear at Sunderland and the other Dockside, Sunderland – the originals of which belong to the city and are currently on display.
Enter in person at the museum from tomorrow until November 30, or online at www.sunderlandmuseum.org.uk.