The man behind the austere, industrial Northern landscapes is often characterised as sparely as the “matchstick men” that made him famous.
But LS Lowry, who has only just been honoured with a retrospective at Tate Britain nearly 40 years after his death, was a great deal more fun and sociable than the remote recluse that he was frequently painted as by others.
Rare pictures of the artist, who was great friends with the Marshall family who owned the Stone Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, show him larking about on the steps of the gallery, celebrating his 84th birthday and sitting in the office after one of many social occasions.
The artist would visit the Marshalls on his frequent visits to the Seaburn Hotel in Sunderland. Tilly Marshall later chronicled their friendship in Life With Lowry, and her son Simon used to ferry him around the coast where he would collect material (but rarely draw) for his pictures.
Simon Marshall describes Lowry as an elderly relation who became gradually absorbed in their lives having just wandered into the gallery off the street one day.
“Over the years I must have driven him thousands and thousands of miles; to Holy Island, Gretna Green and Portpatrick, where he believed his ancestors came from. I very rarely saw him sketch or work outside,” Simon Marshall wrote recently.
“Although he carried a wallet with bits of paper in and might draw something on an envelope as we walked around, he mostly liked to work at home. He was absorbing things as we went, and would then appear at some later stage with a drawing of a place we’d been to, done from memory.”
Simon Marshall is frank about Lowry’s penchant for games which sometimes bordered on the maddening. “He loved repeating himself, and he’d push it to see how far he could go. We’d be driving along in the car and he’d say to me: ‘What happens if the wheel falls off?’ ‘We’ll go in the ditch, Mr Lowry.’ ‘Hmm.’ Ten minutes later: ‘What happens if the wheel falls off?’ and so on,” he said.
“He could be great fun, but he could be awful. He could be exceedingly amusing, but also an absolute little sod. He had some moods where he was not at all nice, but most of the time he was really very pleasant and jolly. He used to say to waitresses in restaurants: ‘Could I have this water diluted?'”
Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, Tate Britain until 20 October 2013