In a somewhat stark meeting room at Tate Britain, the curators of its forthcoming L.S. Lowry show, T.J. Clark and Anne M. Wagner, are attempting, at my request, to extol the artist’s virtues to me. It’s a complicated business. For one thing, I have the impression that they regard enthusiasm as infra dig. “I’ll give it a shot,” says Wagner, reluctantly. “But I don’t think you’re going to be convinced.”

For another, they are apt to slip into the same art doublespeak that they use in their writing (both are academics), a language so ardently theoretical and verbose, it makes my teeth ache. “Of course he’s a bad painter,” says Clark, when I suggest that some critics consider Lowry to be more muddler than stylist. “He’s a good painter, and a bad painter.” And then, with overweening disdain: “British art in the 20th century has massively suffered from its inability not to be good.”

OK … so, let’s talk about this good-bad painting, or bad-good painting, or whatever they want to call it. Why is Lowry worthy of another look? “Well, he is a master of mood,” says Wagner. “His paintings of churches epitomize this. They have great delicacy and quietude. He can use grey unlike almost anybody I know. He is a painter for close-looking. Then there’s his range of invention. “Bandstand, Peel Park” (a landscape from 1928) is an amazingly calligraphic painting, if you think of calligraphy as the dots and dashes of the application of paint. He can syncopate. Look at “Fun Fair at Daisy Nook” (from 1953), and ask yourself how he manages this hectic effervescence. It’s so observant. I take the problems that he has set himself about the nature of the crowd as being immensely serious. This is a literary problem, a pictorial problem, a cinematic problem. It’s a modern problem: What is the crowd? His solution is a formidable one. He is not kitsch. I would argue this with anybody. His paintings have an intense amount of feeling but I don’t believe they tell you how to feel — which is a tremendous achievement, especially with this kind of material.”

Would Clark like to add anything? “Only that modernism is constantly about making art from impoverished or limited or ugly means and, god, Lowry got that. He looked at Valette (Adolphe Valette, his most important teacher, a late French impressionist), and he thought: This is too beautiful, this is not what industrialization is. Industrialization is our reality and somehow painting has to give form to that, to shape it, articulate it, but not allow the painter or the viewer to leave hold of everything in it that is tragically awful.”

Clark and Wagner, a married couple who previously taught art history at the University of California, are the Tate’s nifty solution to a rather awkward problem. As it happens, this, too, is a problem of the crowd. The crowd, you see, loves Lowry, while the Tate has long seemed rather less keen, its attitude to the artist apparently mirroring his reputation in the wider art establishment, where it has largely been in decline ever since his death in 1976. (Brian Sewell speaks for many when he describes Lowry as “inept, tedious, repetitive, lacklustre, stuck in a rut.”)

No Lowrys were to be found in its permanent galleries, and the last retrospective, when crowds queued round the block to get in, took place some 40 years ago. In 2011, when the actor Ian McKellen accused it of metropolitan snobbery, and demanded that it sell its Lowrys to another institution if it was not going to let the public see them — there are 23 works by the artist in its collection — the Tate’s response was distinctly cool. No protestations of love. No promises for the future. Instead, a mealy-mouthed statement about how it “regularly” loaned Lowrys to exhibitions “in the regions.”

But even as it gave McKellen the brush-off (though I gather they’ve since made up, and that he will be attending the opening of the new show), Tate must have known that the moment was rapidly approaching when it would have to embrace Lowry anew. Apart from anything else, these are hard times for public institutions, financially speaking. Galleries need hits. One imagines, too, that Lowry shows are relatively inexpensive to mount given that the majority of the paintings are in British hands. The only question was: how to do it without losing face? Without seeming too populist, too craven?

Their solution was to go off-piste when it came to signing up a curator. (I’m speculating a little, since never in a million years is Tate going to admit to any of this.) Clark, who is British, and Wagner, who is American, are not Lowry specialists. They are not even British specialists (Wagner has written about British sculpture, but Clark made his name with a book about Manet).

However, in art history circles, they are big cheeses; people take them seriously (if not quite so seriously as they take themselves). Clark, moreover, is a mildly controversial figure. In the ’60s, he was a member of Situationist International, the Marxist cultural movement, and down the years has had a couple of highly publicized art world spats. On the surface, he is not at all the kind of man you’d expect to want to stick up for cuddly old Lowry, and therein lies his cachet as curator. It’s as if Terry Eagleton had decided to write a paean to Winifred Holtby.

Not that Clark sees Lowry as cuddly. Far from it. The show — it is called, rather grandly, “Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life” — extols the artist as Britain’s pre-eminent painter of the industrial city, and seeks to place him in the context of European art history (the exhibition will include paintings by Utrillo and Seurat).

For this reason, the subject matter of the work on display will be familiar to most visitors: Clark and Wagner have not included any of Lowry’s portraits, nor his seascapes, choosing instead to concentrate on his depictions of mills and terraced houses, of smoking chimneys and working-class life (hawkers, football crowds, trade union processions).

“This is his great subject, and those other things are peripheral,” says Clark, swatting me like a fly when I bring up what is missing. “Just for once, we have a body of painting which confronts this extraordinary world-historical experience that Britain had of pioneering the industrial revolution. It fascinates and appalls me that British culture has so few bodies of work that seriously confront that.”

But will seeing these paintings, and these paintings alone, encourage us to reconsider Lowry? Some would say that, grouped together, they will only confirm old prejudices.

“There are profound social reasons why people might look at Lowry again,” says Wagner. “The Lowry that we think we know is profoundly relevant. There are a lot of people who are suffering because of the reshaping of the state that was shaped during Lowry’s lifetime, and the north (which Lowry painted almost exclusively) is hit hardest by the cuts.”

She believes that the paintings ask a vital question: “Do we understand our past adequately enough to settle for the present?” They also look to the future, too. As she and Clark point out in the catalogue that accompanies the show, a painting such as “Industrial Landscape, Wigan” (1925) was, and still is, prescient: “The swamps and the chimneys are those of Wigan 70 years ago, but could as well be on the edges of Shenzhen or Sao Paulo in 2013.”

Are they, poachers turned gamekeepers, excited about the show? Clark is distinctly cool. “I feel curious,” he says. “I’ve never made claims for Lowry as a great artist, though those claims were made in the past (in his lifetime, his champions included the critic Herbert Read, and the director of the Tate, Sir John Rothenstein). But part of the point of the show is: what’s it going to be like when this body of work is gathered together?”

Wagner is a touch warmer. “You’re full of trepidation, but also of anticipation.” As an American, she did not know Lowry’s work before she saw it hanging in Manchester Art Gallery a few years ago, and she has enjoyed “the learning.” In particular, she is looking forward to the exhibition’s final room, which will bring together for the first time eight late, urban panoramas, the grand size of which, she and Clark believe, reveals the scale of Lowry’s final ambition.

Among them is “Industrial Landscape, Ashton-under-Lyne,” from 1952, a red-grey mosaic of mills and terraces; “Ebbw Vale,” from 1960, in which the town seems almost to be moving, visibly colonizing the hillside; and, from the Tate’s collection, “Hillside in Wales,” from 1962, a schematic representation of toy-town houses bounded by rolling green.

“I couldn’t be more excited about that room,” she says. “We’ve been hither and yon, and the idea that they will all be there …” Her voice trails off. Lowry was a fan of Bellini’s “Norma,” and their hope is that a recording of it will be playing as visitors reach the show’s climax. “Because for us, this is operatic. Human tragedy is no small topic to take on.”

As Wagner writes in her catalogue essay, there are nearly as many tales told about Lowry as there are tellers: Given that he was a man of the 20th century, accessible both to newspapers and television, it’s extraordinary how many myths and untruths attach to his name.

Though for some of these stories, we may blame the artist himself. Lowry could be blunt, overly frank; he took pride in his plain-speaking, his dislike of pretension. (“All my life I have felt most strongly against social distinction of any kind,” he wrote to Prime Minister Harold Wilson, turning down his offer of a knighthood.) But he was also mischievous, secretive, even mendacious: a builder of compartments in which he could hide.

He was born in Stretford, Lancashire, northwest England, in 1887, the only child of an estate agent and his difficult, aspirant wife, a failed concert pianist. At first, the family seemed to be on its way up. In 1898, they moved to Victoria Park, an area of Manchester where, as the historian A.J.P. Taylor put it: “Gothic palaces jostle each other and gardeners dust the soot from the leaves of the trees.”

By 1909, however, their circumstances had changed, and the Lowrys moved (Laurence Stephen never forgot the date) to Station Road, Pendlebury, an area of Salford dominated by cotton mills and coal mines. The family was still middle class, but it was also hard up.

As one of their maids told Lowry’s biographer: “At the Shephards (the Lowrys’ better-off relatives) we buttered the bread quite thickly; at the Lowrys, we spread it on, then scraped it off again, so there was just the merest taste on each slice.” When Lowry’s father died in 1932, he left huge debts, which his son had to work furiously to pay off.

Lowry started painting when he was 15. “Don’t know why. Aunt said I was no good for anything else, so they might as well send me to art school …” In 1905, shortly after he had begun work as a clerk at a firm of accountants, he began attending classes at the Municipal College of Art in Manchester, where he studied under the newly appointed French tutor Valette (several paintings by Valette will also appear in the Tate show).

“I cannot overestimate,” he said, “the effect on me at the time of coming into this drab city of Adolphe Valette, full of the French impressionists, aware of everything that was going on in Paris.”

Lowry continued to attend classes until 1928, first at the Salford School of Art, and later at the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts. No wonder it infuriated him when people later referred to him as self-taught.

In 1910, Lowry began work as a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company, a job he would hold down (and keep secret from the wider world) until 1952, when he retired. It was soon after this that he found his great subject. In 1912, he saw Stanley Houghton’s play “Hindle Wakes,” about a Lancashire mill girl, and realized there could be beauty in the industrial environment. He began sketching the people and places he saw on his walks around Salford.

Then, in 1916, his damascene moment. It came when he missed a train to Manchester. “I went back up the steps. It would be about four o’clock and perhaps there was some peculiar condition of the atmosphere or something. But as I got to the top of the steps I saw the Acme mill (in Pendlebury), a great square red block with the little cottages running in rows right up to it — and suddenly, I knew what I had to paint.” Thereafter, Lowry would paint the Acme mill again and again. As John Rothenstein would put it, Lowry became “to an extraordinary degree, dependent” on his vision.

His career as an artist built slowly, perhaps in part because he was so stretched at home. After his father’s death, his mother took to her bed. Lowry was required to read to her every night after he came home from work; he could only paint once she’d gone to sleep. When she died in 1939, things were beginning to change — this was the year of his first one-man show, which was reviewed widely — but Lowry now fell into a depression. Nevertheless, he continued to exhibit.

According to Clark, he was better known in Paris, where his work was accepted by the Salon d’Automne, than Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash. In 1943, he was appointed an official war artist. In 1950, 13 works were included in the exhibition Painters’ Progress at the Whitechapel, and in 1953 he was commissioned to record the Coronation. By the end of the ’50s, he was famous, the subject of a BBC documentary and with his own permanent space at Salford Art Gallery. Not an outsider at all.

But this isn’t to say that he wasn’t an unusual, even a weird, man. At the Lowry, in Salford, you can see an extraordinary film made by a local photographer who let himself into Lowry’s final home at Mottram in Longdendale, near the Pennine Moors, in the days after his death. In the bedroom of the famous bachelor — “I’ve never known passion,” he said — there hung on the walls his collection of female portraits by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, stirring and fiery.

In the 1950s, he painted a series of portraits of a woman called “Ann” (he never came clean about the identity of the subject), and in life he befriended a procession of much younger women, the last of whom was Carol Ann Lowry (no relation) to whom he would leave his estate (they met when she was 13 and wrote to him for advice about how to become an artist).

After his death, another group of female portraits was discovered: disturbing, mannequin-like figures in fetishistic poses (Carol Ann Lowry feared they resembled her). “His deceptions were all part of a queer sort of protection against the world,” said his friend, Edith Timperley. “Even if you had been quite intimate with him, you couldn’t ask personal questions. He wouldn’t have it. He must have spent a lot of time covering up — and for what?” The question hangs in the air even today.

It’s a shame these portraits don’t feature in the Tate show, for once you know about them they put the crowded landscapes in a new light. It’s this side of Lowry, moreover, that seems to interest a new generation of admirers of his work. (Though there are still some who cleave primarily to the idea of him as a painter of working-class life. “If he were alive today he would be making video and sound art about call centers,” says the artist Bob and Roberta Smith, another unexpected enthusiast.)

The artist George Shaw, a Turner prize nominee in 2011, grew up, as so many of us did, with reproductions of Lowry on the walls of his family home.

“I’m often asked the question why there are no people in my own paintings,” he says. “I’m never consistent with my answer, but perhaps it betrays my sober alienation or my misanthropy. Lowry’s populated landscape looks so different, doesn’t it? Or does it? He always seems so far away from what he paints, and certainly from whom he paints. Collect the rent, make a doodle or two, and f—- off back to the studio. A touch of the voyeur, the stalker, the peeper.”

This sounds melodramatic, unfair, defamatory. But for me, there is truth in it. I look at Lowry’s work and, though my brain tells me that I’m gazing at chimney stacks and houses and tiny freight trains, threading their way through towns like a line of ants, it is the painter not his subject that I always see in my mind’s eye, his mackintosh buttoned tight against the weather and the world.

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