My Favourite Painting: Norman Foster

The great architect Norman Foster — aka Lord Foster of Thames Bank — chooses a Lowry given to him as a present by his wife.

Norman Foster on ‘A Lancashire Village’ by L.S. Lowry

‘I first fell under the spell of Lowry’s paintings as a teenager, when I had to prepare a portfolio for entry to university to study architecture. I remember doing a work in gouache in his style – in retrospect, it was highly derivative. I have since realised that, uniquely, he summed up the gritty urbanity of the industrial North with its factories, back-to-back housing and conspicuous absence of Nature. But these are not the “dark satanic mills” of the new industrial cities invoked by Blake in the words to Jerusalem. On the contrary, there is a dour humour in his stick-like figures, reminiscent of Alberto Giacometti. This painting hangs in our bedroom and is a treasured birthday present from my wife, as a constant reminder of our love and my personal roots in industrial Manchester.’

Lord Foster of Thames Bank is a multi-award winning architect.

Charlotte Mullins comments on ‘A Lancashire Village’

Works by L. S. Lowry are instantly recognisable: grey skies, industrial landscape, anonymous figures, all painted in a flat faux-naïf style. He honed his skills over two decades of night classes, paying for lessons by working as a rent collector in Manchester. This painting dates from 1920, when he was still studying, but it bears all the hallmarks of his mature style. Lowry began by sketching scenes such as this outdoors, but, from 1910, he only painted indoors, in his workroom (his studio) at home. He possessed a strong work ethic, maintaining his job as a rent collector for 42 years and painting throughout.

His name has become synonymous with 20th-century industrial Lancashire. Here, he uses horizontals to divide the painting into different grey bands. There’s a biting wind blowing through the cloudy sky, catching the smoke from the chimneys and sending it sharply to the right. The factories dominate the skyline; a row of terraced houses is ranged in front. Tonally, there is no change between the street in the foreground and the land beyond, no grass or trees, nothing to raise the spirits.

The year after A Lancashire Village was completed, he took part in a small group exhibition in Manchester, and his former tutor, Bernard Taylor, art critic for The Guardian, wrote that Lowry ‘may make a real contribution to art’. Success was slow coming — he didn’t sell a painting for many years — but, after his first solo show in London in 1939, he became increasingly famous and sought after.

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