Avant garde homage to artist who brought the mills alive

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The Independent Online

The work of LS Lowry, the British painter of life in the bleak industrial mills of the North, is to be celebrated with a futuristic pounds 75m cultural centre in Salford that bears no resemblance to the gritty world he painted.

Lowry, who learnt art at evening classes in Manchester, worked as a rent collectorthroughout his life, even when his paintings were being exhibited at the best galleries in the country.

But he is the first British artist to be honoured with a purpose-built arts centre devoted to his work. The project will include a gallery to house 350 of his paintings - currently crammed into the Salford Art Gallery where only half the works can be shown at any time - a study centre and a 1,650-seat theatre. It is expected to attract 700,000 visitors a year.

The avant garde design was the result of a four-year competition and Salford Council defended its decision to choose a modern building, as opposed to converting one of the old mills celebrated in Lowry's paintings. "We don't have many old mills left in Salford and Lowry was a man who didn't just live in the past," Tony Struthers, deputy chief executive of the council, said. "He was just as interested in the present and this is a world-class design."

The proposed Lowry Centre, which hopes to attract pounds 45m in lottery funds from the Millennium Commission, is part of a pounds 180m development of Salford Quays. It has been given the backing of a host of other famous sons of Salford, including the actors Ben Kingsley, Albert Finney and Robert Powell, and the painter Harold Riley.

The centre will have a committee of seven trustees, including the mysterious executor of the artist's estate, who is fiercely protective of his image. Lowry has no living relatives and left his work to a young female artist who studied under him and was helped through art college by him.

"She is very keen on making sure his image is not portrayed badly," Sheena Macfarlane, senior museums officer for Salford Art Gallery, said. "She makes sure you can't just stick a Lowry on a tea towel and the image and way in which his work is dealt with is important to her." The centre will allow the Lowry paintings to be shown in ideal conditions, including carefully monitored temperature and humidity. It is expected to generate pounds 10m for the local economy, which has floundered since the mills that Lowry painted closed down.

Lowry, who painted many of his most famous works in the 1920s and 1930s, was haunted by the everyday industrial scenes around him. Many of his pictures were painted by artificial light at night, under the shadow of Stockport Viaduct.

But his supporters are anxious the centre should dispel the image of him as a "primitive" painter, who produced endless "match-stick" figures. Lowry's day job was kept a secret until his death in 1976, because he was so anxious not to be viewed as an amateur Sunday painter.

"He was recognised from the 1930s, but the Establishment cannot pigeonhole him, which is why they've had so many problems with him," Judith Sandling, keeper of art at Salford Art Gallery, said.

"He's very populist and there's nothing esoteric about his work, people can understand, but he's also a master painter. We try to explain he wasn't match-stick men. With one brush stroke, he created the movement of a figure. It's quite astonishing. I think he would have been extremely pleased people cared enough to created a building like this for him."