On the trail of the Lowry's matchstick men in Manchester

With a new exhibition opening this week, Sebastian Lander explores the city that inspired much of the artist's work

Tate Britain's exhibition Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life opens on Wednesday, showcasing about 100 of the British artist's works portraying urban settings and industrial landscapes. Lancashire-born LS Lowry (1887- 1976) is best associated with Salford and Manchester. It is in the latter city that he spent his early years, and was where he was to study and work. His paintings – depicting everything from street scenes, factories and election meetings to fights, processions and accidents – were inspired by his experience of industrial northern England.

Today, you can walk, as he did, around the thoroughfares of this sprawling metropolis. "A street is not a street without people … it is as dead as mutton," Lowry once said. By that measure, Manchester's buzzing Piccadilly Gardens, where I start my journey with guide Ed Glinert, would be a spring lamb.

Lowry, who Ed tells me used to sit here, made this space the subject of his 1954 painting, Piccadilly Gardens. If you stand in the south-eastern corner, you'll see the square from the same angle, with the white Art Deco Rylands building – now a Debenhams – commanding the far side. The sunken element to the gardens may have gone and a number of modern buildings sprouted (the Blitz made its mark here) but the hive of human activity that brings Lowry's painting alive still remains.

We walk towards the opposite corner. Ed tells me to look up at the plaque on the building at the corner of Mosley Street and Market Street. It reveals how the Football League was founded on 17 April 1888 at a hotel that stood on this site, bringing to mind Lowry's paintings Going to the Match, The Football Match and Football Ground, his figures streaming into the stadium.

Ed then takes me to the site of the former offices of the Pall Mall Property Company, which Lowry joined as a rent collector and clerk in 1910. We continue down Market Street, which puts a shoulder to the Arndale shopping centre. From here, we take the third left on to Brown Street, where there is now a Tesco on the site of Pall Mall offices. Lowry remained with the company until his retirement in 1952, and Ed reveals how he used to firewatch on the tops of buildings in the area during the Second World War. He depicted the destruction he saw, too, in works such as Blitzed Site.

We continue down Brown Street, turning right on to Marsden Street, which then turns into Chapel Walks. At the foot of the elegantly proportioned redbrick building on the right is Sam's Chophouse (0161 834 3210; samschophouse.com), a pub that Lowry is said to have visited for half a bitter and a bowl of soup during his work break. Depending on the time of day, you could opt for either – a bowl of French onion soup is £6 – and Lowry's here in spirit, as a life-size bronze statue sitting at the bar.

We double back on ourselves and turn right opposite the Vidal Sassoon into the area behind Pall Mall Court – craning up at the towering 1960s granite building on the right – once the NatWest bank and where Lowry's archives were held when he died in 1976. We soon emerge on to King's Street and as we cross to the other side, we turn to look left at Essex Street for a well-framed view of the Town Hall spire above Tub Lane.

Turning left on to Cross Street and walking up to the corner of Albert Square, we take a right on to John Dalton street and cross to the opposite side, walking as far as No 16. The Italianate façade was once that of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts (mafa.org.uk), where Lowry attended life classes in 1910. We turn back and nip into the enchanting Dalton Entry, a narrow passage dedicated to John Dalton, pioneer of modern atomic theory. The walkway turns into Mulberry Passage, after which you come upon the early 19th-century St Mary's Church, also known as "The Hidden Gem" (hiddengem.catholic faith.co.uk). Ed shows me a charcoal and chalk sketch of the building, created by Lowry in 1962.

With the church behind us we cut through to Brazennose Street and left up into Albert Square where Alfred Waterhouse's impressive neo-Gothic Town Hall looms large (0161 827 7661; manchester.gov.uk). From the south-western side of the square, you'll see the viewpoint from which French artist Adolphe Valette, a teacher who made an impression on Lowry, painted his atmospheric 1910 work of a man pushing a cart in the shadow of the Prince Albert Memorial and Town Hall. The painting is now on display in the Manchester Art Gallery (0161 235 8888; manchestergalleries.org; free), which you can reach by skirting down the right of the Town Hall on Lloyd Street, emerging on to Princess Street, turning right and walking up to the crossroads. The gallery contains Lowry's Piccadilly Gardens and is the perfect spot to refuel with coffee and cake.

Fresh cuts

The Sealife attraction (0871 221 2483; visitsealife.com/manchester) opened its doors this month at the Trafford Centre, with some 5,000 creatures on display. Activities include an underwater tunnel and Sea Trek, which claims to be Europe's "first seabed walk", where visitors can submerge themselves in a tank to encounter sharks, rays and a sea turtle called Ernie.

Watering hole The Long Bar (thelongbarmcr.co.uk) recently popped up in the Spinningfields district in preparation for summer, with guest DJs and a cocktail list that might give you hope the weather will do its bit.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Sebastian Lander travelled with Virgin Trains (0871 977 4222, virgintrains.co.uk), which has three trains an hour between London Euston and Manchester Piccadilly.

You can also reach Manchester direct from many other towns and cities, including Birmingham, Bournemouth, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and Norwich (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk).

Staying there

Rocco Forte's Lowry Hotel (0161-827 4000; thelowryhotel.com) has doubles from £139, room only.


Go guided

Themed guided tours are offered by New Manchester Walks (07769 298068; newmanchester walks.com) on everything from Lowry to Le Corbusier; £5.

More information

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is at Tate Britain in London (020-7887 8888; tate.org.uk) from 26 June to 20 October; £16.50. For tourist information, go to visitmanchester.com/summer

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