There are almost 300 paintings by Arthur Lockwood in his brilliant 25-year watercolour record of some of the West Midlands’ greatest industrial relics.
But what you won’t find in his latest book, Urban and Industrial Watercolours of Birmingham and the Black Country, is a picture of an artist who could readily be described as Birmingham’s very own Lowry.
Although one of his two sons is a photographer, he has always been content to be relatively anonymous – until now.
“I don’t like having my photograph taken,” he says.
“And why do people smile on photographs?”
Yet the minute the camera goes away, back comes the real Arthur.
The cheerful chatterbox. The smiley-faced enthusiast. The gifted and incredibly dedicated painter of urban landscapes par excellence.
A man who, if Star Wars director George Lucas hadn’t already used the name for his own special effects company, could rightly claim to be offering a heavy metal form of Industrial Light & Magic.
Only time will tell how important Arthur’s work is, but what is glaringly obvious is that while a certain famous northern artist called L. S. Lowry used to paint the outdoor industrial landscape in oils, A. Lockwood often goes one step beyond.
“I’ve gone for a different vision to Lowry,” he says.
“I wanted to get inside the factories.
“Lowry must have been inside a mill, but never felt inclined to paint it.”
Many of the places Arthur visits are on their knees when he knocks on the door like an artistic Grim Reaper.
He doesn’t just specialise in the essence and heritage of the manufacturing process but the death throes of individual companies at the very moments they’re being left behind by the march of technology.
“There aren’t a lot of painters of traditional, metal-based industries,” he says.
“And working companies don’t want this strange lunatic sitting there painting and being hit by lumps of metal.
“I just thought I’d better get along and capture these scenes before they were lost forever.
“Sometimes I just set off in the car and look for places.”
In that respect, he has the same kind of inner drive as George Catlin (1796-1872), whose extraordinary, image-defining work capturing Native American Indians in the 1830s is currently being exhibited at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG).
One day in 2003, when Arthur didn’t hear and feel the earth-shaking thuds from Halladay’s Drop Forgings Ltd, he knew instantly that something had changed at the JCB components’ manufacturer.
Discovering it was closing down after 130 years, he simply unpacked his easel ready to spend five days preserving another piece of local history.
Apart from keeping the cost down, compared with oils, why use delicate watercolours to paint something so solid?
“I learned to paint with watercolours by going out sketching with my father,” Arthur explains.
“The problem is that once you’ve done something you can’t change anything, whereas with oils you can scrape away and repaint.
“With watercolours, you are stuck with what you put on the paper.”
A portrait painter might tell you he’d begin with someone’s eyes, but Arthur’s paintings are so diverse and sometimes so complicated you wonder how he ever decides where to put pencil to paper.
He likes to use Sabre brushes with a point, but where does he start?
“I first look for subjects I am interested in,” says Arthur.
“Then I talk to people who will explain what it is.”
Using one painting as an example, Arthur shows me an imaginary line about a third of the way up from the bottom.
It’s where the horizontal “eye level” is from where he was sitting.
Somewhere along that line will be the point which draws in the sense of perspective from the corners; here it’s about a third of the way in from the right hand side.
On the back of each painting are notes about the number of days it took and the dates he was in situ.
If it’s impossible for any artist to offer a realistic yardstick to his own talent, that doesn’t stop Arthur from enjoying his own work in time.
“I know my limitations and you are never quite satisfied with paintings that you do,” he says.
But if he sees something with fresh eyes five or 10 years later, what then?
“I often think: ‘How did I do it?’” he admits.
“I just keep going into places, looking for different subjects.
“That aspect has come from my work in publishing and deciding about the subjects I would be involved in.”
Along with most of his late father Frank T Lockwood’s collection, Arthur has already given some paintings to The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s own archive.
To see them, visit one of those new-fangled “interactive features” in the year-old local history gallery and simply press a button.
While Arthur’s admirable resistance to commercialising his paintings is what might one day give them real value, the most remarkable aspect of his story is that he switched careers at the age of 53 to make sure he could undertake his preservation mission, the body of work being far more important than the value of any individual piece.
“I am less concerned with the sale of paintings than my father was,” he says.
“He used to paint more popular subjects and things like country scenes but towards the end of his life turned to rundown areas and how a city like Birmingham was changing.
“I used to work in London in publishing, but then we moved up here 25 years ago.
“I looked at my father’s life and saw how dying at the age of 64 meant he didn’t have a long enough retirement.
“Computers were coming into publishing and everything was changing from the days when you could take your time and do your research by going out to meet experts and to talk to them.
“I used to design books of all kinds and had a retainer with Penguin’s education programme.
“I also worked for the British Museum and Reader’s Digest and half the fun was meeting the artists.
“It was time for me to leave.”
Arthur originally studied for two years at the Bournville School of Art (1949-51).
After four years at the Birmingham College of Art, he went to London’s Royal College of Art.
Wife-to-be Gillian also studied there as a graphic design student. After becoming a mother she concentrated on pottery and ceramics and has her own, very separate studio to Arthur’s book-lined room at their delightful cottage home in Lapworth.
Already great-grandparents, they have two sons – David, a photography teacher in Bootle, and Paul, a school technician in Warwick and a painter himself.
Following his National Service and “hating” a week at an advertising agency, Arthur joined a publishing firm to learn the nuts and bolts of his trade before turning freelance.
Perhaps the catalyst for his future industrial direction was seeing the family home being demolished.
“We used to live on Dalston Road in Acocks Green, a council estate where all the steel blocks rusted,” he says.
“It took two minutes to knock our house over with a bulldozer.”
It was a brutal lesson about how ephemeral the modern world is.
And why Arthur rarely misses an opportunity to capture something on paper before it’s lost forever.
Sometimes, he records the construction process, as he did during the rebuilding of the Bullring which reopened 10 years ago on September 4, 2003. The new £188.8m Library of Birmingham, though, has passed him by.
“If I’m inside a factory for three or four months, half of Birmingham could have either been demolished or rebuilt,” he jokes.
Arthur Lockwood – Urban and Industrial Watercolours of Birmingham and the Black Country (Sansom & Company), £25.