How an amateur photojournalist captured the defining images of L.S. Lowry in 1968
By Sefton Samuels, FRPS
I always loved Lowry’s paintings.
My personal connection with his work began in 1947 when I enrolled in my textile course at the Salford College of Technology, which happened to be right next to Salford Art Gallery, then the home of the largest public collection of his work. This became my favourite lunch break destination. I was drawn to the wonderfully quaint figures, industrial landscapes and to his originality. And, if only I had had £100 to my name at the time, I could have bought one of his finest oil paintings. However, as a hard-up student, I could not afford a decent camera let alone an expensive painting then.
And photography was what I really hoped to do for a living.
Many years later in 1968, after decades in the textile trade, I was also beginning to make my way a little as a photo journalist. I decided I would like to photograph Lowry but, despite the promises of several friends who claimed to know him, nothing ever came from these connections. I tried writing to him at his home in Mottram-in-Longdendale, but my letters went unanswered. I learned later that he never opened any correspondence, let alone replied to any. I remember the curator of Salford Art Gallery showing me a sheaf of copy letters they had sent to Lowry over the years but, despite a plea to the artist, to just let them have one letter in return, their efforts were in vain. I was also told that he ignored callers at his door and didn’t even possess a telephone.
Whilst on holiday in East Anglia, feeling uninspired and with the rain pouring down, I decided to drive up the east coast to take a look at the beautiful Northumbrian countryside. I stopped off at Seaburn, near Sunderland, where I knew Lowry used to stay at one of the local hotels. I was ill-fated again; he had just left for home. The view of the almost circular harbour opposite the hotel was like seeing one of his paintings coming to life, as I had previously looked at this very view, one of his favourites, in an Arts Council Touring Exhibition which eventually finished at the Tate Gallery.
I photographed the scene and sent him a copy a couple of weeks later, along with another letter. Again to no avail.
Still determined, I had one more attempt, thinking that in a small village like Mottram-in-Longdendale, someone ought to know of a way of contacting Lowry personally. My first port of call was the local newsagent who suggested a visit to Lowry’s cleaner, Mrs Swindells, a couple of streets away. Fortunately Mrs Swindells was in, and I found we had something in common. Like me, she had worked in a textile mill. In fact, I was actually on my way to Bradford that particular day to chase up production of some cloth, being still in the wool trade in a modest way. She told me that Lowry usually let her know in advance when he was coming home, so that she could prepare the house. And she promised to drop me a line when she next heard from him. Mrs Swindells was as good as her word, and shortly afterwards I received a note from her telling me when the artist would next be home. She suggested I write to him first, and told me not to call in before 10.00am. She also asked me not to mention her name.
As advised, a couple of days later, on the Sunday, I knocked on Lowry’s door, armed with a selection of my photographs to help introduce myself. To my amazement I heard the door being opened – a lengthy procedure owing to his security precautions following a recent burglary, I learnt afterwards. The solitary figure of this well-known recluse appeared in the doorway, stooping towards me as if hard of hearing. He looked rather stern as though he resented being disturbed but, on mentioning the photograph and letter I had just sent, he relaxed and welcomed me into the house, saying he was going to write to me (some hope I thought!) to let me take his picture. He could not manage to fit me in that day, as he already had an appointment in a couple of hours, but suggested any time from Tuesday onwards.
The interior of the house was very gloomy with an incredible clutter of old furniture, pictures and his famous clocks. There were three grandfather clocks of varying sizes in the hall and seven clocks in the living room – though I saw that only one seemed to be working. He confessed to me that he did not much like his house.
I was fascinated by it. Lowry seemed to be in the middle of sorting out a pile of his small pencil sketches on the dining table, and invited me to sit down in an armchair whilst he gave instructions to Mrs Swindells. As promised, I pretended not to have met her before. Whilst he was out of the room I had time to take in numerous paintings on the wall, not just his own, but work by Rosetti (he was a great enthusiast of the Pre-Raphaelite School), a powerful male portrait by Lucien Freud, some Sheila Fells and a remarkable profile of Lowry himself. This was the first attempt at oil painting by a girl of only 12 years. On the wall facing the window were portraits of his father and his beloved mother. On the sideboard was a bust by Epstein, one of two he owned.
We talked of pictures and he mentioned the coastal area around Tyneside where he loved to paint boats, large and small, a subject which had always fascinated him. I left after half-an-hour, having arranged to return two days later.
I duly arrived at 10.00 on Tuesday September 17 and, when knocking at his door again, I half expected him to be out, knowing his dislike of photographers and journalists. He seemed a little irritable, perhaps at the thought of being photographed again, and I got the impression that he merely wanted to be left in peace. He kept sighing “oh dear” and telling me how tired he was – a perfectly reasonable response for an 80 year-old, I thought.
Lowry asked me how I would like to photograph him, and I suggested a site by a mill on the outskirts of Stockport. He rejected the idea, saying it had been done before, and that he did not feel like going out. He was not very co-operative at first, so I took some natural light character studies of him in his front room, sitting at the table, just to break the ice. I told him my usual method was to start with the obvious and then, hopefully, develop some more original ideas as we got to know each other. He complained that one photographer had asked him to lie down on the ground, which understandably, he refused to do, feeling it was rather undignified.
After taking a number of pictures, I asked if I could take some of him in his studio. As an admirer, I was interested to see his place of work, even though he claimed he was not working as an artist anymore. The studio, at the back of the house, was considerably smaller than most I had seen, and was filled with even more clutter and paintings at various stages of development – which must have been worth a fortune, even then.
Lowry sat in an armchair in front of his easel and, whilst I was taking some further photographs, he asked me what I did for a living. He was very amused to find that I was in the wool textile trade. He told me that all his friends were businessmen and not artists, and that he would have preferred to have been a stockbroker himself.
As he smiled I quickly clicked the shutter.
He was also delighted to find that I was an amateur. When I complained that this often involved late nights, busy weekends and working when tired, he observed that one could produce very good, if not even better, results in that state. By now he had warmed up considerably and was extremely friendly and relaxed, with the conversation flowing freely. He was pleased to hear that I was a bachelor and advised me to stay that way. I hope he would have forgiven me for getting married shortly afterwards, and also for becoming a professional photographer when the textile trade started going downhill.
At this stage, still in his studio and half in amusement, I asked him again how he would like to be photographed. I did this by asking him what he liked doing best. He got up, saying, “I’ll show you.” We slowly walked back to the living room where he reclined in his stained old armchair with his shoulders on the seat of the chair and put his feet up on the mantelpiece, declaring this to be his favourite occupation. He told me that he could stay there for hours! In fact he remained in that position for same considerable time, occasionally nodding off, whilst I took pictures with two cameras. One of these photos is probably the most interesting from that session and is one of 10 photos acquired by the V&A for their National Collection of the Art of Photography. The National Portrait Gallery has six of the Lowry Photos.
Before I left, he showed me several pictures by other artists he had encouraged and which were piled up against the hall wall. I then gave him a lift into Manchester, and on the way he asked me why I wanted to photograph him. I explained that I was hoping to have an exhibition of my own sometime. He asked me twice to be sure to let him know when it would take place, as he would like to come and see the work.
As we passed a cemetery, he joked that he would soon be joining them – though he appeared remarkably fit and active, both physically and mentally, to me.
On the way into Manchester I decided to stop at my flat in Didsbury to drop off my camera equipment, and invited Lowry inside. I was interested in his reaction to my small collection of paintings. His response both surprised and pleased me: he liked my modern paintings by one of the leading Irish artists Richard Kingston, as well as two of Harold Riley’s, another Salford artist. He was delighted to find that I possessed some original works of art, and laughingly said, “So you’re a collector, Sefton.” Lowry claimed that he himself was more of a collector than a painter at that time. He told me that he had too many pictures and too little room, and had given several pieces away to friends. I suggested that an Art Gallery would probably be pleased to accept some of the ones by other artists, but he scorned the idea, saying that half their pictures ended up in the cellar.
As we parted in town I watched him walk towards his favourite record shop. I have to confess he looked a little like he had been drinking, but then I realised with a pang of guilt that it was two hours past lunch time, and neither of us had eaten or drunk anything at all.
About three weeks later I took the pictures along for him to look at. I was flattered when he told me that he thought that they were the best portraits he had had taken. Apart, that is, from the two of him smiling – possibly unique – which he hated! He asked me not to exhibit them. Maybe he thought these would affect his image as a dour Northern painter? Some of the better ones I had enlarged up to 20 x 16”, the others to 10 x 8” which he kept shuffling through, and also asking me to put up different large ones for him to judge. I offered him any of these exhibition-sized prints he liked. He said he had no more room, and preferred to order seven of the 10 x 8” prints, musing that it was the first time in his life that he had ever wanted any photos of himself, despite being photographed so many times.
I commented that my favourite was a close-up of his head, with hat on, outside his front door. I said that it showed his strong character. He protested that he didn’t have a strong character, preferring a half figure profile with his hands in his pockets. On meeting him by chance in Manchester some months later, I found he was talking to me sideways on – the same angle as the photo he liked.
After printing his seven photos, I called again at his house and presented them to him in person. Lowry repeatedly asked me how much he owed me. I just said that it was my privilege to have photographed him (especially after all my unsuccessful efforts over the years). From what I gathered afterwards, I’m sure that if I could have put something towards one of the little pencil sketches on his table he would have told me to pick one out for free. It was, perhaps, one of the biggest art-collecting mistakes of my life! I guess I never was a businessman. At least he autographed two of my big prints, and drew one of his famous dogs alongside, as well as recording the date. This remains one of my most cherished belongings.
A few months later I signed on for an Arts in Manchester weekend, the highlight of which was to be a talk on Lowry at Holly Royde College on the Palatine Road. It involved the projection of slides of Lowry’s paintings with informal comments from a lecturer and from the great man himself. As the college was next door to my home at that time I brought along my tape recorder, and managed to obtain a valuable one and three-quarter hour’s worth of the artist discussing his pictures and answering questions in a very relaxed and good-humoured way. Later I discovered that there is very little of Lowry’s voice recorded on tape, and the North West Sound Archive was happy to transfer the recording from my old reel to reel tape to modern cassette, cleaning up the sound in the process.
A few years later I was contacted out of the blue by Sam Tonkiss, a sculptor, who heard that I had some photos of Lowry. As he wished to do a sculpture of the artist he wondered if I could let him have some of the prints to work from, which I was pleased to do. In return Sam generously gave me one of his fine sculptures of a young girl, and also offered to do busts of my two young sons. Later he managed to fit in a final session with Lowry. When finished, I photographed the two of them together with the sculpture. One of the bronzes made from the original was eventually purchased by the National Portrait Gallery.
The Royal Academy held an exhibition of Lowry’s work in 1976, to which I was invited, having contributed three photographs of the artist. Sadly Lowry died a few months before the opening. I’m sure he would have been very honoured to take centre stage at such a prestigious venue. I am simply proud to have been able to have captured his image, and to have captured something of the spirit of the man.
I still wonder why he preferred not to be remembered smiling.
© Sefton Samuels, FRPS, 47 Gaddum Road, Bowdon, Altrincham, Cheshire, WA14 3PH
These images are all available for sale to private collectors. You can contact Sefton directly.
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