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Colin Hambrook on portrayals of 'disability' / 24 September 2012

Earlier this month I attended a Disability Studies Conference at Lancaster University. One of the papers that has stayed with me was a piece of work-in-progress on ‘Disability in Cultural Spaces’ by Nancy Hansen from Manitoba University. She'd been to The Lowry Museum in Salford, where one of her favourite paintings 'The Cripples' is displayed.

I've never been a particular fan of LS Lowry's work. I’ve always felt a certain discomfort with the atmosphere of nostalgia evoked by his scenes of the industrial north in the first half of the 20th century, peopled by ‘matchstick’ figures. But then, Lowry has always been painted by the media as a sad, romantic, figure and perhaps at least some of my perception has been coloured by the copy I’ve read about him.

What Hansen brought alive in her talk was the extent to which how art and the artist is perceived, is so much about the curation of work and the focus on the way it is interpreted. She homed in on a later painting by Lowry - one of her favourites - 'The Cripples (1949). She talked about her own immediate response being one of liberation and a sense of being "amongst my people for the first time” in stark contrast to how the media and The Lowry Museum write about the painting.

One of the key things for Hansen is how the Disability aesthetic is misunderstood, through a cultural insistence that it is per se a metaphor for an ugly or defective aspect of society. For instance the painting is consistently talked about as presenting its panoply of disabled people ‘as figures in isolation' when, rather, if you look closely, there is a lot of interaction and inter-relating happening between the individuals depicted on the canvas. Hansen expressed wonder that they were indeed looking at the same painting she was seeing.

The teachers pack in The Lowry talks about the painting as being 'cruel and ugly', and of a 'disturbing, violent, voyeuristic nature.' Then with incredibly leading questions it goes on to ask: 'How does it make you feel? Is it meant to be a funny painting; a cruel painting, or both?'

In further references to 'The Cripples' quoted by Hansen, it is seen as a 'metaphor for all that is going wrong in the world'. Each of the impairments of the characters is often explored in full, reducing Lowry’s art to a medical model fascination with his subjects. There is a general assumption made, that disability is always a miserable state of being. The Lowry itself purports a reluctance to have copies of 'The Cripples' on postcards, for fear it might be in bad taste.

What is missed out, often, is context and analysis of the time it was painted, both in terms of The Cripples' being a post-war urban scene, when many war-amputees would have been seen on the streets of Manchester. Indeed at least ten of the characters in the painting were well-known individuals.

Meanwhile the painting meant much to Lowry as an expression of his own sense of being disabled by society. He said of it: “I feel strongly about these people. I am attracted to the sadness. I feel like them.”

The picture that emerges through Hansen's research highlights how what is written about 'The Cripples' says more about the attitudes of the media and the art education sector, than perhaps it does about the painting itself. Could the perception of 'The Cripples as 'a voyage into the grotesque' be merely a projection of the fears and prejudices of those interpreting the painting in this way?

I’m fascinated by the ways that disability is portrayed. Reference to disability in museums is so often ranged around access, failing to consider deeper implications of what the ways it is talked about (or not talked about) might mean. I look forward to finding more about Hansen’s research when it is ready for publication.


Colin Hambrook

19 June 2014

I hadn't taken note of the marionette series Alison, so I googled it and found an interview with Carol Ann Lowry in the Daily Mail from 2011. She was bequeathed these drawings and introduced them to the public for the first time. The article suggests they were influenced by Lowry's interest in ballet - and in particular the ballet Coppelia, which is about a life-size mechanical doll.

I personally think it's very difficult to make value judgements of drawings based on representations - either in print or online. There are nuances in technique that the camera/ digital scan misses.

I would be interested to know what academics like Nancy Hansen who know Lowry's work more extensively would make of your question?

Alison Tomlin

15 June 2014

I'm very late to disability politics - ill-read, ill-educated, catching up having comparatively recently gained a disability (and thinking of course I should have been more interested before ...), and also ill-educated in art, so these are very amateur comments. I'm curious: when I saw The Cripples in an exhibition, coming on it without warning, expecting the Manchester street scenes of my youth, I was repulsed. It seemed to me only to use people as entertainers for the viewer (and I think that's consistent with the non-cripples paintings). Since then, I've seen the 'marionettes' series (online), in which women's bodies are contorted, with necks bent (broken?) or stretched (in stocks, in effect), buttocks exposed etc. The paintings are rarely exhibited, much less sold as postcards. I'm clear that these are pornographic images - cf. the binding of Chinese women's feet, done to make them 'delicate' but also to cripple them, preventing them running (or walking) their own lives, and causing such continuing injury that they oozed pus which was a turn-on for some men (who wrote poems about it). My curiosity is about this question: does knowledge of the 'marionette' series change how we see the cripples paintings? It does for me - I now hate the man ...

Sophie P.

17 September 2013

Thanks for this Colin & every-one.

Maybe this is me Projecting but the bloke on the pre-skateboard thingy looks quite chirpy to me!

:-) x

Paul Darke

17 September 2013

Very interesting. Enjoyed the discussion and comments. So many complexities. Equally, demonstrates the 'already read' ideas of Jameson; the intentionally fallacy of the artist (critic and curator and spectator) and historical distortions (of culture, memory and contemporary ideologies) competing for an illusory - and delusionary - truth). Such is life.

Colin Hambrook

17 September 2013

It sounds from the transcript as thought the writer is challenged and has quite come to grips with why he is challenged by the this painting. To call the painting 'comicly grotesque' is to undermine Lowry's own relationship to the painting. It is full of the painter's passion to tell the world like it is!

Nancy Hansen

12 September 2013

L. S. Lowry, The Cripples, 1949 (Lowry Museum)

A stark title and a shocking image: The Cripples.

T. J. Clark - This is Lowry at his most difficult, the difficulty of this picture will never go away.

We’ll all make up our minds differently about whether this painting is a success. He is coming in close to the human world now and when he comes in close it’s to a human world that is dreadful, deformed, a world of victims if you like. Although these victims have energy, they’re not going to take it lying down, you know, they’re going to live in spite of anything that the world does to them.

There’s war in the background, but it’s not just the war, I mean it’s profound ill health, industrial society, this is what the National Health Service is about, sort of finding a way to confront actually what industrialisation does to human bodies and life chances. This isn’t exaggerated, it has a sort of deliberately comic grotesqueness to it. I’m not sure it manages to strike a real moral balance, there’s a side of me which recoils from it as maybe glib in its pessimism. But this is part of Lowry, he’s always saying no sentiment, right, that was his watchword, no sentiment, I’m going to look at this world as it is and this world includes misery and deformity.

This is the text from the audio guide of the Lowry exhibit at Tate Britain.(Thank you Richard!). Clearly, there is a great deal of work that remains to be done exploring art through a disability lens.

richard downes

25 September 2012

Your response made me look at the painting again.

I think there is another context. What is the position of the cripple, what is the activity the cripple is engaged in and what is the response to the cripple.

i see isolation, surprise and begging in this painting. I think each of these may be fair representations with respect to time, The sense of accuracy therein rebukes sentimentality, hurtfulness or cruelty.

I think its interesting that we talk about how the world is and wanting to represent that and then stopping to think that maybe this is only the way the world is for me.

Nice blog Col -= thoughtful stuff

Allan Sutherland

10 October 2012

One of the aspects of Nancy's presentation was to show how critical and art-historical materials, including the Lowry's own schools pack, have repeatedly suggested that the picture shows people who are war wounded. This is, in my opinion, entirely wrong, the result of drawing false conclusions from the painting's 1948 date.

Firstly because if one's been around disability a while, one can identify

most of the impairments as due to other causes, such as a polio leg.

Secondly because the few (possibly not more than two) characters who have

amputations which might be war-related do not wear any medals, old uniform etc. So it is unlike George Grosz's pictures after 1918. The impairments can more rationally be seen as possibly the result of industrial injury, and the picure as a whole as a snapshot of the effects of life before the NHS.