L. S. Lowry was famously sceptical about official honours, turning down, among others, an OBE in 1955, a CBE in 1961 and a Knighthood in the 1968 New Year’s Honours list. They had been offered by both Labour and Conservative Prime Ministers. In contrast, Lowry was proud of the honorary degrees he received from the Universities of Salford and Liverpool, and of his membership of various artist societies, in particular, the Royal Academy.
Lowry was elected an Associate Member of the RA in 1955, insisting that he had never actively sought membership. He claimed fellow artist Bernard Fleetwood-Walker had taken it upon himself to select pictures for submission and sent them in on his behalf. ‘The Royal Academy suggested I join them. I was a bit surprised. I’d hardly ever sent anything up to their Summer Exhibitions’.
In 1962, and at the upper age limit for election, Lowry became a full Royal Academician. This time he confessed to friends, ‘I oughtn’t to have been pleased to get in but I was’, acknowledging that he had been elected out of turn. At the meeting to elect one new Academician and two Associates the President reminded those attending that Lowry was due to reach the age of 75, ‘Mr Aldridge, Mr Burn and Mr Weight each rose and speaking for themselves and other Associates on the list before Mr Lowry expressed the wish not to be elected an Academician.’
Despite his pleasure at being elected Lowry was never a sociable Member: ‘I only come up for [the annual elections], not for the banquet. I can’t stand dressing up; oh! No, never again! ... But I do think it’s important to use your vote... a member’s vote is important because it has a bearing on the future.’
As his Diploma picture, Lowry chose to give the Academy Station Approach, 1962, showing Exchange Station in Manchester city centre. Built in 1884, closed in 1969 and subsequently demolished, the station had featured in an earlier canvas by Lowry 1960. Now in a private collection, this version was a larger, more highly finished depiction of the scene than the Academy’s but both depict the frenetic movement of pedestrians and cars around the station in Manchester’s city centre. The crowded street is seen from a high viewpoint and (as with most of Lowry’s paintings) he did not represent the station and the surrounding area with absolute accuracy, taking liberties with the station façade and the statue of Oliver Cromwell in the foreground.
In 1975 the Academy began planning a major retrospective of Lowry’s work to be shown the following year. On 18th December the Loans Exhibitions Secretary, Nicholas Usherwood, wrote to Lowry making an early request to include the portraits of his mother and father which hung in the artist’s living room. Now in The Lowry Collection, these two paintings were bequeathed by the artist to Salford Museum and Art Gallery on condition they remain in his home until after his death.
Lowry, by then 88, may have been apprehensive at the amount of work the exhibition would involve as Mr Usherwood reassured him twice in the letter ‘not to worry’. Fellow Academician and friend Carel Weight
The exhibition 'L. S. Lowry – Salford’s Royal Academician' (which opened on 8th December 2018, as close as we could manage to the date the Academy was founded – 10th December) continues until 3rd March 2019. It includes all six paintings by Lowry now in the Royal Academy’s collection, including Station Approach. From seascapes to a striking version in cool blues and greys of the enigmatic Ann (who also features in The Lowry Collection) this small group of works nonetheless covers a broad range of subject matter and includes a classic small figure group bequeathed by Carel Weight in 1999. Alongside archival material from The Lowry Collection and on loan from the Royal Academy, they mark the Academy’s 250th anniversary by celebrating Lowry’s relationship with an institution he was proud to be a part of.
Claire Stewart, Curator of The Lowry Collection at The Lowry in Salford