Their father drew pictures for them

Fifth child of a railway clerk in Stockport, Cheshire, Alan Lowndes had a childhood that was not, as it turned out, just incidental to his career and vision as a painter. When asked his motives for becoming a painter, he said he found it hard to answer ''without being mostly autobiographical.''

He decided ''very privately'' at the age of 8 or 9 that he wanted to be an artist. His father had drawn to amuse the ''toddlers.'' His greater interest was in music, in piano playing and military brass band music. But he encouraged his children when they wanted to draw. Lowndes remembered whiling away the time cheerfully drawing on fish-and-chip wrapping papers at the chip shop.

Later the ''whole thing of painting thrilled (his) teen-age life'' - although his main experience of brush and pigment at that time was as an apprentice house-painter. He was released from this, however, by World War II, the last years of which he spent as a draftsman in a mapmaking unit in Italy - and there he saw the paintings of Giotto, whose apparent simplicity of expression and whose punch must have greatly appealed. Fra Angelico's frescoes also impressed him. He described his fascination with these Italian masters in characteristically down-to-earth (though slightly dazed) terms: ''Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Michelangelo, hit me like a brick.''

Such a fresh and uncomplicated response to old and hallowed art is much more likely to stimulate exciting new art than an attitude of too much awe and respect. Lowndes found in it - and in his own feeling for paint and painting - an unhesitant form of communication and an apt means of repicturing the environment of his childhood. (He lived from 1921 to 1978.) His pictures were more often than not of Stockport - its back alleys, its chip shops, its street corners, its dustbins. The grimness and grime, the poor living conditions of the working class in England's industrial midlands and north, are the subject of these paintings. But it is a setting seen through the eyes of affection and memory and in terms of its inhabitants. The day-to-day existence of people under the towering chimneys, beneath the viaduct, amid the warehouses and mills, is seen as spirited, vital, typical, sturdy, common, wistful, comic, but not often as desperate. There is a sense of community, of habit, and culture, which transforms ''slum'' into ''home.''

The matter-of-fact character of Lowndes's ''style'' suits his subject matter well. When he paints the rendered end-wall of a house, one feels he does so with a felt knowledge and enjoyment of troweling cement onto a brick surface. He had looked at the early Italian frescoes with the experience of an artisan who knew about plaster and plasterers. His ''rough-and-ready'' approach to painting extends consistently, and tightly, over the entire picture. In ''Boy with Pony, '' for example, it becomes the substance of road, sky, dirty wasteland grass, animal, and boy. But this roughness is not the whole story.

''Boy with Pony'' hints much more than it says. As with any Lowndes painting, the contact between stolid surroundings and human actions encourages the observer to concoct a drama, develop a narrative, or at least to ask intrigued questions. Who is this boy? Is it the artist? Does the pony belong to the boy? Or is it a freshly struck, memorable encounter? What aspirations or imaginings are stirred in him by the creature's presence in his urban world? Is it a working pony either retired or off duty? Are visions of the Wild West (fostered by Hollywood's contributions to local entertainment) involved in this small relationship - just by the viaduct - of equine and lad, and does the swift road invite a sudden and unchecked gallop into the sunset beyond the arches?

Lowndes's ''roughness'' acts as an effective balance to such gentle or even sentimental and nostalgic fantasies. It is the bluff exterior to an essentially soft heart, the armor of his feelings. At the same time it is what makes his pictures more than just memoirs in paint. They have the aliveness of the ''primitive'' in art: They state what they need to state, without fuss, straightforwardly. They are Giotto come to Cheshire. They are, as bold, vigorous painting, not dreams of the past at all but forcefully in the present - the gesture of the moment.

An older painter of Lancashire industrial scenes, L. S. Lowry, once told Lowndes: ''Do it as good as you can, then leave it.'' Excellent advice to any artist. It meant enough to Lowndes for him to quote it in the notes he once wrote about his art: a touch of aesthetics there, in among the autobiography.

QR Code to Their father drew pictures for them
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today