A new generation of northern painters are profiting from the 'Lowry effect'

PUBLISHED: 00:00 31 October 2013

Bill Clark in his Hale gallery

Bill Clark in his Hale gallery

MAIN PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAUL SWEENEY

Northern art has never been more popular, says Hale gallery owner Bill Clark.

As the nation’s leading dealer in northern art, you may think Cheshire dealer Bill Clark has a vested interest in talking up the market.

But the truth is that he is in a business where demand already far outstrips supply. ‘We have got waiting lists for these artists’ work,’ he says. ‘I’ve got waiting lists for Lowrys. We have people with £100,000 to spend on a Lowry and I can’t get one.’

Bill, owner of Clark Art in Hale, has, however, proved spectacularly successful at obtaining Lowrys in the past. His record-breaking summer show, Lowry and his Legacy, saw him selling 17 Lowry originals, some at prices of over £500,000. But that show also sold over 100 paintings by present-day artists - the likes of Liam Spencer, Ben Kelly, Stephen Campbell and Reg Gardner - who take some inspiration from Lowry. And with prices going only one way, buyers are not just thinking how it will look on the wall, but also how it will sit in their investment portfolio.

There is, says Bill, a ‘Lowry effect’ in all this. Lowry has long been one of the public’s favourite artists, and northern art in general has enjoyed a growing following in latter years. But this year’s Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain raised northern art’s profile yet further and extinguished the last vestiges of southern snobbery in the art establishment about the painter of matchstalk men.

‘They finally caved in and admitted Lowry was an important artist,’ says Bill.

None of which can harm the appeal of all the other important northern artists now producing work. Liam Spencer, born in 1964 and based in Rossendale, is, reckons Bill, the most important artist of that current generation. His breakthrough came when his was the first exhibition at the newly-opened Lowry centre in Salford in 2000.

‘People were seeing the northern landscape represented in a way they had not seen before - very bright colours in an impressionist style,’ says Bill. ‘He took the mundane and made it exciting.’

A small oil painting by Spencer now goes for around £2,000, a large one £10,000.

Reg Gardner, born in 1948, from Blackley, Manchester, is one of the best-selling artists at Clark Art, his nostalgic evocations of Salford and Manchester commanding prices between £950 and £3,500. Gardner bridges the gap between Lowry and a younger generation of painters, 
says Bill.

Stephen Campbell, born in 1985, from Eccles, is another sought-after artist, distinctive for mixing his own paints and working straight to canvas in situ.

‘He’ll stick his canvas on a board in Deansgate and paint a picture. He gets a whole crowd around,’ says Bill. Campbell’s works commands prices of £500 to £1,500.

Ben Kelly, born in 1974 and based in Macclesfield, paints city scenes which fetch up to £2,500, but is such a rising star that, says Bill: ‘If you got one of his works you could sell it straight away at a profit.’

As for Phil George, born in 1960 and painting nostalgic northern scenes from his base in Wakefield, Bill says: ‘We put his work on the website and they sell within a minute.’

The rising demand for the work of these northern artists has come, perversely, during torrid times for the economy.

‘In unsettled times, art does become a good alternative investment,’ says Bill. ‘But there’s a flight towards quality and safety, and that’s one reason Lowry prices went up.’

The big-money Chinese and Russian art investors who would once have sought Picasso, Monet or Warhol and now snapping up Lowrys, says Bill.

‘You can get a fantastic Lowry for a million, and if they keep going the way they are, it will double in value in five to seven years,’ he adds.

Perhaps some art-lovers are betting hard cash that the same can be said for a Liam Spencer or Stephen Campbell original.

And the artists say

‘The northern art scene is really exciting at present; there is a fantastic mix of artists to enjoy from L.S. Lowry, Harold Riley and Theodore Major through to Geoffrey Key and Liam Spencer. As a painter I am interested in visual narratives; the area provides great scope to document the rich tapestry of contemporary northern life.’

Ben Kelly, Macclesfield.

‘Northern art has been undervalued for many years and therefore has not been exposed to the greater public until now. As a result of the opening of the Lowry show at the Tate this summer, there has been an inquisitive response to have a look at what the north has to offer. I have been fortunate in that I have cultivated many southern buyers over the years.’

Reg Gardner, Manchester.

‘Northern art is gritty, unapologetic, sometimes nostalgic and sometimes humorous. Its unpretentious and honest qualities make it an appealing alternative to art for art’s sake.’

Stephen Campbell.

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