Through the Eyes of a ‘Committed Artist’: Lancaster and Morecambe in the 1970s
Joe Thornberry | Lancaster University
Cliff Rowe (1904 -1989) was an artist and designer trained at Wimbledon Art School and the Royal College of Art. After living and working in Moscow in 1932/33, he became a convinced Communist, and on his return to England, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He remained a member for the rest of his life, though he never described himself as a ‘Communist artist’. For a time in the 1930s, he embraced ‘Socialist Realism’, the approved Soviet approach to art, but later abandoned this style as unworkable in the British context. He preferred to be called a ‘committed artist’, and he is best known for his paintings and drawings of ordinary working-class people in their work, in their homes, and at play.
While on a visit to Lancaster in August 1970, he wrote a letter to the Lancaster Guardian describing how he was seeking as a subject for his art
….. an environment indigenous to Lancaster, historically indigenous to it, aesthetically satisfying, and full of that quality which makes us feel that humanity can survive any humiliation and emerge with unassuming honour on one hand, and quiet beauty on the other.
He found that environment, he wrote in his letter, in the working-class streets in ‘the charming small area of Skerton, around Lune Street…… historically unique, beautiful, and quite irreplaceable’. Those streets were all that remained of a much larger working-class district stretching along the River Lune, demolished in the 1960s and replaced with a mix of low- and high-rise social housing.
All towns have such areas, but because they are more often found among the humble districts than the prosperous, they are frequently murdered by those who regard the practical, the economic, and the convenient as the only significant objectives.
Rowe’s interest in working-class streets had begun during the Second World War. Too old to serve in the armed forces, he spent the war as an ARP air raid warden. In his free time, he walked the streets of Camden Town and Kentish Town in North London, drawing and painting the buildings and the people. For the next ten years, he recorded his impressions of the life of this area. He was struck by the unplanned nature of much of this urban landscape. In 1980 he wrote in his notes for an unpublished autobiography:
Every time I sallied forth, I came across satisfying surprises, often bordering on the fantastic. The very fact that these areas were unplanned had led to every kind of individualistic solutions to the maverick problems that past developers had thrown into each other’s way in their search for profit. Indeed, I learned quite a bit about planning from the sheer irresponsibility of such lack of it.
While Rowe appreciated the aesthetic qualities of many of the buildings he came across, he was no sentimentalist and very much a modernist in his views on architecture. He was greatly influenced by the Russian Constructivist approach to building design he had seen while living in Moscow. He was only too aware that much of the working-class housing in Camden was of low quality, with poor sanitation and lighting. Much of it bore the scars of the Blitz as well as the ravages of neglect (Figure 2). However, for Rowe, it was the people who made this built environment work, and the challenge to radical architecture was to recreate those elements that enabled solidarity and social cohesion. The basic essential to any successful development, he believed, was the democratic involvement of those most affected by the planning decisions. Although a Communist, he did not set out to produce overtly political pictures of street life. The appeal for him was primarily aesthetic. He wrote in his autobiographical notes
Recently, a well-known middle class critic suggested I had painted these people and their surroundings to make a political point of contrasting them with what one might see in a West End restaurant. The political bias was in his own mind, not mine. I had painted them entirely from love of the subject, and its almost limitless aesthetic value to any one with eyes to see.
Whenever he appeared with his sketch book or easel, he immediately attracted attention. People were curious as to why he would choose to come to their streets when there were much grander buildings in London he could paint. His explanations of what he found attractive in, to them, humble and run-down dwellings, led to lively discussions on the nature of beauty.
He was prompted to write his letter to the Lancaster Guardian by just such an encounter with a Skerton resident he met while making his preliminary sketches. He was told that some of the houses he was drawing were scheduled for demolition to make way for garage space and easier car access. Rowe was appalled. He had seen in his area of London the damage to the community caused by hasty and badly designed ‘improvements’ to working-class areas. He was urged to write to the local newspaper to protest about this, but he was reluctant, as an outsider, to appear to be telling Lancaster folk what they should be doing:
The lady I talked to would not hear my faint-hearted complaint that I was only a visitor and might be justly told to mind my own business. “No,” she said, “you write to the Guardian – they will publish a letter.”
He produced two paintings of the Lune Street area, based on the preliminary drawings he had made during his visit. One of these, Back entrances Lune St. Lancaster (Figure 3), is typical of Rowe’s style at this time. He employs strong outline pencil drawing to create this back-alley scene and brings it alive with the use of just three crayon colours. One of the houses shows signs of dilapidation. It is peopled with just two outline figures – two women, one pushing a pram – while in the distance can be seen the majestic fourteenth century Lancaster Priory Church, a whole world away from the cheerful shabbiness of the back entrances to Lune Street. This contrast is what Rowe implies in his phrase, ‘environment indigenous to Lancaster, historically indigenous to it’.
Rowe’s other painting is a view of Lune Terrace (Figure 4) using the same pencil and crayon technique. There is a suggestion of two or three figures sitting on a wall beside a car. It is interesting that Rowe does not take advantage of this viewpoint to include Lancaster Castle and the Priory, which, had he expanded the scope just a little, would have appeared on the left of the picture. Such a view would have been in the tradition of artistic depictions of Lancaster over the centuries. He did not want to distract from what, to him, was the beauty of this stone-fronted terrace. He does, however, give a nod to Lancaster’s industrial heritage by including a glimpse of an overhead gantry on Greyhound Bridge, then a railway bridge carrying the line to Morecambe.
Rowe planned a further picture of the area, this time a street corner on Skerton Triangle, a nearby pleasant patch of greenery. (Figure 5). His scribbled notes on the sketch suggest that he had in mind a style similar to that of his other two pictures.
Rowe’s third picture takes us further back in time, from Skerton’s Victorian terraces to Lancaster’s wealthy eighteenth-century trading past. Riverside Lancaster (Figure 6) is a view of St. George’s Quay, built during Lancaster’s ‘Golden Age’ with the super-profits from the transatlantic slave trade when the city was the fourth-largest slave-trading port in Britain. This is another striking study in pencil and crayon and an excellent example of Rowe’s draftsmanship. It shows the eighteenth-century frontage of the Quay, with a warehouse on one side, the elegant Custom’s House on the other, and in between the George and Dragon pub and the houses originally built for port officials. The strange shape on the bottom left of the picture is a finial on the railing running along the quayside, an indication of where Rowe was standing when he made his initial sketch. Its ‘transparency’ is Rowe’s way of indicating the presence of a larger physical object, a technique he uses in other paintings.
Rowe also visited the neighbouring seaside resort of Morecambe during his stay, where he made a number of sketches of people enjoying themselves at the funfair and on the beach. He later developed these into two pictures. One, Morecambe Bay (Figure 7), depicts a group of holiday makers picnicking on the sands, while others try their hand at riding the beach ponies. The figures are rendered tiny by the vast expanse of Morecambe Bay, with the receding tide and the outlines of the Furness shore in the far distance and the sombre colouring indicating that bad weather is on the way.
He also drew a number of sketches of the Morecambe funfair (Figures 8 to 12), one of which he later developed into a painting.
The final Rowe picture is also of a Morecambe scene but very different from his other works (Figure 13). It was painted in 1975, five years later than the others, and is a more studied watercolour rather than an execution in pencil and crayon. He does not employ the free-flowing approach of his Morecambe funfair sketches but instead relies on an underlying precision more akin to the discipline of engineering drawing. This is a technique he uses in many of his later paintings of industrial subjects. The painting depicts a fairground ride known as a Flyer, where the ‘spaceships’ are attached by cables to a central rotating column, their outward flight caused by centrifugal force. Rowe’s 1970 sketch of this machine (Figure 12) indicates that he was already working on how to show the geometry of the structure. This produces a pleasing symmetry which, combined with his bold use of bright primary colours, creates an image that could be of a child’s toy.
At the time Rowe produced this painting, he was also working on his own architectural ideas, making use of the latest approaches to building design and technology, in particular, the use of internal spiral cables to support suspended floors in multi-story buildings (Figure 14). Essentially, this was the same engineering principle underlying the design of the Morecambe funfair ride. Perhaps Rowe had these ideas in mind when painting Morecambe Fair?
Despite Cliff Rowe’s plea in his letter to the Lancaster Guardian, the demolitions went ahead – ‘murdered’ in his analogy - and the garages and roadway built in their place. In subsequent years Lancaster was to experience further clearances of historic streets and buildings, most notoriously to make way for a major road scheme that was never built. At the time of writing, the Lancaster area is about to undergo a new wave of development, with a new ‘garden village’ planned for the south of the city, the regeneration of the area along the canal in the city centre, and the new Eden North centre to be built on Morecambe seafront. Urban planning is now more tightly regulated than when Cliff Rowe wrote his letter to the Lancaster Guardian, but the warning he gave then still resonates:
Reformers and money makers alike, though for opposite motives, rush in with modern amenities, but the same disastrous results. The need for the amenities is undeniable, but how few realise that unless they are designed to conform with the aesthetic qualities of what they transform, the final effect can be worse than a bomb? An explosion leaves us with harmless space, but a thing of inherited beauty, wrongly changed, can become a hideous deformity that destroys hope in the human mind.
Christine Lindey, Art for All: British Socially Committed Art from the 1930s to the Cold War (London, Artery Publications, 2018)
Robert Radford, Art for a Purpose: The Artists International Association 1933-1953 (Winchester 1987)
Joe Thornberry, ‘A British Artist in Moscow: Cliff Rowe at the Tovarishchestvo, 1932 – 1933’, EPOCH, 5 (2021).
Images of Cliff Rowe’s oil paintings in public collections can be found at the Art UK website, https://artuk.org/discover/artists/rowe-clifford-hooper-19041989
The images of Riverside Lancaster, Morecambe Bay, and Morecambe Fair were kindly provided by the Peter Scott Gallery, Lancaster Arts, Lancaster University.
Joe Thornberry is a PhD student in the History Department at Lancaster University. He is researching the life and work of his late father-in-law, the artist Cliff Rowe (1904-1989)