If you had to guess L.S. Lowry’s favourite painter, what would you say? Perhaps one of the North East’s Pitman Painters, a self-taught miner who, like Lowry, favoured industrial landscapes and the working man? Someone like that would seem an obvious choice. But what if I were to tell you that Lowry, a modern artist most associated with the North, harboured a special admiration for a 19th century painter of Italian descent prone to works of profound sensuality and Arthurian romance?

It’s hard to imagine that a man so well known for depictions of urban life and unblinking portraits of textile mills and smoking chimneys could love Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the latter of whom was the co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and revelled in impassioned, mystic artworks. Nevertheless, the son of a clerk, Lowry (who went on to become a rent collector) loved Rossetti. Although it’s difficult to be sure, it is thought that at the peak of his personal collection, Lowry owned 17 of Rossetti’s paintings, including the first one he ever bought of a girl holding a flower.

Today, it would be unthinkable for someone living in an unassuming Mottram property to have a slew of Pre-Raphaelite paintings squirrelled away behind the front door. What is perhaps more surprising is that Lowry spent very little on the house, aside from an initial paint job. Claire Stewart, curator of The Lowry Collection, explains.

“Having moved in and painted the walls and so on, he doesn’t seem to have done anything much to the house after that. And yet what he does spend his money on are these works of art. And he didn’t drive so he took taxis, and he bought concert tickets and theatre tickets. So he didn’t spend much money on his surroundings but he spent it on things that he enjoyed.”

A new exhibition at The Lowry in Salford explores the artist’s love of the Pre-Raphaelites. On the surface, it’s an incongruous pairing but, as Stewart tells Northern Soul, Lowry had a lifelong love of Rossetti and his fellow artists. 

“People are often surprised that that’s what he liked and that’s what he bought. Although he liked Victorian art to a degree, he was very specific in his tastes, certainly in terms of what he wanted to buy. So it really did focus down ultimately on Rossetti. Lowry said that he admired Ford Madox Brown enormously and thought that he was probably the greatest artist of them all but he liked Rossetti’s subject matter better, and the majority of what he bought were Rossetti’s female portraits from a bit later in his career, and not his early work which some other people like. So he had something almost like a gallery of these femme fatales looking down on him in his house.”

Maybe Lowry’s liking for the Pre-Raphaelites shouldn’t come as such a surprise? After all, Manchester’s galleries have long housed the works of Rossetti and his fellow artists, in particular Manchester Art Gallery which has one of the finest collections in the country.

“We look at how he fell in love with these pictures,” says Stewart. “There were a lot he could see in and around Manchester, from the Ford Madox Brown murals in the Town Hall to a really big exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work at Manchester Art Gallery in 1911. And then smaller galleries in Greater Manchester that he would have known, as well as a couple of things at what would have been Manchester School of Art at the time he was a student there.”

And then there’s the issue of ‘the muse’. Rossetti was famous for muses, in particular his wife Elizabeth Siddall who also posed for other Pre-Raphaelite artists including John Everett Millais. Anyone familiar with Lowry’s work will be aware of ‘Ann’, someone he painted time after time. To this day, no one is entirely sure who she was, or if she was a composite of a number of women. 

Stewart says: “Rossetti has this idealised view of the model that he represented in his drawings and paintings, and models that he keeps coming back to. And of course Lowry has Ann, the mysterious figure that he keeps coming back to as well. Perhaps even just subconsciously it’s his version of some of Rossetti’s repeated muses.” 

As for the exhibition itself, visitors can expect to see more than 40 works by Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones and others. Work by Rossetti on display will include The Bower Meadow, Joli Coeur, and Portrait of Alexa Wilding – a chalk on paper sketch that Lowry owned and which hung on his bedroom wall.

But just how prolific a collector was Lowry, and when did his acquisition habit begin?

“Well, he doesn’t seem to have started buying their work until after he retires in 1952,” says Stewart. “It seems as though the first picture he buys by Rossetti is the year after in 1953. Lowry bought pictures all his life, by artist friends and also students and very young artists to whom he wanted to show a bit of support. It’s a little bit hard to tell exactly how many he had [by Rossetti]. Once or twice he seems to have swapped one of his own works for a Pre-Raphaelite work, and on one or two occasions he seems to have given one to a friend. But it seems that he had maybe 17 paintings by Rossetti. And then he had one drawing by Ford Madox Brown and a couple of things by Edward Burne-Jones, and a little drawing by Charles Fairfax Murray who was associated with the group.” 

After Lowry died in 1976 aged 88, the Pre-Raphaelite paintings were sold and dispersed to other private collections. As for Lowry’s own works, his Northern Race Meeting recently sold at Christie’s for £4.5 million, the joint-third highest price for a Lowry painting at auction. 

And yet a view persists that Lowry’s popularity and subject matter make him ‘less’ of an artist than his Southern counterparts. Although the Tate has owned various Lowry paintings for some considerable time, the gallery seemed reluctant to show them. That is until 2013 when a major retrospective (the first in London since his death) attracted crowds in their legions.  

So, has the art world’s perception of Lowry shifted?

“I hope so because there’s a lot more to Lowry than industrial scenes. We continue here to look at different aspects of his career and make sure that the broadest range of his work is on display. This exhibition is one way of doing that. It’s an aspect of his career that’s not really been looked at in detail for over 40 years and it brings out another side to Lowry that people are less familiar with.” 

By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul


Lowry & The Pre-Raphaelites is at The Lowry, Salford until February 24, 2019. For more information, click here