Lowry is famous for painting scenes of life in the industrial districts of North West England in the mid-20th century. He developed a distinctive style of painting and is best known for his urban landscapes peopled with human figures often referred to as "matchstick men". He painted mysterious unpopulated landscapes, brooding portraits and the unpublished "marionette" works, which were only found after his death.
Due to his use of stylized figures and the lack of weather effects in many of his landscapes he is sometimes characterized as a naïve "Sunday painter", although this is not the view of the galleries that have organised retrospectives of his works.
A large collection of Lowry's work is on permanent public display in The Lowry, a purpose-built art gallery on Salford Quays, named in his honour. Lowry rejected five honours during his life, including a knighthood in 1968, and consequently holds the record for the most rejected British honours. On 26 June 2013 a major retrospective opened at the Tate Britain in London, his first at the Tate, and in 2014 his first solo exhibition outside the UK was held in Nanjing, China.
Lowry was born on 1 November 1887 at 8 Barrett Street, Stretford, which was then in Lancashire. It was a difficult birth, and his mother Elizabeth, who hoped for a girl, was uncomfortable even looking at him at first. Later she expressed envy of her sister Mary, who had "three splendid daughters" instead of one "clumsy boy". Lowry's father Robert, who was of northern Irish descent, worked as a clerk for the Jacob Earnshaw and Son Property Company and was a withdrawn and introverted man. Lowry once described him as "a cold fish" and "(the sort of man who) realised he had a life to live and did his best to get through it."
After Lowry's birth, his mother's health was too poor for her to continue teaching. She is reported to have been talented and respected, with aspirations of becoming a concert pianist. She was an irritable, nervous woman brought up to expect high standards by her stern father. Like him, she was controlling and intolerant of failure. She used illness as a means of securing the attention and obedience of her mild and affectionate husband and she dominated her son in the same way. Lowry maintained, in interviews conducted later in his life, that he had an unhappy childhood, growing up in a repressive family atmosphere. Although his mother demonstrated no appreciation of her son's gifts as an artist, a number of books Lowry received as Christmas presents from his parents are inscribed to "Our dearest Laurie". At school he made few friends and showed no academic aptitude. His father was affectionate towards him but was, by all accounts, a quiet man who was at his most comfortable fading into the background as an unobtrusive presence.
Much of Lowry's early years were spent in the leafy Manchester suburb of Victoria Park, Rusholme, but in 1909, when he was 22, due to financial pressures, the family moved to 117 Station Road in the industrial town of Pendlebury. Here the landscape comprised textile mills and factory chimneys rather than trees. Lowry later recalled: "At first I detested it, and then, after years I got pretty interested in it, then obsessed by it ... One day I missed a train from Pendlebury – I had ignored for seven years – and as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill ... The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out ... I watched this scene — which I'd looked at many times without seeing — with rapture ..."
After leaving school, Lowry began a career working for the Pall Mall Company, later collecting rents. He would spend some time in his lunch hour at Buile Hill Park and in the evenings took private art lessons in antique and freehand drawing. In 1905, he secured a place at the Manchester School of Art, where he studied under the French Impressionist, Pierre Adolphe Valette. Lowry was full of praise for Valette as a teacher, remarking "I cannot over-estimate the effect on me of the coming into this drab city of Adolphe Valette, full of French impressionists, aware of everything that was going on in Paris". In 1915 he moved on to the Royal Technical Institute, Salford (later to become the Royal Technical College, Salford now the University of Salford) where his studies continued until 1925. There he developed an interest in industrial landscapes and began to establish his own style.