The Diary: Yah-boo-sucks to those who squashed the cloth cap artist

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The Independent Online
Two million pounds. Two million. As near as dammit. For a painting by Laurence Stephen Lowry, the artist whom Brian Sewell called a "cloth- capped nincompoop" and the good burghers of Salford once accused of insulting their city with his pictures. Blooming marvellous.

It is curious how it only takes something like this, the sale at Sotheby's of Going to the Match for a price that breaks all records for a Lowry, to bring out the yah-boo-sucks in even the most restrained of us - and in me (as his biographer) more than most.

It's decidedly good news all round. Except, maybe, for the buyer Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, who didn't want to go above a million but was forced into it by the heat of the bidding. Good for the Lowry arts complex, the fantastic new multi- million-pound venture that now shimmers and shines in the heart of once derelict Salford dockland and which opens in April. Good, too, for Salford Art Gallery and Museum which has been acquiring Lowrys since the great man was a mere rent-collector. And great for the publication of the updated, revised, all-singing, all-dancing, new version of my biography of the artist.

Were he still alive, he would probably have been pretty chuffed too - not irritated that he didn't make anything out of such a sale, as some people have suggested. He was once asked exactly that (although in respect of a far lesser sum, of course). He replied, most emphatically: "Mind? Why should I mind? He [the seller] bought when no one else was buying my pictures and if his widow and family can be helped by the sale, good luck to them." And this pounds 1.9m picture was originally bought by a man who dared not take it home but hung it in his office where his colleagues wondered aloud if he was not "going off his head".

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RING MY friend Judy Sandling, longtime keeper of the Lowry collection at Salford, and she is as excited as I am although, being an academic, her excitement is more muted. She's particularly pleased because the Football Association, which bought the picture, has offered it to the gallery on loan. So, any one who wants to see what all the fuss is about can go and view it on the walls which also display the Lowry seascape on which an early director of the gallery squandered 54 guineas and got his knuckles severely rapped for buying what one member of the Art Galleries Committee called "a pig in a poke". Probably worth a cool million by now. Some pig.

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ARRIVE IN disgusting weather to give a talk in Manchester's biggest bookstore, and find myself somewhat daunted to see loads of Lowry aficionados in the audience. Decide to go ahead anyway with what I have decided to do - a run-through of my so far unsuccessful, 23-year-long search for the identity of Lowry's Dark Lady, the woman he painted compulsively for more than 50 years. She appears in a variety of guises and poses and situations, prompting the question - was she one woman, several, or simply an image in his head? The tales he told of her are legion. And this from a man who never married and informed anyone rude enough to ask that he was a virgin: "Never known passion, Sir, never known passion".

The reason I return so often to the theme, particularly when I'm in Manchester, is in the hope that someone will provide me with a kind of answer. Tonight I get several suggestions but no solutions. The most intriguing comes from Tony Warren, creator of Coronation Street. He believes that one of the enduring images of Lowry's late drawings came from a young parlour- maid in the family home when Lowry was a schoolboy. "Remember Lucy," says Tony, "whose breast was speared by a whalebone that had worked lose from her corset ... and think of his drawings of the ballet girls constrained by their tightly waisted tutus..." Interesting theory but I'm not convinced, Tony. I think it was all in his head. Full stop.

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PHONE CALL from a writer friend who has been into Waterstone's in Manchester and been told that the Lowry biography has sold 67 copies so far this week. She is not impressed. But then she writes Mills & Boon romances and probably sells a few thousand before lunch.

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SPEAK TO Carol Ann, Lowry's heir and the last of the Dark Ladies in his life, about the fact that one of the papers has picked up on the revelation in my book that several of Lowry's seemingly innocent works conceal the occasional erotic drawing. We have worried about how the popular press might treat this discovery by Michael Howard, an art historian whose dramatic reassessment of the artist is to be published in February.

"Oh well," she says. "It could have been worse." Over the years since Lowry's death, Carol has become incredibly resilient. She has learned to accept the shocks that the legacy of her benefactor has dealt her in the 23 years since his death - not least the shock of his hidden erotic pictures. It is curious how one only has to say the word erotic in conjunction with the name Lowry and everyone starts getting all hot under the collar.

"It's only because it's Uncle Laurie who did them," says Carol. "It's so unexpected. Someone [who had not seen them] described them as crude. They are certainly not that. They are beautiful. And meticulously drawn. Do you remember, you once asked me if I had ever thought about destroying them?" I remember. And I remember her answer. She tells me again: "And I said, `Yes, I had considered it but I had never done it. Why? Because they are too good'. That answer still stands."

`LS Lowry: a biography' by Shelley Rohde is published by the Lowry Press, pounds 14.95.

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