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Timothy Spall: LS Lowry and the impact industrial landscapes had on my life

Timothy Spall grew up in the shadow of Battersea Power Station in South London. As his portrayal of LS Lowry, painter of iconic industrial landscapes, hits cinemas the actor reflects on his own relationship between industry and art

I’ve always been intrigued by the depth in Lowry’s paintings. Not just the pictorial depiction of a dying industrial world – that in itself is fascinating – but also the bleak beauty and isolation within them.

I’ve always, always had this love of the juxtaposition of industrial brutality in connection to landscape. When I was old enough in the late Fifties, early Sixties, I used to love wandering through London and because England was still scarred by the Second World War there were still lots of bombsites left. I always found that mixture of old industry still being around yet decrepit fantastic.

These places are cathedrals to industry

Since mechanisation, a lot less people work in factories. But when you think of it, these places were centres for humanity, where man became part of a machine. Within these edifices to industry, and these belching stacks, there’s also a sense of design. They’re not just willy-nilly, some of these places are cathedrals to industry.

You couldn’t have been brought up in Battersea without the edifice of Battersea Power Station being there all the time, belching away. It feels like a part of my life, my childhood. My brother ended up working there briefly when he came out of the Merchant Navy. He cleaned out the turbine.

I first became aware of its uniqueness when I started to get into art myself. I went to a school which was lousy in a lot of aspects but there were some very interesting individuals who took an interest in me as a human being. I had two art teachers who were fantastically influential on me. One was a more conventional artist and one was more experimental. She loved Battersea Power Station because it looked like an art-deco cow with stiff legs on its back.

Of course, it’s become part of America down there with the US embassy moving. When I was a kid, I remember Nine Elms being one long road with Battersea Power Station on one end and Nine Elms Cold Store, which was this huge concrete block full of all the food that was coming from abroad, at the other. Now a whole metropolis has grown up around it. Now you could be in Denver or any major western city.

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The power station itself can have flats in it and offices, parks all around. They’ve taken the chimneys down, refurbished them and put them back up. From a distance it’ll look exactly the same. It’s survived. As a piece of architectural art, it’s there. A bit like the Tate [Modern] gallery, you know? That’s joined up with St Paul’s Cathedral by the Millennium Bridge – or the Wobbly Bridge as it’s called in London. You’ve got Christopher Wren on one side of the river and that single chimney of the Tate like a single digit finger going FUCK OFF. Now it’s the home of modern art in London.

All of these architectural masterpieces, whether they be from great geniuses like Wren or the industrial architects of the Thirties, they’re all part and parcel of an aesthetic that is both functional, and ugly or beautiful, depending on your tastes.

Mrs Lowry & Son is out now in cinemas

Timothy Spall was speaking to Steven MacKenzie

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