Lowry, Leggat, Lancashire and me

We knew him as ‘the Lowry man.’ And on a bleak, bitter February morning 37 years ago, when Laurence Stephen Lowry was laid to rest in the massive Southern cemetery that fringes Manchester, there he was, first amongst equals, marching behind the coffin, head-bowed: a thick, black woollen coat fastened at the waist, black trilby, black-rimmed glasses and black leather gloves better to keep out the cold, if not the grief.

Alick Leggat, the man behind the coffin, had two passions in life: cricket and art. The former he assuaged by being a generous benefactor to Kendal Cricket Club in the Lake District and by a lifelong association with Lancashire County Cricket Club as Honorary Treasurer for many years- which is how I came to know him. The passion for art was managed by a long and close friendship with Lowry and a collection of the painter’s work which became amongst the finest in private hands anywhere.

During the summer, a handful of Leggat’s pieces will make the journey south from The Lowry Museum in Salford, where much of his collection is housed, to the Tate Britain in advance of the Tate’s first Lowry retrospective since the artist’s death. Amongst them, ‘Returning from Work’ (1929) and ‘Industrial Scene with Monument’ (1972), are classic urban scenes for which Lowry is most famous. The impressionistic ‘Beach Scene at Lytham’ (1963) represents other strands of his work, such as the grotesque figures and the haunting and desolate seascapes and landscapes, which may surprise those who only know Lowry for his so-called ‘matchstick men’.

The Tate’s reluctance to recognise Lowry with a full retrospective, indeed the reluctance of the Tate to show the Lowrys in their possession (23 of them) has been, for many of us, wilfully neglectful although it is entirely in character with the Tate’s curious relationship with Lowry’s work. When it, for example, first bought one of Lowry’s paintings- ‘Coming out of School’ in 1927- it took 22 years before it was actually shown to the public. It is as if Lowry’s provincialism- and more recently his popularity- counted against him. The public are likely to make their feelings known, however, by turning up in droves as they did to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1976 shortly after Lowry’s death.

In Shelley Rohde’s magisterial biography of Lowry, Leggat is described as a Lancastrian with a ‘distinctive attitude towards money and the making of it.’ Those who grow up with little tend to be like that- especially in the North- and although Leggat was not born into poverty, by the time he was ready for university, fortunes had not been kind to his family. This sharp, irascible man was forced to turn his talents to survival rather than idle intellectual pursuit, selling carpets in Belgium and glass in Czechoslovakia, before joining the Widnes Soap Company and then going into business himself.

He would, say those who knew him best, have made a damn good lawyer, since he was naturally intelligent, a good communicator and his conversation tended towards the combative. Instead, he bypassed university and set up a business called Textino, making chemicals from a factory in Viaduct Street, Ardwick, an inner city area of Manchester that was, by the time of my youth, notably deprived but which was a thriving industrial heartland when Leggat was starting out in business. ‘If you can’t make money selling stuff to get clean in Manchester,’ he would say, ‘then you’ll never make money.’

It was this urban, smog-ridden, coal-splattered, poverty-stricken landscape that Leggat worked and Lowry made his own, recording a slice of British life, post industrial revolution, that no longer exists. It was bleak to those who lived and worked in it, although Lowry, who did both, living as he did in Pendlebury on the outskirts of Salford, for a long time, and working unknown as a rent collector in the streets of Salford and Hulme for all his working life, saw a certain majesty where others could not . Later, after Leggat had got to know Lowry, he commissioned the artist to paint the factory in Viaduct Street, and it, and another oil of just the entrance and side street next door, are still in the family collection. The latter was a favourite of Leggat’s.

Leggat, then, was self-made; never hugely wealthy but with enough spare cash to fund the occasional piece of art, not that Lowry’s work was particularly expensive when the two first came into contact. Leggat’s first purchase of a Lowry for a haggled-over £88 from the art dealer Andras Kalman, was a small scene of Peel Park Salford painted in 1912, and it occasioned a visit to the artist both to check its authenticity and to meet the man who painted it, as Leggat liked to do with all the artists he collected. Many of the paintings Leggat purchased directly from the artist contain handwritten notes on the back of the frames, sometimes from Leggat, sometimes from Lowry, explaining the provenance and price of the work. On the back of his first purchase Leggat wrote: ‘ The first Lowry I bought. I took it to LSL for authentication in Mottram,’ to which Lowry later added: ‘ I might have thought I was an impressionist! It was the beginning of a lengthy friendship.’

So they met, sometime around 1949-1950, just before Lowry was about to retire from rent collecting work, and there began a relationship that lasted the rest of their lives.

It was an artist-client relationship at first, but soon became much more than that. Until Lowry’s death, and save a short period for six months just before Lowry died when Leggat moved to the Isle of Man, the two men met every Thursday afternoon for lunch or tea, often at the George Hotel in Huddersfield (Lowry had his paintings and drawings framed in Huddersfield), to talk and while away the time. The cost of lunch was shared, one week one paying, the next the other, which, given Lowry’s reputation as a man even more careful with his money than Leggat, is a clear a signal as anything as to the closeness of the friendship.

Lowry has a reputation as a reclusive and lonely man which is manifestly false. He was certainly solitary- which is not the same thing as reclusive or lonely- living alone, after his mother died in 1939, in a creaky old house in Mottram-in-Longendale, and was obsessed with his work. But he had many friends, male and female, travelled widely (although never abroad) and was convivial company, although he compartmentalised his friends rigidly so that they were often unaware of each other’s existence.

Lowry often used Leggat as his driver, since he never owned a car (or a television, or a telephone, except towards the end of his life when he had one installed to make outgoing calls only.) Occasionally, he would use the mobility Leggat offered to check out the address of a cold caller who had come asking for a painting and who claimed to be impoverished. The journey in Leggat’s car to some swanky villa often revealed the lie. Mainly, though, he simply enjoyed tootling around with Leggat, through the Yorkshire Dales, sometimes as far as the Lake District or the North East. ‘Spittal Sands Berwick’ (1960) is a fabulous oil painting in the Leggat collection of Lowry’s time admiring the eerie North East coastline.

Both were noticeably formal in their speech- at Old Trafford, we always addressed Leggat as Mr. Leggat- and even after two decades of friendship, they referred to each other as Mr. Lowry and Mr. Leggat. ‘Well, what do you think of the price your little drawing fetched last week down in London Mr. Lowry?’, I can imagine Leggat saying, with his characteristic cackling laugh. ‘Quite remarkable, Mr. Leggat- for a Sunday painter,’ chuckling both at the knowledge that things had worked out alright in the end.

Given Lowry’s popularity now- if not his universal acclaim by the art world grandees such as Brian Sewell, who referred recently to the artist as a ‘cloth-capped nincompoop’- and the astronomical prices his works fetch, it would be easy to think that a relatively well-off businessman and a down at heel artist looking to sell his work, would be a natural fit. But that would be to ignore the realities of the situation in post-war Manchester: when Kalman set up his art gallery in an air-raid shelter in King St. in 1949, Manchester was a cultural backwater (there was only one other commercial gallery that opened daily for two hours in the afternoon) and Lowry, despite being first exhibited in 1919, was still a prophet without honour in his home town.  Leggat may have had a businessman’s eye for the main chance, but there was little sign that buying Lowry would be a good investment.

Indeed, on the opening night of the Crane Kalman gallery, no-one came. Kalman, a Hungarian Jew who had lost his family in the Holocaust, struggled to convince those Mancunians who did like art of his own enthusiasm for Lowry. Living and working in the kind of industrial landscapes that Lowry painted, they were keen, understandably perhaps, for some escapist pictures to look at on their walls. Kalman, who was also a good enough player to have played tennis at Wimbledon, kept in pocket by coaching tennis at weekends, until he gave up the ghost and moved his gallery to London in 1957 where it remains, a cultural oasis on the Brompton Rd. in Knightsbridge. He continued to be a Lowry devotee and staunch promoter all his life, though, and was another following the coffin with Leggat in the Southern cemetery in 1976.

Whatever it was, something drew Leggat to Lowry’s painting in defiance of the views of the majority. Possibly, it was what has continued to draw people to his work since- especially those of us for whom Lowry’s acute sense of place resonates. For myself, Lowry regularly tramped, sketched and drew the streets off Oldham Rd, a mile or so north-east of Manchester city centre, where my grandfather had a butcher’s shop for thirty-odd years after the war. And he painted two magnificent oils, one called ‘Good Friday, Daisy Nook’ (1946) (sold in 2007 for £3.8m, a Lowry record) and another called ‘Crime Lake’ (1942) which were both on my running route as a teenager and are less than a mile from my parents’ house in Woodhouses.

With this sense of place came a keen recognition and appreciation of Lancastrian character. You can see it in Lowry’s crowd scenes, the way the figures are bent into the wind on the way to a football match, for example, uncomplaining and unyielding: people just ‘getting on’ and ‘making do’, with a kind of fatalism but also mischievous and self-deprecating sense of humour that Lowry was known to possess. There is a deep compassion and understanding of these ordinary, often squalid lives, best depicted perhaps in the wonderful painting ‘The Removal’ (1928) which shows an eviction of an out-of-luck family from a terraced house .

Lowry knew these Lancastrian characteristics because that is how he was: heroically looking after his bed-ridden mother for seven long years until it nearly drove him mad (his extraordinary painting ‘The Man with Red Eyes’ (also known as ‘The Head of a Man’) gives a clear indication of Lowry’s mood in 1938, a year before his mother died), and working at the same company uncomplainingly all his adult life. My favourite Lowry anecdote, which sums up the Lancastrian in him, is that when his final moment as a working man came, after 42 years with the same company, he simply got up and said: ‘I shan’t be in tomorrow.’ And that was that. No fuss, no nothing.

The small carriage clock on display in the Lowry museum, a present from the Pall Mall Property Co., shows they did not make that much of a fuss over his 42 years of toil, either.

So maybe Leggat identified with Lowry as a fellow Lancastrian, and a fellow eccentric, as well as admiring the pictures that reflected, with candour and compassion, this particular time and place. Robin Light, who has worked at the Crane Kalman gallery for over 25 years, remembers Leggat’s visits well and recalls him as a ‘shrewd and proper old school collector- not a speculator. He liked pictures for what they were.’ (Kalman’s hand-written Lowry logbook, by the way, is a fascinating record of those who did buy Lowry including Rod Steiger, Alec Guiness, Brian Epstein, John Thaw and Dickie Attenborough and many others from the world of stage and screen).

Leggat bought the majority of his paintings directly from Lowry, but he continued to be a friend of Kalman’s for the rest of his life- although when his secretary told him one day that the coalman had come about the lorry, it took a long time to realise she meant it was Kalman who had come about the Lowry.

In 1964 Leggat sold a Lowry for £350 (it was called ‘The Tree’ and was a favourite of his daughter) in order to commission another. This time the topic was close to his heart, and he asked his friend to paint a cricket scene. The result, worked on for the next five years, was in the family until 2004 when it was sold for £677,250. Eventually, Lowry described it as one of his more successful crowd scenes, but this was only after the painting was cut in two. Leggat advised Lowry on the cricket side of the painting- as he had for another entitled ‘A Cricket Match’ (1952), which ended up in hand of the Getty Estate and sold in 2008 for £769,250- but the crowd scene was unsatisfactory since the figures were all looking away from the game. In agreement, Lowry and Leggat felt the painting should be cut in two, although they were sold as one: ‘Lancashire League Cricket Match: Crowd Around a Cricket Sight Board.’

Leggat continued to collect, probably having gathered at the time of Lowry’s death the third or fourth largest collection in private hands. He was in the company of other eccentric collectors, all of whom seemed to collect Lowry to the exclusion of almost anything else, such as Rev. Geoffrey Bennett, an early friend and neighbour of Lowry, Alec Laing (an early owner of ‘Daisy Nook’) and Monty Bloom, the most obsessive of all, especially of the grotesque figures Lowry turned to when he had had his fill of painting industrial scenes.

Claire Stewart is the curator of the Lowry Museum in Salford and she was good enough to open up the vaults for me where the Leggats that are not on permanent display are kept. There is no great theme that points to any particular taste on Leggat’s behalf, as the works stretch from early Lowry, such as the portrait of ‘Mr Brookes, Heywood’ painted in 1910, and an earlier drawing of a ‘Lady in a Bonnet’, done in 1906, to the aforementioned ‘Industrial Scene with Monument’, 1972, when Lowry had virtually stopped painting the industrial landscapes for which he was most famous.

The portrait of Mr Brookes, Victorian and straight, reveals Lowry’s mastery of technique and the influence of his teacher in Manchester, Adolphe Valette. ‘Industrial Landscape Wigan’ (1925) predates his predominant use of flake white and is much darker in colour and Dickensian in mood, but it is clear from this point onwards that Lowry has set out on his own path. ‘Seascape’ (1947) is haunting and, to my mind, magnificent and there a wonderful oil of a ‘Ship entering Princess Dock, Glasgow’ (1947). The only common theme, perhaps the only theme of Lowry’s work, is that of a man attempting to come to to terms with the world and his place in it. Why else, having painted a turbulent sea buffeting a giant black monument, would he entitle it ‘Self Portrait.’?

According to one of Lowry’s critical admirers, Michael Howard, there is one little known work- ‘On the Promenade, Sunderland’ (1964)- in which Leggat is actually featured, looking out, back to the viewer, onto the kind of aching and lonely sea-scape that had so bewitched Lowry since his childhood holidays in Lytham St. Annes. ‘It’s desolate isn’t it Mr. Lowry?’ the old collector might have said to the artist during one of their forays in Leggat’s car to the North-East coast. ‘Aye, Mr. Leggat, it is. That’s just how I like it. Just how I like it.’