The sun rarely shines in a painting by the Northern Master. It is difficult to know whether this is a consequence of the Lancashire climate, or of the pall of smoke and soot cast by the mill chimneys which frequently dominate his skylines. Their thin black lines punctuate the picture plane, phallic and aloof, and serve to further reduce his scurrying figures to little automatons. Each chimney is isolated and alone, a metaphor for the people at its feet.
Northerners have often sentimentalised Lowry's work, proud to have him as one of their own. It's a good thing to find someone who makes art out of the stuff of your own life - or at least fifty years on, from your grandparent's life. So you can say, I recognise that, those mean streets, that crowd at the factory gate, those grey skies, it was (or must have been) just like that. And thus saying, you identify with a community and a shared past that suddenly seems important and true.
But Lowry was not quite the northern archetype. He spent his working life on those streets he depicts, as that hardly popular figure, the Rent Collector. It allowed him to take some distance, to observe the people and scenes he was to paint, while never quite being of them. Spend a little time with the pictures and you find not warm-hearted togetherness but a frightening loneliness. The populace is a distant Other, separate from the artist and from themselves. Even placed in groups, his figures are busy in their own little worlds. They hurry along, bent and unseeing, as isolated as the chimneys above their heads.
Less well known than the mill scenes are Lowry's seascapes. He painted these mostly in holidays on the Yorkshire coast, and returned to this theme repeatedly over many years, refining the works to the point of emptiness, where a grey sky merges with a grey-green sea at some misty horizon. Some artists in old age move towards intensity of colour, Titian or Monet, grasping at colour before it finally vanishes for them at death. But in Lowry's age, the loneliness of his townscapes becomes the resigned emptiness of the seascapes. They have the sad equanimity of oblivion.
It is the sign of great art that you take some of it out into the world with you. We came out of the Lowry Gallery into the bright sunshine of its little piazza by the river. While we stood there, figures hurried across its space, each intent on something; but only they knew what.