In the 1980’s, when I lived in Manchester, I had a neighbour - an elderly and singular woman called Mary. Although she lived in dusty shabbiness in a house that hadn’t been decorated since the 1930’s and was in desperate need of rewiring and replumbing the gossip in the street said that Mary was rather wealthy. The talk was she had once been the mistress of a very successful theatrical impresario who on his death had left his entire fortune to her including shares in Cunard Shipping and South African diamond mines. For all the gossip however Mary lived a life of apparent poverty. All her clothes and shoes came from jumble sales and her food was always the cheapest ‘own brand’, particularly when it came to cigarettes. I cannot remember the name of the lung strippers that she preferred but they never cost more that 50p for a packet of 20, and tasted like the sweepings off the factory floor.
The only certain thing we did know about Mary was she had never done a proper day’s work in her life and she was proud of the fact. She claimed that one day in the 1920s when she was a teenager she was walking down Market Street in Manchester when she ran into a large crowd standing outside a department store. The people were looking in a doorway where a ‘human statue’ was on show. “And that was it”, said Mary. “He was just standing there, not moving a muscle, completely motionless and yet…” said Mary, “the crowd was throwing money, hand over fist, into the bucket at his feet.” For Mary this was a revelation. “That’s the kind of job I wanted”, she said, “doing nothing but getting paid for it.”
How she achieved this ambition was unclear. She may have had a few wealthy lovers in her youth and she certainly finished up with the well-heeled theatrical in later years but apart from that the only certainty was she worked for a time as an artist’s model at Manchester School of Art… sitting still and doing nothing… and one of the young students that she posed for was L.S Lowry, who was later to achieve fame for his ‘matchstick men’ scenes painted around Pendlebury where he lived.
I asked Mary what Lowry was like. She said that it was difficult to be precise because it was such a long time ago but she remembered him as being rather shy and melancholy. None of this bothered her as there was little room for chit chat in their relationship. All she had to do was sit there …and do nothing.
Mary had a few of Lowry’s ‘portraits’ of herself propped up on the mantlepiece painted on scraps of cardboard and hardboard. If you didn’t know that they had been created by a young Lowry you wouldn’t pay them much attention. They looked like they had been dashed off in a hurry - sketches rather than serious works of art… but then Lowry never described himself as an artist but merely a painter, a Sunday painter that painted seven days a week!
Mary died suddenly in 1991. She was found in her kitchen, lying on the floor, a cheap ciggie in the ashtray. Her family came and emptied the house, hoping perhaps that underneath the mouldering piles of old clothes and shoes, dusty ornaments and unread books there might be something of value but it was not to be. Even those scruffy pictures of Mary painted on bits of cardboard didn’t catch the eye and they all went into a skip, gone forever.
Mary was later to prove in a generous way that she hadn’t forgotten her friends, neighbours, relatives and lovers - the Italian waiter who had loved her in his youth and still visited her in old age, the lady down the road who occasionally dropped in for tea, the man who mowed her lawn, her young niece, her brother who had once been a Spitfire pilot and so on. The only person overlooked at the end was the quiet man from Pendlebury who had once painted her while she achieved her life’s ambition -sitting there doing nothing!
– from Martyn Day