A fictionalised narrative of the relationship the artist L S Lowry had with his mother
I think you can know too much about people. You can go far too deep. It’s like all that shading, studying and colouring that they taught me at art school. It’s brutal in its intensity.
I prefer simplicity – the bigger picture. I see the air – thick with gases and energy and the specks of dust and particles illuminated by the light streaming through her bedroom window. She sleeps, motionless, her eyes closed, the tedium of life on pause. The shades, the colour, even the light and dark, are all but extinguished now. She lies there, quietly breathing, dreaming – waiting for me, as she has done these past six years.
The tea cup in my hand reminds me why I am in the room. A drop of the hot brown liquid burns my palm.
She doesn’t hear me, doesn’t register the weak intake of breath as the liquid scalds, so I put the tea cup down. Let it cool. And watch her – taking in every particle of her being, the skin, thinning on her cheeks, her hair, once thick strands of copper and gold, now sparse silver streaks, dampening her pillow. I take out my pencil and pad and begin to draw – I want to capture her beauty now, quickly, secretly before she wakes. I want to record every special, precious moment of her now, in this room, before the light goes out.
That was then. The room and its pictures of handsome Rosseti women hang unseen on the wall. The bed is made, the light, once more, streams through the open curtains. The air moves freely, restlessly, without focus or purpose. I draw the scene.
I like to visit her room at this time every afternoon. It was the time I enjoyed best with mother. She would often wake slightly disoriented but strangely invigorated – as if she had just returned from a pleasant or exciting journey. Our eyes would meet and for a moment I would recognise a look – one which could have been affection or, possibly, understanding. It’s a look that I have often tried, but failed, to put on canvas. It is my greatest regret.
The Rosseti paintings ease my pain. To be able to surround her with such beautiful visions in her last years gave her some consolation, I like to think. The rich, copper-headed beauties fill their canvases. They are jewels – rich splashes of colour in a world of grey.
I won’t go to the attic tonight. I won’t paint. I want to go down to the coast and see the light on the sea; feel its power, see its timeless, shifting, patterns.
I don’t work anymore, at least not in a proper job. I never really had a proper job – not one that my parents thought was proper. I worked as a debt collector. It had little, if any, status. But it paid adequately and allowed me to meet people – all sorts of people – without having to know them beyond the superficial. It was enough to see their pain, disappointment, anxieties and resentment, without having to know the reasons why. I drew them as I saw them.
They made me draw myself once at art school. But the result, an almost photographic similarity, was not me. Not the son my mother recognised – the large, clumsy, under achiever, always under her feet. I hope, in my own way, I made up for those failings later on. I liked nothing better than looking after mother when she took to her bed. Father’s death was a bitter disappointment to her. He had such great ambition. He promised so much, but where did it get him and us? He brought us to this grey industrial town, with its terraced houses and grim, hard-edged life. After a while I acclimatised to my new surroundings. They became the framework for my life and work. But I could see others walking like ghosts in purgatory.
Father’s promises came to nothing. He left mother in debt and with no hope left – just one hopeless son. Now she’s gone I know just how she felt – I see the shapes move and shift in bleak repetition over an empty canvas.
Sometimes people ask me when and why I decided to be a painter. I always tell them, I don’t know. And then I think for a while and try and see if there was some moment, some trigger when this thing inside of me developed and became my world. I know I was always scribbling away as a youngster. There I was on the parlour floor, doodling, getting under my mother’s feet, drawing people, dogs, the broom against the door, the cap on its peg. It was a way of passing the time, being there in their lives in a quiet, unobtrusive way. After a while I became invisible, just a presence in a corner watching and sketching – like the dull, ticking of a clock.
When I was about eight or nine I remember there was an unexpected knock on the door of our terraced house. My mother had been on tenterhooks all day; curling her hair, cleaning and tidying, baking cakes – a rare treat in our house. She seemed electrified – the energy crackling about her as she moved briskly around the house, dusting, rearranging hats, coats, bringing out the best china. After she had all but finished her list of things to do she turned to me, seated in my usual place against the parlour door. “Smarten yourself up, boy, we’ve got company,” she said, before turning away.
She was sitting stiffly at the parlour table when the gentle tap at the door sounded. Even that soft, quiet sound made her start. She moved swiftly to her feet, checked her appearance in the chrome of the cooker and walked to the door, closing it behind her.
It is not often that my sense of smell overrides that of vision, but my foremost memory of that initial encounter was perfume – a heavy, musky scent – something which was as exciting as it was different. I could hear my mother speaking in her usual quiet, firm voice – making polite references to the weather and if she could take the visitor’s coat. Her visitor replied in soft, dulcet tones – in a voice that seemed to have a smile of its own. Through the crack in the parlour door I saw my mother sweep past to the drawing room, where she had set out a small table for tea. The visitor followed closely behind – for a brief second I caught the sway of a crimson velvet dress and a blue felt hat fixed over curls as dark red as burgundy wine.
They must have been in the room for some time because the light from the parlour window was already all but gone before they resurfaced. I heard the door to the drawing room open suddenly and the sound of the two women making salutary remarks. It may have been the failing light, or the sheer enormity of the occasion (we rarely had visitors), but I heard the crash of china and my mother give a little start of alarm. The parlour door opened abruptly and the woman in the crimson dress stood before me, pieces of broken china in her white gloved hands. As she caught sight of me sitting to attention at the parlour table, her mouth moved slowly into a warm smile which seemed to suggest both surprise and recognition.
“Why, this must be your son,” she said, still smiling and coming towards me. I saw my mother get quickly to her feet from the hall floor, where she had been carefully picking up the remaining pieces of the broken tea cup. With deft precision she moved around the woman to my side. “It really was a pleasure. But we mustn’t detain you further, “ said my mother, her fingers curled tensely around the sharp pieces of china. Despite this intervention, the woman seemed in no hurry to leave and asked to look at the closed sketchpad on the table. “An artist!” she said, with a lively, amused air, “May I take a look?” I glanced up at my mother for some sort of approval and she gave me a short, tight nod of the head. She put the china pieces down on the table, discreetly wiping away a spot of blood on her hand with the edge of the clean table cloth.
“If you like,” I replied.
As the woman lent down to pick up the book I breathed in the heady scent of her perfume and felt the warmth of her body. I noticed the burgundy curls were fast escaping from the confines of the blue felt hat. She pursed her full red lips and narrowed her eyes as she flicked through the pages, nodding her head slightly, before resting the book back down before me. “Why, these are beautiful pictures! Divine. My dear Mrs Lowry, your son has a rare gift. You must be so proud.” I remember those words to this day, but at the time they were nearly drowned out by the waves of blood crashing through my veins, beating against my chest and ears.
“It keeps his idle hands busy,” said my mother, who gave me that glance, the one which I have never, to this day, been able to replicate.
The visit wasn’t mentioned at supper time, I noticed. Even when father remarked on the cakes saying: “to whom do we owe the honour?” nothing was said. The broken cup was never missed. We never really needed the full service. It was only when I was clearing away my mother’s things, after she passed away, that I came across it again. It was still in pieces – too fragmented to glue together. But she had kept those pieces all those years, wrapped in scented tissue paper, under a pile of linen in the chest of drawers in her bedroom.
Several years ago, when I had made some money from my paintings, I bought my mother a new tea service. It was similar to that original one, as close as I could get it. She told me to return it to the shop – said it was an expensive waste of money when we had a good service already. She was right, of course. It was a foolish thing to do.
When I look out at the sea, watch its changing composition, its drift from dark to light and subtle shifts from grey to green to blue to black, I wonder if there has ever been a more moving picture. As I come to the end of my life it is the one scene that I enjoy painting more than any other. More than the rows of terraced houses, the factories, with their billowing chimney stacks and the people, with their secrets and lives that I don’t want to share.
I never married. I never wanted to. In my own way I have had a good life, a full life. I have been questioned numerous times by journalists, art reviewers and documentary makers – the great and the good – about my fascination with naive art and, of course, the pictures of Ann – the “dark haired mystery woman” as they like to call her. I don’t tell them who she is – because I don’t know myself. She comes to me uninvited – a visitor from another world.
People can make all the assumptions they like about me and my relationship with art, with people, with my mother. But, the only thing they need to know is that I have been true to myself – my own pure vision. Some may find it plain. It might not suit everybody. What I attempted to portray was life itself. And, up to a point, I succeeded.