Head of a Man with Red Eyes by L S Lowry

Head of a Man with Red Eyes by L S Lowry (1938)

The other day I went over to Manchester and visited the Lowry Gallery at Salford Quays.  The Gallery was named after Laurence Stephen Lowry, best known simply as L.S.Lowry.  He was the Lancashire artist, who had a very distinctive type of art, often depicting people and places around his home town.  The small stick-like characters which were seen in the crowd scenes of his paintings were his trademark and were often described as matchstalk people.

The Matchstalk people of a Lowry painting

The term matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs was further immortalised with the No. 1 hit song produced in late 1977 entitled Matchstalk men and Matchstalk cats and dogs.  The lyrics  of the song, telling the story of the artist Lowry, was performed by a duo, who went by the name of Brian and Michael.

The poignant lyrics summed up Lowry’s art:

He painted Salford’s smokey tops

On cardboard boxes from the shops

And parts of Ancoats where I used to play

I’m sure he once walked down our street

Cause he painted kids who had nowt on their feet

The clothes we wore had all seen better days.

Now they said his works of art were dull

No room, all round the walls are full

But Lowry didn’t care much anyway

They said he just paints cats and dogs

And matchstalk men in boots and clogs

And Lowry said that’s just the way they’ll stay

And he painted matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs

He painted kids on the corner of the street with the sparking clogs

Now he takes his brush and he waits outside them factory gates

To paint his matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs.

The Matchstalk people of a Lowry painting

Although I went to the Gallery expecting to see just a series of similar looking crowd scene paintings filled with strange looking, stick-like people, I was very pleased to see the exhibition showed far more than I was expecting.  Besides Lowry’s trade-mark paintings, there were a number of completely different works of art by Lowry, which I found amazing and two of which I will feature today and tomorrow.

The painting by Lowry which is My Daily Art Display painting of the day is entitled Head of a Man with Red Eyes, which he completed in 1938.  The 1930’s had been a period of his life which was very traumatic.  Lowry was an only child and was never to marry.  He lived with his mother and father, with his mother being, by far, the more dominant parent.  His mother had always wanted daughters and her son disappointed her and to make things worse her sister had given birth to three girls.  Lowry’s mother was very envious of her sister Mary and once commented that it was unfair that whilst Mary had three splendid daughters all she had was one clumsy boy.

In 1932 his father, aged 74, died of pneumonia.  Lowry’s relationship with his father had been somewhat cold and strained and although he called his father “Dad” there was a distinct lack of father-son rapport.   The death of his father did not bring out any palpable signs of overwhelming grief.  His main concern at the time was how the death of her husband would affect his mother.  The affect it had on his 73 year-old mother was terrible as she all but gave up on life and retired to bed where she remained for seven and a half years until her death.  Her demands on her son and his time were great and constant and for that lengthy period Lowry had to care for his mother, who would not agree to any outside help.

Not only did Lowry now have to be at his mother’s beck and call he discovered to his horror that his late father had run up a mass of debts.  The discovery of the alarming state of his father’s financial situation was only discovered when the creditors came knocking at the door.  It took Lowry a year to settle the outstanding debts.  Lowry’s health began to fail due to being over-tired with looking after his mother and at one point he had to go away for a few days on doctor’s orders.

Today’s painting probably was in some way a product of his physical and mental state.  He had suffered badly because of his all controlling mother who rarely showed him any love or affection and this painting was completed the year before she died.   It is the morning- mirror reflection of the face of a man staring out at us.   It looks like he has slept little during the night.  The healthy vigour is missing, drained completely away, leaving just strain and tension.  The physical discomfort we see in this face is the look of utter despair.  The gaze is both unsettling and intense.  Of this painting Lowry said:

 “…I was simply letting off steam.  I started a big self-portrait and then I thought ‘What’s the use of it.  I don’t want it and nobody will’.  I turned it into a grotesque head, I’m glad I did, I like it better than a self-portrait….”


Boy in a Yellow Jacket by L S Lowry (1935)

Lowry in the 1950’s commented again about his work and his equally disturbing 1935 painting Boy in a Yellow Jacket and came to the conclusion that it was painted during a harrowing period in his life.  He said of the period:

“…I think I reflected myself in those pictures.  That was the most difficult period of my life.  It was alright when he [his father] was alive, but after that it was very difficult because she was very exacting.  I was tied to my mother.  She was bedfast.  In 1932 to 1939 I was just letting off steam…”

The painting was bought by a Manchester man who only kept it for three weeks saying that he couldn’t live with such a disturbing picture.

Would you like to have it on your bedroom wall to see when you wake up?  Maybe a man should have it next to his bathroom mirror so that he can compare likenesses when he finally gets out of bed and thus be appreciative of his looks and be appreciative of what he has and realise that life could change for the worse !