Painter of the northern past finds acclaim at the age of 82

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The omens did not seem good for John Thompson when, at the age of 56, he packed up a career in the furniture business to take up art professionally. His first nine months of work at a studio in Manchester's Corn Exchange earned him just enough to fuel the room's gas heater.

But, now 82, the former shoe-shop assistant, door-to-door brush salesman and self-taught painter will be present at the launch of his first major exhibition today after a rise to national recognition which has seen his works hang in the House of Lords and some sell for £10,000.

Thompson joins a line of unexpected artistic discoveries from Oldham including the retired builder's labourer Alfred Ackrill, who ended up with his own Impressionist exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery three years ago after his work was spotted amid entries to a competition for scenes depicting Manchester life.

Thompson's paintings are packed with anonymous groups of people, many cloth-capped, loitering and socialising against plain or industrial backgrounds. The figures do not possess the movement of LS Lowry, another late starter with whom he has inevitably been compared, but each is distinctive and different. He wants those who see his work to find their own meaning, hence his trait of giving each a number rather than a title.

Thompson's output has been extraordinary: he has painted several thousand of his "Group" series of paintings as well as still life, nude, portrait and landscape works. Thompson's exhibition, at Manchester University's Peter House, coincides with the launch of a biography of his life entitled Do You Like 'Em, a reference to the straight-speaking artist's inquiry of some collectors when they examine his work.

Three of Thompson's Group series have hung in the committee rooms of the Lords since 2002. That owes much to the Labour MP for Crosby, Claire Curtis-Thomas, an avid collector of his works, who alerted the House to Thompson when it was looking for works representative of northern England.

The artist's appeal is simple, says Bill Clark, an art dealer who has curated the exhibition and co-written the biography. "The comments I always hear when people see his images are that they 'see' their father or grandfather in his figures or a place where they used to live."

Like Ackrill, who showed an early talent but was unable to take up an art school scholarship in Oldham because his family was poor, Thompson's formative years were a struggle. The only son of a railway worker, he was expected to leave school and secure work as early as possible. But his talent for painting played a minor though recurring role: he painted tourist advertising posters for the local railway and canvases for room settings in furniture shops.

Thompson is coy about comparisons between himself and Lowry, whom he never met. "Lowry was an observer who went out and drew people," he says. "I consider myself to be more of an absorber. But anything anyone says about anybody is interesting. It helps to make people think about what I am and what I'm trying to do."