He was a demanding child, according to members of his family who still survive. He had, they say, an artistic temperament from the start. This now famous artist led an amazing, controversial and wreckless life, and he lived to tell the story until he was claimed by cancer in 1989 at the age of 72. He asked his younger brother Gordon if he was dying and was told the truth. He accepted the fact that his life was drawing to its close. He told Gordon, and his sister-in-law Molly to take care of the thousands of paintings he had created and not to sell any for three years.
In life Isherwood had known limited commercial success, but for the most part, his work was not taken seriously and this was partly his own fault. For years, he had painted “gimmick” paintings to gain cheap publicity. The most famous of these portraits was Mary Whitehouse with five breasts. His oil of George Best with breasts caused outrage. But for the most people just laughed. And because they laughed, they didn’t take Isherwood the artist seriously.
But beneath the ridicule and laughter, beneath the lurid headlines in the local and national press there was an artist of considerable talent. Isherwood, as the world knows today, was unique. He copied no-one and time has proved that his works of art are superb. Today, there are buyers all over the country and the paintings he couldn’t give away during his lifetime now sell for thousands.
Looking back, Isherwood went to a secondary school in Whelley and, as expected, he went into the family cobbling business in Wigan. He had already started to paint. There wasn’t a chance of the family allowing the young Jim to immerse himself into art full-time. Painting was just a hobby wasn’t it?
As he toiled in the family shop at the top of Greenhough Street, Wigan, he often took time out to paint pictures, especially when his father wasn’t about. These oil paintings of Wigan figures “out of my imagination” were then displayed “for sale” for a few shillings among the display of clogs and shoes in the window.
When the war came along, the young Isherwood brothers immediately volunteered. Gordon enjoyed his RAF days. Jim, too, wanted an RAF posting, but was rejected because of poor eye-sight. He was enlisted into the Pioneer Corps, but hated Army life. It made him considerably unhappy and he was eventually discharged after medical tests. One of his problems was a total inability to make decisions…a condition that haunted him for the rest of his life.
After the war, Jim and Gordon married two sisters in a big wedding at Wigan Parish Church. Surprisingly, their parents did not attend, saying they believed Jim was too young to marry. Gordon’s marriage to Molly was a superb success – they were made for each other. But Jim’s marriage was somewhat of a flop from the start. His selfish attitude was at the bottom of the matrimonial problems and after some years, the mismatch ended, and Jim continued to live with his mother, Lily, who, from the first, had encouraged his artistic leanings.
Life in the cobbler’s shop continued, with Isherwood there but spending more and more time painting. Little wonder his father Harry was infuriated. On Harry’s death in the mid 50s, Jim turned to art full time, leaving his brother Gordon to continue in the show business.
Jim Isherwood was free at last to devote all his energies to art, and his style was his own from the start. His first show was at a craft exhibition in Wigan in the early 50s and he embarked on a series of one-man exhibitions all over the country, but Oxford, Cambridge and London were his most popular haunts. He showed his paintings in the undergraduates’ rooms – and even offered HP payments. Jim’s only wish was for people to like his work, and if he had to sell what he considered works worth £30 – a large sum in those days – for £2…well so be it. Mother Lily accompanied him, and off they went in the artist’s unreliable red van. Many of the paintings were not even dry, but that didn’t matter. The deep urge to take his paintings to the people was too strong. Isherwood exhibited under Big Ben and at roadside locations. He was looked upon as “the eccentric artist.” The phrase fitted him perfectly.
Lily and Jim’s home at 151 Wigan Lane was packed to the rafters with his oils, and those marked on the reverse with an “L” indicated that these had been painted for his mother and would not, for any amount offered, be sold.
The work of Lawrence Isherwood is truly impressionistic, and he himself said that he created some of his best works whilst under the influence of drink. Both Lily and Jim were enthusiastic when it came to alcohol. And the little card ever-pinned to the front door announced: “No callers until after 3.30pm.”
The range of Isherwood’s subjects knew no bounds. His beloved Wigan characters in rain and mists and fogs and son were to eventually put him on the artistic map. But he was equally enthusiastic painting Scotland, Wales, Spain and a host of other places.
Ever short of money, the artist was sometimes so broke, he couldn’t afford oil paints and this drove him to distraction. Many times, he exchanged paintings for goods and even offered to pay parking fines by handing over a work of art.
To local people, Isherwood remained the eccentric. People laughed at him behind his back as he shambled his way around town, often unkempt. Eventually their refusal to take his art seriously left him feeling depressed, but the urge to continue creating paintings nobody wanted did not die away.
It’s true, there were collectors who liked the work of Isherwood, and today, their collections are greatly admired and coveted.
The untidy world of Jim and his mother came to an end when she died leaving him all alone to face life and the world. He took her death to heart and drank even more than in earlier days. But even Isherwood had to get on with life, and he continued his one man exhibitions. But it was not the same without Lily.
Eventually Isherwood’s drinking reach such proportions that he was admitted to hospital to “dry out” in the early 70s. He set up a painting school in hospital and even allowed an old friend to hold an exhibition saying: “I can’t sell them, so why should you.” In fact, the show was a phenomenal success – partly due to the paintings appearing on TV with a story that Isherwood was very ill.
Two more exhibitions were held, but Isherwood could not tolerate the fact that someone else could make a success of selling his work. The friendship ended with Isherwood announcing: “I’ve sacked my agents and am going it alone.” For a time he lived in an hotel in Southport.
It was in that resort that he met a lady by the name of Pat White, who also loved art and painted. The two got on like a house on fire and within months, Isherwood had gone to live with Pat and her two sons at a fine house on the Wirral. They travelled and exhibited abroad and eventually announced that they had married. It wasn’t true.
The relationship was to finish, but there are those who say that the artist loved Pat for the rest of his life.
Back in Wigan, in the loneliness of 151 Wigan Lane, Jim Isherwood continued to paint but by this time, his health had started to fail. The living conditions were even more chaotic that ever, and hundreds if not thousands of paintings were destroyed in a fire at the house. It was Isherwood’s biggest blow.
And even he could not have known how, following exhibitions of his work organised by Molly and the agent he sacked all those years ago would bring his work to public attention. It would be seen for what it was – unique.
At these exhibitions, with Isherwood dead, people saw the oil paintings in a different light. What they rejected, they now had the chance to buy. And buy they did. A home without an Isherwood was not a home.
These paintings, from the exhibitions in the early 90s, have vastly risen in value. Today, hundred and sometimes thousands are paid for his works in auction houses. His paintings sell at Sotheby’s.
The sad fact is that the controversial James Lawrence Isherwood is not here to see the success. It is impossible to know what he would think.
Additional photographs from the Isherwood archive