Our venues

"The Fever Van", 1935, by Lawrence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976)


See a larger version

About the artwork

Lawrence Stephen Lowry is best known for his "matchstick men and women", paintings of people in the industrial towns of the north of England. He grew up in Stretford, now a suburb of Manchester, and most of his work portrays desolate urban landscapes peopled by anonymous figures.

"The Fever Van" is one of the many views of Salford painted by Lowry. It is, however, a distinctive work. While most of his paintings of the urban scene are predominantly atmospheric, here there is a story at the heart of the picture. An ambulance has drawn up outside a house to collect a fever patient.

Lowry has chosen to show the scene from a distance, as if he is trying to suggest that such events are part of every day life in the town. The painting conveys the pain and suffering of not just the victim, but of the community as a whole.

Lowry was born in 1887, the only son of Robert and Elizabeth Lowry. His father was a hard-working and conscientious clerk but his mother, an accomplished pianist, took little pleasure in her marriage and gradually withdrew from the world.

Lowry's recollections of childhood reveal an unhappy start in life and drawing became his most pleasurable experience. In 1904 he started work as a clerk for a Manchester firm of accountants and a year later he enrolled in evening classes at the Manchester Municipal College of Art.

Struggling to cope financially, the family moved from Victoria Park to industrial Pendlebury in 1909. Lowry developed a love-hate relationship with the place, but eventually his intimacy with this small town shaped his vision as an artist. He started work as a rent collector in 1910, a job he kept until the age of sixty five, but nevertheless remained a prolific painter throughout his life.

The Painting

"The Fever Van" shows an ambulance arriving to collect a patient from a small terraced house. The sufferer probably has diptheria or scarlet fever, both highly contagious diseases and widespread in industrial Britain in the 1930s. A lack of vaccinations meant that such diseases were frequently fatal.

Lowry's treatment of the theme avoids excessive sentimentality; he goes for a distant view of the ambulance and the crowd gathered around it rather than a close-up of the drama. He was clearly interested in the effect of accidents on the urban scene and once said: "Accidents interest me - I have a very queer mind you know. What fascinates me is the people they attract. The patterns those people form, and the atmosphere of tension when something has happened… Where there's a quarrel there's always a crowd… It's a great draw. A quarrel or a body."

Lowry is often characterised as a self-taught artist, but despite the apparent naivity of his work, drawing was always the foundation of his paintings. The cropped edges of "The Fever Van" give a feeling of incompleteness to the scene, suggesting the ephemeral and fragmentary character of life in industrial towns.

Lowry greatly admired the work of the Pre-Raphaelite artists: the vibrancy of his colours and the white base of his paintings are reminiscent of their work. However Lowry's whites were not smooth or even, but full of subtle colours ranging from sharp and brilliant to soft and creamy hues.

In "The Fever Van" the red of the houses in the foreground contrasts with the greyish blue of the church in the distance. The smoke from the chimney on the left-hand side casts a shadow onto the walls opposite, serving as a visual metaphor for the all-pervasive smog of industrial Salford.

Lowry's painting of figures is almost abstract because of the elimination of details. He once said: " Natural figures would have broken the spell of it, so I made them half unreal… Had I drawn them as they are, it would not have looked like a vision… I have been called a painter of Manchester work people. But my figures are not exactly that, they are ghostly figures… which seems to me so beautiful, they are symbols of my mind. They are myself."

The Walker "The Fever Van" from the artist in 1943.

www.thelowry.org [opens new window]