Written by Anthony McCarthy 2012
An article discussing one of L.S Lowry's well known paintings 'Man Lying on a Wall' 1957.
It was a hot sunny day and I was sitting on a bus when we suddenly passed the man on the wall, just as you see him in my painting.’ (1)
Lowry’s words were often carefully chosen and sometimes deliberately deceptive to downplay the many facets of his life and character, as here he casually refers to the inspiration for one of his most iconic and popular images,’Man Lying on a Wall’,1957.(fig 1)
In terms of Lowry’s prolific and varied output this painting is not particularly interesting for its technique, which in its lighter brushwork and realisation isn’t quite as laboured as his earlier very sculptural and detailed canvases from the 1930’s and 1940’s, on which he would sometimes take months or years to refine his unique vision through the accumulated layers of paint.
Symbolically however this work is highly intriguing. In fact when this painting is placed in the context of Lowry’s later artistic career there is a strong argument to re appraise the deceptively trivial ‘Man Lying on a Wall ‘as an important, even pivotal work which reflects Lowry’s deep understanding of art history, his keen insight into human nature, an expression of a changing era and a signpost of a career in thematical flux, but how?
The origins of ‘Man Lying on a Wall ’began, as with so many of Lowry’s works, as he took a bus ride. It was in Haslingden that the artist saw this very situation and remarked to a friend that this would be him when he retired, taking it easy. The painting is dated five years after Lowry’s actual retirement aged sixty five, when he was released from forty two years service as rent collector and chief cashier at the Pall Mall property company of Brown Street, Manchester. Evidently, this new found freedom initially instigated some of Lowry’s most inspired and iconic works such as ‘Going to the Match’ and the immense composite,’ Industrial Landscape’, both dated 1953.
Through the years Lowry often made a point of recording the odd on his travels as Shelley Rohde comments, ’he had a great knack of spotting the incongruous or the eccentric in a situation and translating it to the canvas’(2)
Yet ironically this view of the everyday was also a factor in the publics reluctance to buy pre fame Lowry paintings. Andras Kalman, a long term friend and art dealer noted,’ if you offered them a Lowry they would say:” I can get on a number eight bus and see that bloody sight for tuppence”. (3)
The artist would use these observations and personalise them often appearing in his paintings through what have been termed ’displaced self portraits’ ,’He said that the people in his pictures were symbols of his mood ,”they are myself.”(4)This Alfred Hitchcock cameo is sometimes personified as a black suited red scarfed man, similar to the figure looking out of ,’Blitzed site’,1942 (fig2). This recurring character is often outside the lined border that is a prevalent feature in the construct of Lowry’s paintings and used as a device to contain the theatricality within the scene. In ‘man lying on a wall’ however, Lowry the former man of business lies centrally, prostrate on the wall dividing the painting in half and remains the only person who knows what is actually behind the edifice. Is it the artists own past? Or a glimpse of the future? Is Lowry on the verge of something? Or has he given up in some way?
The trappings of business, the umbrella and Lowry’s own initialled briefcase are resting in front of the wall and there is an unusual stillness in the painting. Incidentally the briefcase, one of Lowry’s favourite props, is prominent in other Lowry works at this time, notably in ‘Private view’, 1958 (fig3), an incarnation of the midday studio theme. Perhaps there is a reason for its debut at this time? Is the briefcase a reference to Lowry leaving his business life behind or does it now represent the fact that he is an independent, financially secure artist confidently selling his wares?
The bowler hat, uniformal business attire in the artist’s youth and often a focus of comic intent in his paintings rests on his stomach as one leg seems to be hanging over the far side of the wall. What happens next? Does the man fall? The artists humour is clearly evident in the work as he smokes a cigarette, a practice Lowry gave up in his youth. Yet the cigarette cleverly mirrors the chimneys behind him. Lowry loved Vaudeville and Chaplin, as Mervyn levy states: ’The artist has often spoken to me of his affection for the art of Charlie Chaplin, and there seems little doubt that his own humour has been influenced at points by the film comic. His paintings of the man lying on the wall and father going home display more than a brush of Chaplinesque influence’ (5)
The key to Lowry’s art is his accessibility; people of all ages relate to the universality of his subjects his themes and through his characters, an extension of the artist’s personality, they relate to him. As in Chaplin’s performances Lowry’s images are innocuous and unpretentious:’ He hated anything that smacked of pretension, or pomposity.’(6) A fact that distanced Lowry from the art establishment right throughout his life.
There is something in the human psyche that longs to take time back for oneself from the ever present construct of the nine to five. As Bialystock said to Bloom in ‘The Producers’, “Well Leo, what say we promenade through the park” (7) as the accountant is coerced to quit his day job and follow a dream of untold riches. Everyone can relate to the Man Lying on a Wall.
What can this painting reveal thematically? And what insight can it give us into Lowry’s artistic career at the time? There are tantalising clues contained in the work itself which show a change in the realisation of Lowry’s subjects, but to put this into context we need to look back to the beginning of the artist’s career.
Consider the imposing ‘St.Simons Church’, 1928 (fig4).This work was the first painting purchased by Salford council in 1936 for the amount of £20.
In many ways this scene is THE archetypal Lowry. The painting is highly descriptive, the towering church demands attention through its smoke sodden,
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