FROM THE MILLS OF THE NORTH WEST TO THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY – the story of Sefton Samuels PART 2
In part two Sefton talks to our Tameside reporter Bob Alston about how, after a little detective work, he was welcomed onto the home of L. S. Lowry where he took some unique photographs of this famous North West painter.
Sefton Samuels has more than 100 images help in the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum, which goes to show that he is one of the UK’s most respected photographers of his generation. He is known for his ‘Slice of Life’ type work, where his work is very rarely staged, but on one occasion a selection of his best photographs were those of Laurence Stephen Lowry and his home in Mottram in Longdendale.
Sefton explains more: “ Since going to Salford Tech at the age of 16, I’ve always wanted to photograph Lowry.
“I used to pop into Salford Art Gallery, which was next door, and look admiringly at Lowry’s paintings.
“In 1968, I was on holiday with my wife in East Anglia and the weather was really poor, so
we decided to travel up to the North East to take in the lovely scenery of Northumbria and on the way popped into the Seaburn Hotel, where Lowry used to spend a lot of time.
“It was just my luck that when I arrived there, that Lowry had just left to head back to Manchester. Anyhow, undetermined, I was going to try again.
“One day, one my way back to Huddersfield I decided to go via Hyde and head for Mottram in Longdendale where Lowry lived, and I thought that the local newsagent would know where he lived, of course, he didn’t, but he said if I was to go a couple of streets away, and he gave me the address, Bessie Swindells, Lowry’s housekeeper, lives there and she might be able to help. So, I popped round there and, fortunately, we had something in common, because
she’d worked in a mill like me and she said that Lowry drops her a line just before he’s coming home so she can get the house a bit tidier for him, but she said to me ‘Please don’t tell him that I told you where he lived!’
“I gave it a couple of days and wrote to Lowry, but I realised later that he doesn’t open his correspondence regularly. Anyhow, I popped round, knocked on the door and there was a clanging of bolts, locks, and chains, and Lowry peered around the door and said, ‘what is it, lad?’ So I said that I’d dropped him a line about photographing him and I had enclosed a picture, and he replied, ‘Oh yes, I remember lad’, and invited me in.
“It only took about 10 minutes to get to know Lowry and he was very friendly, cooperative, and relaxed, and I got a few pictures of him smiling, which was a bit unusual I later found out. I then took some more pictures in his living room, because he wasn’t too keen about going out to Stockport to have some shots of him with a mill in the background, so we went into his studio and I took a few more pictures in there, one of which was him sat in a lounge chair at his easel.
“ I suggested a few more locations for some more pictures, but he wasn’t too keen and said he was tired – well he was in his 80s, so I suppose I couldn’t blame him! In the end, I said, what do you suggest Mr. Lowry? He said, ‘I’ll show you lad’, and he got up from his studio chair, walked down the corridor to the living room, slouched right down in his seat with his shoulders to the bottom of the chair, and feet up on the mantelpiece. He then turned to me and said, ‘this is what I like doing best lad.’ He nodded off occasionally and I took a few more pictures, one of which has been my most successful of him, because it’s in the V & A (Victoria & Albert Museum) collection and one of seven I’ve got in the National Portrait Gallery.
“Three weeks later I went back to see Lowry with some prints I had done, some 20” x 16” and some 10” x 8” as well, and to my amazement he said, ‘ these are the best portraits I’ve ever seen lad.’ I said I’ll gladly do some prints for you Mr. Lowry and he said, ‘ Oh I’ve nowhere to put those big ones lad’, so I said I’ll do you some 10” x 8” Mr. Lowry and he said, ‘yes, that’s fine.’ He picked seven, which took him quite a while, but finally settled on the ones he liked – none of him smiling though!
“A few days later I was back to give Lowry the prints and despite him saying they were the best pictures he’d seen and that I was the first photographer he’d let into his house, he kept asking, ‘what do I owe you, lad?’ I had such a struggle to get to photograph him, and I finally had, I told him it was all right he could have them – I was just happy to have got to photograph him.
“Some time later I realised that if I had offered Lowry some money for one of the many sketches that were on his table when I was there I’m sure he would have given me one. This was one of the biggest mistakes of my life and I have regretted it ever since.
“One of the pictures I took of Lowry was used by sculptor Sam Tonkiss to produce a bronze bust of him in 1975, and one was used by the Tate Gallery for their Living Lowry exhibition. When the bust was completed I managed to get a photograph of Lowry, George Aird (Lowry’s agent), and San Tonkiss with the bust on a table in the middle.
“Without doubt, photographing Mr. Lowry was the highlight of my career and I have fond memories of this unique moment.
“A few years later I was contacted by renowned sculptor Peter Hodgkinson who had been commissioned by the owner of Sam’s Chop House, Manchester, Roger Ward, to commemorate the life of Lowry, who was a regular there until his death in 1976, to produce a life-size bronze of Lowry that now sits proudly in the bar just where he used to sit. Also, there is an exhibition of pictures I took of Lowry around the walls.
“As a thank you for lending my pictures of Lowry to Peter he gave me a bronze bust of Lowry that takes pride and place in my lounge.”
When school tasked my eldest grandson, George, to produce a project on Lowry, I took him to meet Sefton and I managed to get a photograph of the two of them with the bust that Sefton had been given.
It’s well worth a visit to Sefton’s website too: www.seftonphoto.co.uk