Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Potteries

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.

The Two Roberts on film, Arthur Berry on show

stillYes! At last! The 1959 Monitor Ken Russell short film, “Scottish Painters”, is available, complete and online – here, two thirds of the way down the BBC’s page marking the boys’ Edinburgh National Gallery retrospective, just finished. Sadly, you didn’t read it first here; in fact, the film’s been up since the start of February, and, to my shame, I hadn’t even noticed, so many thanks to Jack Doyle for the nudge.

Here’s a direct link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02j4ps1/player

I have a definite but indistinct memory of watching this in 1959 – the MacBryde sequence, with the Satie soundtrack, in particular. I would have been ten years old. Half a century on, it’s extraordinary to see the Roberts breathing and moving, to hear MacBryde’s remarkably gentle and meditative voice, and to see a familiar canvas or two in mid-progress. The cart in the opening and closing sequences seems a bit of a Russell contrivance, but what the hell – this is an absolute gem.

(Much more here regarding The Roberts on the “Colquhoun & MacBryde” pages tabbed up above.)

berry bookOn a parallel theme, news arrives from Barewall Gallery in Burslem of a significant show of Arthur Berry and L S Lowry starting in late July at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley and running till next January. (Nothing up yet about this on the PM & AG’s own site.) This will be the first major showing of Arthur Berry since a retrospective of 1984. I know that Berry rated the paintings of the Matchstick Man, but personally I could happily lose the Lowry here; Berry was the far greater talent. Though if it takes the Lowry populist peg to hang this on, to remind Potteries folk of Berry’s remarkable legacy, so be it.

That legacy includes his writings, most valuably his plays. I recall with great pleasure Dr Fergo’s Last Passion at the Victoria Theatre in 1979. When the Doctor’s gormless assistant Klondyke launched into a tearful song about his lost tortoise – “Me toytoy’s gone an’ ‘e wunna cum wom …” – my wife and sister-in-law, Stokies both, became quite literally helpless with laughter, for a considerable period.

(Use the “Arthur Berry” tag – tag cloud on the right here – for more Berry-related posts.)

Following the Roberts

John Shelton, 'Cat on a Table' 1960

The influence of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde on a number of young painters at their heels could maybe do with some flagging up. So added to my Two Roberts page is a note on the highly interesting Potteries painter John Shelton, information entirely courtesy of the valuable and much appreciated finbofinbo blog. Click here or use the tab above, and scroll to the bottom of the page.

Other Roberts-followers to follow, hopefully.