Among these dark satanic mills

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Jacqueline Harrett suggests ways to use LS Lowry's paintings to develop children's writing skills

LS Lowry's landscape portrayals of the industrial north of England may seem drab for primary work, but his deceptively simple matchstick figures have strong child-appeal. His pictures are particularly good for teaching children how to "read" paintings and develop their imaginations. Children use picture cues when learning to read, and paintings can be a valuable stimulus for oracy and writing.

Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976) lived all his life in the Manchester area, mainly in Salford. In 1904 he started work as an accountant's clerk, and in the evenings he attended classes at the Manchester College of Art. Later, he moved with his family to Pendlebury. He took a job with a property company, collecting rents from poor families in the Salford area.

The people and their surroundings had a major influence on his art. Continuing his evening studies at Salford School of Art, he developed a unique style of painting industrial landscapes, with stick-like figures painted against a background of factory buildings and smoking chimneys. The anonymous figures that crowd into many of his pictures have a common purpose, as in Going to Work, but they often convey an air of isolation or resignation.

Lowry's compositions portray the dominance of the factories and mills of Lancashire over the people who worked in them, while his bleak backgrounds and drab colours give a strong sense of their everyday lives.

The artist received little public recognition until 1939, when he had his first one-man show in London. He retired from his job with the property company in 1952, and died in 1976.

Ideas for infants The more colourful paintings, such as Group of People (1959), produce an immediate oral response with younger children. Simple observation can be followed by more open questions, for example:

* Who are these people?

* What are they doing?

* Where are they going?

* What time of day is it?

* What do you think about the clothes they are wearing?

* What is the building?

Asking the class, with the teacher as scribe, to make their own list of questions and answers is also a valuable shared-writing experience. To take this a step further, the children can concentrate on one figure in the painting and write a description, including actions, of that character. For example, "The girl in the pink jumper is skipping down the street with a box in her hands." Speculation is introduced: What is in the box? Where is she going? Children are usually eager to give their ideas: Cassie:I think there's money inside. She's collecting money.

Sam:She's got her lunch in there.

Amy:The little boy and girl are going to school and the big ones are going to the shops.

As part of a guided writing session, the children can choose a different figure from the painting and write three sentences about that character. For example:

* The (boy, girl, man, woman, dog) is called...

* Heshe is wearing...

* Heshe is... (describe the action).

The use of a basic writing frame may help with "blank page syndrome" if necessary. The children can then invent further details about their chosen figures. This type of activity is facilitated by role-play, where the children in turn act the part of the characters and answer questions about their lives. This could then lead to writing in the form of narrative, conversation or diary entries.

Children can be perceptive in their observations and comments; Going to Work produces an immediate response: Daniel: That's London.

Paul:That's in New York 'cos there's hundreds of people.


Activities that are similar to those suggested for infants can be expanded with older children. For example, The Funeral Party (1953) offers a good starting point for discussion of death and bereavement. The most obvious characteristics of this painting are the bleak background and drab colours. The flashes of red on people's lips and one character's tie serve to emphasise this.

Ask the children what they think about the people in the painting and allow them time to talk about their physical characteristics, such as individuals' expressions, stance and dress. Ask them to think about the title. Does the picture give the impression of a party? They can use a dictionary or thesaurus to make a list of alternative words.

The children can choose one of the figures and make a list of his or her physical characteristics. For example: blond hair; thin neck; dark clothes; dark eyes; glasses; boots; pale skin; white shirt; smart suit; waistcoat. These words can be the starting point for a shared-writing exercise on the use of adjectives:"His pale golden hair looked flat and drab and his dark eyes peered from behind his spectacles." The children can also give their character some background or history:

* Who is this person?

* Whose funeral is it - a relation, a friend?

* How is the character feeling?

* What will he or she do next?

Death is a sensitive issue that is often avoided with children, but this painting provides an ideal opportunity for discussion, with the teacher taking the role of a character at the funeral. Children may then pose questions and raise issues in a safe environment.

Class discussion of the painting can lead directly into scene-setting. The children can compose, again in a shared-writing exercise, a sentence to describe the "present". For example: "The morning was grey, misty and miserable but the family had all gathered together for the funeral."

In the following guided-writing session, ask the children what had happened before this scene:Who has died and how? This sort of activity, although more complex, encourages the use of imagination and can help chronology.

The hypnotic eyes and strong features of Head of a Man (1938), are a superb stimulus for writing. In both shared and guided-writing sessions, this painting may be used as a stimulus for characterisation, narrative or poetry. In poetry writing, the use of similes and metaphors can be encouraged. Which do they think is the more effective - "His bloodshot eyes looked like a vampire's", or "His vampire eyes were bloodshot"? The teacher needs to allow time for discussion of the different impressions and images presented by the arrangement of the words before continuing to describe the other features of the painting.

The paintings presented here are representative of the wealth of resources available in art galleries around the country. Literacy can be enhanced in many ways, and this is one route that is particularly effective.

Other ideas for writing include: lmonologue - the teacher can provide a suitable beginning ("My life has been so tragicI", "I am haunted by memories ofI"); lspeech or thought bubbles for each character at the funeral; lan obituary of the person who has died, or a newspaper report of the tragic or violent circumstances of the death; la poem or a prayer that could be read at the funeral; la letter of sympathy to one of the people at the funeral; la summary of Lowry's life. The children can use ICT resources as well as reference books.

Jacqueline Harrett is senior lecturer, primary English education at the University of Wales in Cardiff.



Make "matchstick men" from dough or modelling clay. Ask children to paint similar figures. Stick these to a Lowry-style background to form a collage.


Look at the clothes and compare them to modern styles. Make a list of things we think people then would not have, such as computers and washing machines. Use reference books and ICT, and ask grandparents to help.


Use blocks to make the town in the painting. Draw a map or plan view of the town.


This year's festival runs from May 1 to June 3 and includes nearly 2,000 events and activities at some 1,500 museums and galleries in the UK.

The theme of MGM2001 is "Meeting Places". Participants are offered the chance to:

* meet directors, curators and artists;

* meet "the real thing" by taking away a work of art, postcard, rubbing or replica - and leave something behind, such as comments, donations, pictures or a commitment to volunteer;

* meet in a culture exchange.

The Arts Council is celebrating Cultural Diversity in 2002 and this theme may be piloted by some galleries during MGM2001.

The month will include a variety of openings, such as two new museums - the Scottish Football Museum and Firepower! in Woolwich.

Many museums and galleries are holding events linked to the Japan 2001 festival, exploring Japanese culture and traditions through workshops and exhibitions. For details visit

The Lowry, a millennium project for the arts, opened in Salford a year ago, and includes a gallery housing the world's largest collection of LSLowry's work. It will host many special events, including a storytelling session for under-fives every Friday in May, from 11am-12 noon. Website:

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