Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: October 2015

True and untrue grit: Arthur Berry vs L S Lowry

berry bookAnd so, at last, to Stoke-on-Trent and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley, to see Lowry and Berry: Observers of Human Life, which runs till next January. A telling shame, as I’ve said before, that the show needs L S Lowry as bait in order to remind Potteries people of Arthur Berry’s importance, but hey ho …

Though the divided room is sixty-forty in Berry’s favour, the Lowry wall space would have been better used in doing fuller justice to Berry. For if this pairing proves anything, it is that Berry’s work knocks Lowry’s into a bent matchstalk. (All images here are by Berry.)


The upsweeping pastel marks of Berry’s violent left hand – his useless right arm was injured in childhood  – build layers of densely vibrating texture. His images breathe living dust, while Lowry’s are limp constructions of washed-out cardboard rectangles, flat and dead, reliant on blocky outlines for their existence. Lowry’s facades give off a flatness of spirit; they don’t emote, and his buildings surely have no insides. Berry’s gothic, grubby terraces fizz and throb with dark, interior energy.


There’s no doubt that Berry’s first sight of Lowry’s work was a revelation to him, in that it showed him what he might accomplish in and with his own particular back yard, without any wider search for subjects. But beyond that Berry owes Lowry nothing, except perhaps the use of whiteness as a dark ambience. While Berry’s own recorded comments on Lowry’s work are enormously generous, it seems to me that much of this was Berry’s projection of his own vision onto the work of the older but lesser painter.

I can see no evidence, for instance, that Lowry’s facile and wonky caricatures betray a deep familiarity with life, death and the human condition, as Berry claimed, but that’s exactly what Berry himself narrates. Berry noted, seemingly with approval, that Lowry’s townscapes are theatrically staged, kept “professionally” at a safe middle distance. In fact, Lowry remained a voyeur, a Peeping Laurence, but with Berry things got up close and personal.

In Berry’s intensely local images I can detect a broad and knowing inheritance: Daumier, Rouault, Sickert, Dubuffet, Soutine, Matthew Smith, even Kossoff, Auerbach, and many more. In Lowry’s work I can see … Well, not a lot, actually.

But matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs and tumty tumty something something clogs weren’t all that LS painted, it seems. As a footnote, the show’s Lowry selection also contains three of his “mannequins” – rather unpleasantly fetishistic private drawings of suffering young girls dolled out in choking corsets and massive bows. (It’s significant that in the last few years the release of these previously embarrassing images has been deemed necessary just to keep Lowry interesting.)

Image294Should this surprise us? As a whole, Lowry’s human beings are always mere dolls, inert toys, miniaturised simulacra, emptied out on the carpet to be manipulated. In contrast, Berry’s take on suffering, the suffering of women included, is, though darkly affectionate, always empathetic, altruistic, wisely observed and thoroughly humanitarian.