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LS Lowry and his legacy: The matchstick man is back in vogue at last as Tate Britain showcases first retrospective of Manchester’s controversial painter

Ahead of a major show that promises a radical rethink of an artist who divides critics, Adrian Hamilton wonders why it has taken so long

What is the problem with the painter LS Lowry? To the public there is none at all. Well recognised in his lifetime, the Royal Academy retrospective a few months after his death in 1976, aged 88, drew record crowds. If the prices fetched at auction and the number of postcards are anything to go by, his stock has remained high ever since. There is something about his urban landscapes of smokestacks and hurrying crowds that people, even in an age when the factories are gone, readily relate to. Nor is there really any problem with Lowry as an artist. Long gone are the days when his so-called "matchstick" men were regarded as naive and his technique that of a "Sunday painter".

"If people call me a Sunday painter," he retorted, "I'm a Sunday painter who paints every day the week." He was well tutored in his craft at the Manchester Academy of Fine Art and Salford Royal Technical College. If his subject matter was repetitive, so was Monet's and most of the religious painters from the 15th century onwards. His palette may have been limited but then that is not how he saw the landscape of the industrial north of England where he lived all his life. The problem with Lowry is not with the viewer. It has been with the art establishment.

Tate Britain's exhibition of his works next month is set to be a blockbuster. It is also an act of expatiation on Tate's part, a response to the criticism, not least from the Living National Treasure of British culture, Sir Ian McKellen, in a recent documentary, that the museum had never held a show of Lowry, although it had 23 works in its stores and had once eagerly espoused him. It was all down to class prejudice and metropolitan snobbery, the accusation went. To the snobs of the London elite he was a provincial with, his concentration on his home patch of Pendlebury, Lancashire, an amateur artist trumpeting the virtues of an increasingly irrelevant working class in the declining industrial heartland.

There is some rewriting of history in this. Lowry was hardly unrecognised in his day. He may not have had many one-man shows in London, but he exhibited successive years in the salon in Paris. He was no working-class socialist rejected for his lowly estate. In fact he was a rent collector from a middle-class background who neither romanticised the working class nor looked down on it. Far from being a bar to metropolitan understanding, his urban vision was actually welcomed at the time by the art establishment who saw him as a voice of the new post-war consensus of Attlee and successive Labour governments. He was an official war artist in 1943 and turned down a knighthood and a succession of other honours.

What led museums and curators to marginalise him in the Sixties, and after, may have been partly the political swing towards the right and a new era in which manufacturing was swept away in an enthusiasm for services and South-centred banking. But it was more probably that the course of Modernism – which the British art establishment had first underrated – and a new generation of British artists international in their outlook, made Lowry's industrial concerns and style look passé.

The new century, 35 years after his death, certainly creates an opportunity to look again at Lowry. Sensibly, Tate Britain has decided to eschew the temptation simply to stage a grand show that makes up for past wrongs by proclaiming his virtues. It's too late for that and unnecessary. Instead it has opted to commission a pair of outside curators, TJ Clarke and Anne Wagner, to cast a fresh eye on the man. As experts in French Impressionism, they have chosen to concentrate on Lowry as a painter of urban landscapes. The title of the forthcoming exhibition, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, is a reference to the poet Baudelaire's great injunction on the artists of his day to paint the new world around them rather than the classical scenes and rural idylls of the academic art of the time.

It's an apt ascription for Lowry, who was heavily influenced by his early teacher at Manchester, the French impressionist, Adolphe Valette, and always admired the Impressionists, although less for their colour than for their purpose. Where they took the modern world as the burgeoning middle class at play in the parks and nightlife of Paris and the seaside and river towns within its reach, Lowry concentrated his eye on the bleaker bustle of the factory town where the population gathered around factory gates and hospitals in groups quite similar in rhythm to the crowds painted by Manet, Degas and Renoir but quite different in mood.

Lowry's pictures reek of melancholy and loneliness in part because of his own personality. Brought up by a cold father and a domineering mother who seems to have blamed his birth and her consequent frailty for wrecking her career as a concert pianist, he never married and never joined a group, although he had close friends, particularly amongst women. His view of his world was constrained and to an extent reductive because he himself was so introverted, the more so in the seven years he spent caring for his bed-ridden mother after the death of his father in 1932.

The crowds he painted have a sense of anonymity and personal loneliness because that is what he himself felt. They are depicted always at a certain distance by the artist because that was how he observed them in his rounds as a debt collector, the profession he kept to until his retirement but never owned up to in artistic circles.

That sense of personal distance, and his depiction of people en masse, however, should not divert the viewer from the care he took to depict his people and their lives. He may not have responded to them as individuals, as he always admitted, but he did not regard them as lifeless.

He was extremely dedicated. He sketched continuously and assiduously as he went about, took great pains to paint the figures in his scenes precisely and separately. He reworked his paintings often and frequently to get the right effect.

"I saw the industrial scene," he said later, "and I was affected by it. I tried to paint it… It wasn't easy. I wanted to get a certain effect on the canvas. I couldn't describe it, but I knew it when I'd got it. Well, a camera could have done the scene straight off. That was no use to me… I wanted to get an industrial scene and be satisfied with the picture." The reference to the camera is significant. Lowry is sometime treated as unique observer of a time and a place, a lone voice of a people being dispossessed of their past and their culture as their industries failed and their employment declined. But if that is all he was, then the photography of the time said it more often and even more directly. What he was, and intended to be, was a painter who tried to express his very personal response to the world around him.

The danger of making him too much part of a tradition, although he was that, and still more of making him an embattled champion of a Northern cause, although he was partly that also, is that it deprives him of the uniqueness of his personal vision. By concentrating on his urban landscapes, the show will inevitably leave out the late individual figures, seascapes and empty rural landscapes he made with even greater melancholy than his townscapes. It also ignores the extraordinary and disturbing series of self-portraits he made after his mother's death and the even more disturbing sketches, the "marionette figures", he made of imaginary women pictured in almost sadistic poses that were revealed after his death but were part of him too.

You don't need to go into flights of pop psychology to understand that the tension in his work came from a deeply inhibited individual. But nor do you need to see him as peculiar to see him as particular, one of a line of obsessed individual voices from William Blake to Stanley Spencer that have marked British culture. They've never been fully embraced by the establishment not so much because of snobbery or class but because the fierceness of their very personal vision has made them uncomfortable to the mainstream.

Squeeze Lowry too tightly into a box marked "landscape", or "Northern", and you miss what makes him so powerful. Like Spencer, he grips you with an intensity which compels you to feel as he does. The crowd is a lonely place. The places of work are anonymous blocks. Cities are without sentiment. And that applies to London today as much as to Pendlebury of the 1920s.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, Tate Britain, London SW1 (tate.org.uk; (020-7887 8888), 25 June to 20 October

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