Independent on Sunday magazine 2nd July 2000


As the decade ended, Molly Isherwood discovered among a long-forgotten box of papers a major article on her artist brother-in-law carried in the Independent on Sunday magazine. It was written by Simon Spence. We are grateful to have received permission to reproduce this article by Simon Spence and the Independent on Sunday.

To his neighbours, James Isherwood was a sad, old eccentric. But L S Lowry once called him “the most likely to follow in my footsteps.” And, says Simon Spence, posterity may be proving him right.      

img4082In his last years, no one who met him would have imagined that James Lawrence Isherwood had once been a celebrity. They certainly wouldn’t have imagined that he would become one in the future. But they would have been wrong on both counts.

When he died in 1989, he had been living in squalor for years, in a Wigan house so full of rubbish, clutter and unopened mail that you could hardly open the door. When he ventured out, it was usually to wander Southport Sands, talking, to those would listen, of ending it all. He was, according to his sister-in-law, a broken man; broken by the frustrations of life as an unrecognised genius, by the loss of his greatest work in a fire in 1983 and by the sheer intractable mess that his life had become.

Ten years later, however, a strange thing happened. The executors of his estate were sorting through his papers – and it tells you something about Isherwood’s lifestyle that they were still doing this a decade after his death – and came across a series of certificates indicating the existence in various bank vaults of a hitherto unsuspected trove of 300 of Isherwood’s paintings. And so Molly Isherwood, James’s sister-in-law and his eldest surviving relative, decided to organise a sale,, last November at Wigan Town Hall.

Prices were set deliberately low – between £50 and £1,000 – in keeping with Isherwood’s often declared wishes that his paintings should be cherished by his fellow Wiganers. But even he would have been taken aback by the enthusiasm which greeted the sale. Townsfolk started queuing at 7am; the police were called and the doors had to open two hours early, at 10am. By the time the media arrived, all but a handful of the paintings were gone. Perhaps people knew that the prices of Isherwood’s work had been climbing steadily since his death – with some works not fetching 20 times what they fetched in his lifetime; or perhaps, as Isherwood had always hoped, they would, Wiganers had simply taken his pictures to their hearts.

They were in good company. Other Isherwood owners have included the Prince of Wales, Jimmy Saville and L S Lowry who said of him: “He is the man I pin my hopes on the future. The man most likely to follow in my footsteps.”

Like Lowry, Isherwood had started life modestly, and shown early signs of a distinctive sensibility. Born in 1917, the son of a Wigan cobbler, he was set to work in the family show when he was nine, but neglected his duties in favour of painting, and eventually went to Wigan Technical College to study art.

A spell in the Pioneer Corps during the second world war brought a nervous breakdown and in 1943, he had a disastrous marriage.

magazine-pic“Jim just wasn’t ready to be married. He couldn’t be lived with” says Molly, a sprightly widow. “His wife had heard of a shop with a flat above – she’d work from the shop, he could paint upstairs. “Well, who would get my dinner if you were working in the shop” he said. It lasted six months.

Thereafter, in the manner of L S Lowry (and of Jimmy Savile) he lived with his mother, Lily, at Leywood, 151 Wigan Lane. It was a volatile relationship, but devoted, and she encouraged him to paint. Eventually, when he was in his late 30s he held his first series of exhibitions in Wigan, Warrington, Manchester and London. They proved remarkably successful.

One early exhibition drew praise from the Manchester Guardian, which admitted “the astonishing variety of natural beauty in his works; at another, Lowry himself was photographed in animated conversation with the artist. Mervyn Levy praised his “consummate brilliance.” Isherwood began to exhibit prolifically, carting his works around the country in a battered old Transit van. By the end of the 60s, he had clocked up 204 one-man solo shows, and had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

He had also produced an avalanche of oils, some of them giving a screamingly disturbed take on the new pop culture: Tommy Steele with two heads (for vitality), nudes of Dusty Springfield, Barbara Castle, Brigitte Bardot, Lady Falkender, Mary Whitehouse (with five breasts), not to mention the Bald Beatles and some crucified Rolling Stones. Many were not amused, but others were impressed by his panache. Prince Charles, for example (then a student) bought an Isherwood after an exhibition in Cambridge.

There was a problem though. The Financial Times notes that Isherwood was “almost the last artist of enduring note who refused to be managed into financial security and paints, in his own words, “like a maniac with only a week to live.” The Daily Mail went further, describing him as “frightened of financial success.”

In 1965, one of his smart Goya-esque nudes was bought for $7,000 by the Palace Hotel in Las Vegas. Isherwood was offered a free trip to the US and guaranteed prices for a one-man show. “I don’t really want to go there. It’s rather a long way” he responded. “Besides they’ve got my paintings – they don’t need me.”

Yet he wasn’t rich. The previous year, a feature about his work in TV Times had noted, tellingly, that he “is one of the North’s most prolific painters and is one of Granada’s most seasoned TV extras.”img411

“He was driven to paint, not for finance, but mentally he felt it had to be done – he wanted to be recognised” says his nephew Clive Isherwood. “Paintings drives me mad but I’ve got to do it” was James’s own explanation. “It’s the only thing I know.”

Part of his problem was his fondness for whisky. Another was his unnerving habit of scattering his works about like confetti, often bartering them in exchange for a room, a drink, a packet of cigarettes. One longish visit to London Left a hotelier there with tens of Isherwood original, which even then went for 700 guineas each. He always marked prices on the back in guineas, alone with titles. He also marked his favourite works with a circles L on the back – for Lily. Even when someone offered him healthy sun for a “Lily” painting, he would rarely part with it. These masterpieces included many of his Lancashire Madonna series (modelled by Lily) and the “Atmospherics”of the late 1960s in which the flow of paint is carefully controlled by short, bold brush-strokes and brisk intense palette-knife work; and on which any enduring reputation is most likely to rest.

“At his best he was hypnotic” says Geoffrey Shryhane, a local journalist who was briefly Isherwood’s agent. “But he wasn’t taken seriously in Wigan, just as Lowry wasn’t taken seriously by the people of Manchester. He wanted to be accepted locally, but they laughed at him.”

Whilst his mother was alive, Isherwood seemed able to cope with rejection; but then, in 1972, Lily died. His inspiration – his one true friend – was gone. Shortly after her death, he was admitted to the psychiatric wing of the local Billinge Hospital, where he spent two months.

“He was grief stricken when she died,” says Shryhane. He asked me to photograph her in her coffin in 151. He did it himself with Polaroids – took hundreds of pictures. In the nicest possible way, they were obsessed with each other.”

Now his life grew more troubled. “He went a bit mad, as though he had been cut lose” recalls Molly. “It started with an affair with the matron at the convalescence home where his more died, and this was the way his life continued from then on.” In a way, she admits: “that was wonderful for him. But there was also the deprivation of his mother which he couldn’t really bear.”

Around 1975, Isherwood started to travel; to Italy, Malta, Tangiers and Spain. Slowly he realised that there was a life after Lily, and life beyond the stifling northern scene. He had an exhibition at the Gallery of Fine Arts in Valetta, Malty; and, later, in Malaga and Torremolinos, in Spain. He also painted the Prime Minister of Malta, and became involved with Miss Malta. His renewed enthusiasm for life began to show in his work and the International Arts Guild of Monaco listed him as “one of the most important living artists in Europe.”

magazine-photo1But whenever he returned to Britain, he brooded about Lily and, increasingly, about his talent being insufficiently recognised. Interviewed on the BBC documentary about Lowry, he said: “He was snubbed when he was alive, rather like I am. I am supposed to be one of Wigan’s sons and I am not treated like one.”

This resentment was not entirely justified; there were still critics, at least, he recognised his worth. In 1974, for example, The Guardian’s Stephen Dixon commented: “An emotionally handicapped Isherwood can still knock most of the others into a cocked hat, and I predict that he will still be collected when most of today’s artists are forgotten.” Mervyn Levy wrote: “His bolshie palette strokes make contemporaries look weak-kneed, effete. Savage and uncompromising, Ishrerwood is scaling new heights. He plaints like no one else; no school or style can hold him.”

There was even recognition, of a sort. In 1979, an Isherwood Suite was opened at the Scarisbrick Hotel in Southport. And the following year, perhaps encouraged by this, Isherwood himself opened the Isherwood gallery in Wigan – at Leywood, 151 Wigan Lane.

Then in July 1983, disaster struck. A fire – apparently started by some carelessness with the cooker, or possibly a cigarette – reduced Leywood to beyond restoration. He was very distressed. It was a mess, and it took him ages to have the house redecorated. He did it as best he could, but he wasn’t really bothered. He became reclusive and wouldn’t let anyone in.

The story of his last years is one of eccentricity and decline. He fell out with Geoffrey Shryhane, and increasing tried the patience of what remained of his family.

On one occasion, Molly recalls: “Lady Winstanley set up an exhibition for him at her home, invited all these people, the BBC – it would have been a wonderful thing for him. And he never turned up. We said we’d pick him up, put on our best bib and tucker and do him proud, off we go to get him and he was just drunk. ‘I’m not bothering going’ he said. ‘No, I’m not going.’ We were disgusted with him, all the trouble the people had gone to. We left him in the kitchen. He was stood by the back door and as we looked he slithered down the door and sat on his backside and we just left him. We could not take any more that day.”

And so his story comes to its obscure end in March 1989; a forgotten artist, broken, impoverished and neglected. And that, had it not been for last year’s chance discovery, might have been that.

Now, a decade after his death, Isherwood’s years in the wilderness may be over. The Lowry Centre is considering showing his work, and Molly Isherwood believes that his belated embrace by the people of Wigan may have won for him in death what his own contradictory nature never allowed him to achieve in his life: a secure position in the Pantheon of great, eccentric British painters.