Fresh from playing artist JMW Turner for Mike Leigh in 2014’s Mr Turner, actor Timothy Spall has picked up the paintbrushes again to play Salford artist LS Lowry.
Mrs Lowry & Son, a new biopic, explores the relationship between the artist and his less-than-supportive mother, Elizabeth, played by Vanessa Redgrave.
We met up with the actor at The Lowry Hotel, on the eve of the film’s gala premiere screening at The Lowry theatre, to discuss the film.
“Like a lot of people, I knew of Lowry”, he says.
“I knew bits of his work, some of the more clichéd statements about him, the matchstick man thing and that song. And I’ve always liked art, so I was aware of him.
“But when I read the script, I was just immediately affected by this incredible relationship I had no idea about, between him and his mother. It more or less informs his work and him, as a man.”
Asked about his research to play the part, Timothy reveals a detail of which Lowry would surely have approved.
“I came up here and I looked at the paintings all day one day, unannounced. I just went and stared at them. And then when I was here, I bought some biographies, including a brilliant one by Shelley Rohde, who is sort of regarded as the expert on him, about his life and his work.”
Pressed on what he took away from his day in the gallery, Timothy replies: “I really liked them. I’d never really stood and looked at them.
“Firstly what surprised me was his development. It became pretty apparent that he wasn’t what a lot of people think, a sort of Sunday painter, lucky amateur. He’s not a Sunday painter. He’s not a primitive, either.
“He’s far more interesting than that, because you can see that although he had a long period of education, there is a real development in his work, and this inimitable style that he has is something that he developed through his desire and his passion.”
Timothy is clearly fascinated by the artistic process, having played two artists in the space of five years. So is there another artist he has always wanted to play?
“I am drawn to them. I constantly have in my mind being able to have to the opportunity to figure out what William Blake was all about. That’s going to take some research, I tell you, because not only are we talking about his art and his poetry – he’s this revolutionary visionary, an amazing philosopher with a real philosophical slant on spiritualism…”
Pressed for more detail on his own paintings, Timothy says that he began to paint long before taking on the role of Mr Turner.
“I did art school and at one point I was hovering between joining the army or going to art college. I ended up doing the school play and that took care of that. But because I took a fantastic, personal crash course with an artist, I was liberated by him to paint a lot and that was one of the main things he taught me, was how to just do it.
“And it turned out that seemingly I had a bit of ability, and then because I’ve always had this latent feeling about art, it kind of started to come out. I did that two years before I did Turner and then painted a little bit afterwards, but then let it die away.”
In fact, it seems the opportunity to play Lowry had the effect of rekindling Timothy’s own artistic output.
“When I came back to Lowry, I painted all the time. I was just constantly, constantly, constantly painting, painting in between takes and so on. And after the film finished I picked up the brush again and I started to paint quite a lot.
“Some of the paintings I did during the film, I gave a lot of them away as gifts, a thank you, as mementos of the film.
“But then I carried on. And now there’s actually fourteen of my own paintings on the wall in the Lowry gallery.”
Timothy admits to having a particular affection for Manchester, even before The Lowry exhibited his paintings.
“I’m very, very fond of Manchester. When I first came here, I instantly liked it. The first thing I did here was Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise (2001), directed by Danny Boyle, for the BBC. I was here for about three weeks and I really, really liked it.
“I liked the place and the friendliness of the people. Physically, obviously, it’s continuing to go through a massive change, but there was just something about it I really, really liked. I came back and did The Street here, and then I managed to come back for a third time and did Mrs Lowry & Son.
“If ever it says Manchester on the script, I’m instantly interested.”
To that end, Timothy was especially pleased with Mrs Lowry & Son because the entire film was shot locally.
“We spent a lot of time in Stockport”, he says.
“The studios were in Stockport. Obviously the Manchester of now is nothing like the Manchester of 1933, but there are little particles of it, so we were filming in front of bits of old mills that had huge glass towers next to them.
“The scene where he’s outside the mill and he sees all the people coming out, which is the basis of Coming From The Mill, that was right in the centre of Manchester, somewhere in Spinningfields.”
Given the importance of Manchester and Salford to the film, Timothy is thrilled that the film has received its English premiere at The Lowry itself.
“It’s marvellous, isn’t it?”, he says.
“There’s a bit of the gallery in the film. It’s great. And also, here we are in The Lowry Hotel. I don’t know what Lowry himself would have made of it. What on earth would he make of a five star hotel being named after him?
“I think his mother would have been impressed. I think that would have been important to him.
“She might have struggled to enjoy his success as a painter, but I think she’d have certainly been over the moon to know that a top hotel was named after him.”
Mrs Lowry & Son is out in cinemas from Friday 30th August.