Famous the world over for peopling the industrial landscape of Northern England with his trademark ‘matchstick men’, Laurence Stephen Lowry is, without doubt, a legend in the British art scene. Despite working as a rent collector by day, Lowry studied his craft in the evenings and spent a lifetime creatively recording life amid the industry of British cities more recognisably than any other artist of the 20th century. That industry has now largely vanished from our urban landscapes, but Lowry’s work still features in the collections of some of the world’s biggest galleries, including Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And as well as having his own, purpose-built gallery in Salford Quays to his name, he also still holds the record for the most rejected British honours – having turned down two OBEs, a CBE, a knighthood and two offers of the Order of the Companions of Honour during the course of his career.
Lowry’s life has been chronicled by academics and creatives alike, most recently immortalised by the new film Mrs Lowry and Son, starring Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave. But while we often associate the unashamedly Northern artist with the smoke-infused scenes of Greater Manchester, what many don’t know about is his relationship with the North East and, particularly, his affinity for Berwick-upon-Tweed.
While the exact date of Lowry’s initial visit to Berwick is unclear, the first of his paintings to depict the town, showing the High Street, is dated 1935. There were a further two paintings of the town included in his first one-man exhibition in London in 1939. Interestingly, Manchester and his native Salford were the only other places to be identified by name in the catalogue for this exhibition, betraying Berwick’s significance to the artist. Already known for being a popular holiday resort, the town’s records show that Lowry continued to visit regularly until the year before he died, and it is thought that his visits to the northernmost town in England were among his first as a solo traveller, independent of his parents. All together, he is thought to have produced more than 30 paintings and drawings of Berwick in his lifetime – from fishermen catching salmon on the River Tweed to Spittal beach and Berwick Harbour, and even capturing the scenes at a football match played at The Stanks. And it was the variety and vibrancy of Lowry’s paintings that inspired the Berwick-upon-Tweed Preservation Trust to create the Lowry Trail in 2003: a five-mile signposted route which encourages visitors to follow in the artist’s footsteps around the town and view the real-life places that Lowry portrayed in his work, many of which remain remarkably unchanged.
‘It all started because of what is known as the Lowry Seat, a beach shelter behind the pier,’ explains James Herriot, former Chairman of Berwick’s Preservation Trust. ‘The council were going to knock it down in 1998, and the story made national newspapers because, although it was pretty derelict at the time, there was a real outcry.’ The shelter was famously illustrated by Lowry in his painting On The Sands in 1959. ‘With the help of local businesses, we raised the money to have it restored,’ explains James. ‘Prior to that I hadn’t realised Lowry’s long association with the town. When we revealed the restored seat, we actually reenacted the painting and invited Shelley Roadie, who is Lowry’s biographer, Lindsey Brooks, the curator of The Lowry over in Salford, and Lowry’s close friend and heir to his estate, Carol Lowry.
‘Afterwards we had lunch at The Maltings to launch our next project, the restoration of Dewars Lane Granary – which also happened to be a scene that Lowry painted a few times. In fact, on the other side of Dewars Lane is Sally Port, which is another scene Lowry painted a lot. That was when we first thought, with all the different views of the town that Lowry painted still being almost exactly the same now, if we could start by restoring Dewars Lane, wouldn’t it be fantastic if one day visitors could actually walk through the whole town following Lowry’s paintings? We thought it would be something really positive for Berwick. And it has been, and continues to grow – the amount of publicity it has brought to the town is fantastic.’
Beginning in Dewars Lane, the trail takes visitors to Palace Street and along Pier Road as far as the most easterly point of the town, to where Lowry painted The Sea in 1942, before returning in a circular route to Sally Port around the town’s famous walls via The Lions – the house that Lowry, at one time, considered buying – the Town Hall and Strother’s Yard. Visitors are then encouraged to walk over Berwick Bridge to see more of Lowry’s street and yard scenes in their reality, as well as Berwick Harbour and Spittal Promenade, with the Trail culminating at the Lifeboat Station, where Lowry’s portraits are displayed.
‘I love when I drive around the town and see someone looking at the Trail boards,’ says James. ‘Apart from anything else, if anyone walks the Trail both sides of the river, they’re seeing the best views in Berwick. You end up walking most of the Elizabethan walls, which are unique – they are the only example of bastioned town walls in Britain and one of the best-preserved examples in Europe.’
Lowry is said to have been particularly interested in these walls and the way they encircle the town. In the foreground of many of his paintings there is often some form of barrier, whether a low fence or wall, yet he also regularly painted figures framed by arches, similar to Cowport and Scotsgate, which allowed his characters to meet while still restricting their freedom of movement in his work.
An element of confinement and loneliness can be traced throughout Lowry’s body of work, with many of his paintings boasting symmetrical structures that are framed around a central perpendicular feature, usually one which had autobiographical significance for the artist. When painting Berwick, Lowry often made a point of including the Town Hall, seemingly captivated by its isolated, 150-foot steeple and the way it dominated the skyline of the fortified town.
During his visits, Lowry would stay in the Castle Hotel and would give sketches and paintings to the staff by way of thanks. Biographers of Lowry have remarked that the artist was attracted to the sea throughout his life – the clean coastal air likely offering a welcome reprieve from the pollution of industrial Salford, where he lived and worked – but his diaries and letters indicate that it was his fondness for, and fascination with, the people of Berwick that encouraged him to return time and again. Famously neither English nor Scottish, Berwick and its people seemed to epitomise a gritty integrity that appealed to Lowry. He once observed, ‘My recreation seems to have developed into drifting amongst all the back streets… I can come across,’ which may explain his many depictions of alley scenes such as Dewars Lane and Sally Port.
Yet despite also remarking, somewhat sorrowfully, ‘Poverty and gloom. Never a joyous picture of mine you’ll see… I never do a jolly picture’, some of Lowry’s depictions of Berwick beg to contradict him. On The Sands captures brightly-clothed children playing around the ‘Lowry’s Seat’ shelter, while Spittal Sands, which he painted the following year in front of Forte’s Ice Cream Pavilion, sees him employ light pastel hues to portray another nostalgic beach scene.
But Berwick also brought out the artist’s darker side. As well as his trademark industrial cityscapes, Lowry painted many images of the empty ocean throughout his career and it was while in Berwick in 1942 that he produced his first. The black, white and grey-blue used in The Sea seem to foreshadow his later remark that ‘it’s all there. It’s all in the sea. The Battle of Life is there. And Fate. And the inevitability of it all.’
The Lowry Trail seeks to educate visitors on all this and more – each of its stop-off points is punctuated by information boards that detail Lowry’s fascinating history with Berwick, alongside images of his paintings of its specific vistas. But the impact the Trail has had on the town extends beyond the artistic.
‘To create the Lowry Trail, we restored buildings at a time when they were uneconomic,’ James reasons. ‘Berwick wouldn’t be the place it is without the amazing work of the Preservation Trust, throughout its nearly 50-year history. At one time, Berwick had the largest percentage of at-risk listed buildings in the country, but while other towns ended up knocking theirs down and starting again, we worked to save ours. And the Lowry Trail has played a big part in that.’
But the future of the Lowry Trail is not yet secure. Although installed by the town’s Preservation Trust, questions over who is now responsible for the Trail’s maintenance have been raised. It is this uncertainty that has prompted James, now retired from the Trust, to host a series of fundraising events from the Berwick premises of his business, Callerton Kitchens, in the hope of raising awareness and the capital necessary for the upkeep of the town’s unique cultural asset.
It is widely believed that Lowry completed more than 1,000 oil paintings and many more drawings during his lifetime. Covering everything from urban landscapes, mysterious land and seascapes, brooding portraits and the unpublished ‘marionette’ works, found only after his death, he developed a distinctive style of painting that will live forever in the world of art. But whether you are a fan of his work or not, it is hard to disagree with the fact that Berwick’s Trail in his name is an important resource for the town. Unique in its ability to pair largely-unchanged vistas with immortalised works of art – and, therefore, justifying the protection and continued restoration of many of Berwick’s streets and buildings – the Trail has a proven ability, and continued potential, to draw visitors from all over the world and invite them to explore previously unseen areas of the historic town. We think that, at the very least, is a cause worth protecting.
To learn more about the Lowry Trail, go to www.visitnorthumberland.com
The first of Callerton Kitchens’ fundraising events for the Lowry Trail, Assault Your Senses, will be held on 26th October at their Berwick Studio, 135 Main Street, Spittal, Berwick TD15 1RP. For more information, call the studio on 01289 306784 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
All quotes attributed to LS Lowry were taken from Lowry In Berwick by Edwin Bowes. Edwin was local to Berwick, a senior art conservator with a specialism for Lowry’s art, and was instrumental in the creation of the Lowry Trail.