‘I put his matchstick men in the bin’: Lowry’s lost sketches go on display for first time

<span>LS Lowry, On the Sands, Berwick (1959).</span><span>Photograph: The Estate of LS Lowry, DACS 2024</span>
LS Lowry, On the Sands, Berwick (1959).Photograph: The Estate of LS Lowry, DACS 2024

A 1958 drawing of a family with their dogs by LS Lowry from one of his many holidays in Berwick-upon-Tweed is to go on public display for the first time. But the sketch is lucky to have survived: it was kept in a shoe box for 43 years, emerging somewhat creased because its recipient had little idea of Lowry’s significance.

The signed and dated drawing on headed notepaper from the Castle Hotel, where the artist stayed for most summers from the 1930s until the 1970s, was given to hotel receptionist, Anne Mather. “I didn’t think much about it, and only after he died did I remember it,” Mather told the Berwick Advertiser in 2001 when she put the sketch up for auction. “He was quiet and reclusive, but I can still visualise him in the lounge. He would sit and doodle, with his glasses at the end of his nose.”

Now framed and owned by a private collector, it will – along with other Lowry works from his four decades of holidaying on the Northumberland coast – be seen in an exhibition, Lowry and the Sea, at the town’s Granary Gallery from 25 May.

At least Mather kept her one Lowry drawing. Another hotel colleague, Marjorie Ellison, was given several sketches by her guest. “But I used to put his drawings, including a portrait he did of me, into the bin,” Ellison told Edwin Bowes, whose 1998 pamphlet about Lowry and Berwick is also in the archive. “If the weather was inclement or too wet to go out, he read in the lounge and spent some time with his drawing pad. At the time, I never thought of him as an artist or famous. To this day, I don’t know why I was so stupid?.”

Linda Bankier, Berwick’s current archivist, used to work in the town’s tourism department with Ellison who, like Mather, died quite recently. “I recall Marjorie telling me how extremely annoyed she was with herself for getting rid of her Lowry sketches. And yet nobody in the town, at least earlier on, had the slightest idea who he was. He was so quiet, and kept himself to himself.”

Lowry first came to Berwick in summer 1935 while still working as a rent collector for a property company – a job he held until retiring in 1952. “He seems to have come on his own by train, and always stayed at the Castle Hotel as it was very close to the station,” says James Lowther, head of visual arts at Berwick’s Maltings Trust, which manages the Granary.

As well as the Castle notepaper drawing, several other works from Berwick will be seen publicly for the first time in the exhibition. They include On The Sands, which depicts a shelter near the beach where Lowry would regularly sit, watch and dream up ideas for paintings and drawings. Other highlights include Old House, Berwick and Spittal Sands, which are from private collections, and Five Ships, a painting he gave to the Royal Academy when elected a Royal Academician in 1962.

But perhaps the most bizarre work is Self Portrait as a Pillar in the Sea, which he painted in 1966. “It is Lowry himself as a pillar in the sea, presumably to show him isolated on the one hand, but also being a strong and upright person,” says Lowther. The work, very rarely on display, is being loaned from the Lowry arts centre in Salford.

Lowry even seriously considered purchasing a home in Berwick, which is just south of the Scottish border. “And not just any house – but Lions, a very grand house, though in some disrepair when he was planning to buy it in the late 1940s,” says Lowther. However, the archives reveal that it had “rampant damp” and so, even though Lowry had hired an architect to renovate the Georgian house, he eventually dropped his plan.

“It’s an extraordinary house – on the highest spot in Berwick, beside the old Tudor ramparts of the town,” says Bankier. In fact, it was later renovated and is now a holiday rental house.

Lowry, whose painting Going To the Match from 1953 recently sold for £7.8m, was clearly very fond of Berwick. “But he cut a rather lonely figure there,” says Bankier. This solitude is perhaps best captured in the one known photo that exists of him on holiday in Berwick. He is seen walking along the seafront, somewhat incongruously, in a suit and hat.