‘I often wonder what artists are for nowadays, what with photography and a thousand and one processes by which you can get representation,’ L.S. Lowry muses in Robert Tyrrell’s 1971 documentary. ‘They’re totally unuseful. Can’t see any use in one. Can you?’
I can: as fodder for biopics. Cinemato-graphers have always been inspired by painting, but the appeal of the artist’s biopic lies less in the representation than the lifestyle: mainly the sex. Kirk Douglas’s Vincent van Gogh demonstrates his ‘lust for life’ in the trailer for Vincente Minelli’s 1956 film with what would now be considered a sexual assault on Jeanette Sterke as his cousin Kay; Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo seals his assumed heterosexuality in Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) with a Hollywood kiss with Diane Cilento’s Contessina de’ Medici.
The artist’s biopic is a man’s world, but it ain’t nothing without a woman or a girl. The women pose, put out and put the kettle on. ‘Excellent tea,’ Lindsay Kemp’s Angus Corky compliments Dorothy Tutin’s Sophie Brzeska in Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972). ‘It’s nice to be appreciated,’ comes the tart reply. It’s the same old story with Ed Harris’s Pollock (2000): Harris gets an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for playing Pollock, Marcia Gay Harden wins the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Lee Krasner. Krasner now has a solo show at the Barbican, but the only woman artist so far honoured with a Hollywood biopic is Frida Kahlo. ‘Behind the romance, behind the glamour, behind the madness, lies the mystery of one of the most seductive and intriguing women of ours [sic] or any time!’ booms the trailer for Julie Taymor’s Frida (2002). Never mind the art, Salma Hayek’s heroine beats the men at swigging tequila and wins a snog with Saffron Burrows’s Gracie while dancing the tango. But Geoffrey Rush’s Trotsky knows the way to her heart: ‘I loved your painting,’ he whispers.
For American audiences art has to be mythic, though not for British ones: they like their artists larger than life; we like them smaller. If women are involved, let them be dowdy. No chance of a snog with a starlet for Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner (2014) when the love interest was the artist’s housekeeper and his Margate landlady. In Spall’s latest role in Adrian Noble’s Mrs Lowry and Son, the woman in the artist’s life is his mother, played by the 82-year-old Vanessa Redgrave.
Many artists have been mummy’s boys, but none were so cruelly unappreciated by their mothers. Laurence Stephen Lowry was a disappointment to Elizabeth Lowry from birth, when the discovery that he wasn’t a girl sent her into a fit of sobbing; when he grew into a ‘clumsy boy’ who was useless at school it confirmed her worst fears. Herself a star pupil with aspirations to be a concert pianist, Mrs Lowry had expected more from life and blamed her husband and her son — neither of whom rose above the rank of rent collector — for her mortification. ‘Why is it when I look at you I’ve always wanted to close my eyes?’ is a typically waspish barb in Martyn Hesford’s screenplay. She could never accept the family’s downfall from Manchester’s suburban Victoria Park to industrial Pendlebury. Her response was to take to her bed, from which she ruled the Oedipal roost with a rod of iron after her husband’s death, making her middle-aged son present his hands for inspection on his return from work. They fail the test.
Theatre director Adrian Noble’s claustrophobic, sensitively acted two-hander is more domestic drama than artist’s biopic: he chose the script for its cinematic focus ‘on the hearts and minds of two characters and the intensity of their transaction’. His film avoids the clichés of the artist’s biopic: there are no dissolves from painting to set, although there are some spookily evocative locations coloured with Lowry’s distinctively limited palette. The opening credits roll over the artist’s hand slowly applying a white ground to canvas, but shots of him in action are mercifully few. Painters have a particular look in their eye when they’re working, part-ruminatory, part-predatory, which appears to be impossible for non-painters to replicate. Charles Laughton had it down in Alexander Korda’s 1936 Rembrandt (1936), but I’ve never seen any other actor master it since.
That said, Spall gets the ruminative bit when applying careful touches to a Lowry canvas. According to Noble, the actor is ‘no mean painter’ — at the wrap he presented the director with a postcard featuring 20 dogs in Lowry’s signature calligraphic style. As a teenager Spall considered a career in art before drama got him. He prepared for Mr Turner with two years of painting practice and has kept it up since: 14 of his paintings will be on show at the Lowry, Salford, in an exhibition accompanying the film — ‘a few Lowryesque subjects’, he confides, ‘and some Spallesque’. There are landscapes from Catalonia and New Mexico and copies of Lowry paintings, one — ‘Winter in Pendlebury’ — hanging alongside the master’s original. ‘I have to be careful I don’t get above my station. They’re actually printing them and selling them as postcards. This is a new deal for me; I have to say I’m chuffed.’
He sees parallels between art and acting, both practical professions. Much as he admires artists, he doesn’t buy into the Hollywood myth, stressing that both the painters he has played have been the opposite of heroic. Yet for this actor raised on a council estate in the ‘Battersea Stink’ given off by the factories around Clapham Junction, there is an element of the working-class hero in both Turner and Lowry. He admits to finding ‘a quiet and deep heroism’ in Lowry’s ‘compulsion to get it down’ amidst the tension and abuse.
I wonder whether Lowry was more of a slave to his mother or the easel. Spall sees him as ‘a willing slave’ to his mother ‘because she was the only intimate relationship he had’. He certainly portrays him with the patience of a saint, dancing attendance in the hope of a word of encouragement that never comes. ‘Have you never liked any of my paintings, mother?’ ‘No.’ Did he stay with this termagant in a bed jacket because the relationship was settled and didn’t make demands on him that distracted from his work? And could it have been a coincidence that he chose to paint the very scenes of industrial squalor that so offended her sensibilities? Lowry had a famously mischievous streak. I suspect he got a secret satisfaction from painting away into the early hours in the attic over his disapproving mother’s sleeping head.
In interviews Lowry comes across as more hard-edged. What I missed in Spall’s interpretation was the streak of ruthless self-sufficiency bordering on selfishness — call it isolation, call it cussedness — that is the mark of every serious artist. But as Noble points out, this isn’t a documentary. Lowry would have understood. In a 1957 BBC interview, he explains why he doesn’t bother with perspective: ‘It’s a picture, it’s all make-believe; after all, it’s not reality. The whole thing is, can you get away with what you want to say?’
Mrs Lowry and Son is in cinemas now.