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You are in: Manchester > Features > Places > Liam Spencer: Picture of Manchester

Liam Spencer painting

Liam Spencer: in the studio

Liam Spencer: Picture of Manchester

Liam Spencer is one of the rising stars of the British contemporary arts scene. He's renowned for his vivid portrayals of the urban landscape in and around Manchester.

Liam Spencer finds beauty in what others might consider banal, from canals and chip shops to motorways and modern buildings.

In his hands, a drab and dreary city scene on a wet and miserable day can appear beguiling and beautiful.

We take Liam Spencer back to the places and landscapes which have influenced his work, and watch him create a new painting especially for the BBC's 'A Picture of Britain' TV series.

Beauty in the banal

Liam Spencer is particularly attracted to modern urban landscapes, and he's renowned for transforming humdrum scenes into eerily beautiful portraits of light, colour and movement. Liam finds beauty in surprising places, from bleak industrial wastelands to everyday images of urban street life. 

Car wash (2003) - picture by Liam Spencer

Car wash (2003) - by Liam Spencer

"I'm always looking for beauty in unexpected places," says Liam.

He has an ability to make unattractive places such as petrol stations, cafes and urban motorways look appealing.

"I suppose over a period of the last few years, I've been painting more expansive landscapes where you can see the sky and the light and the changes.

"And it's only more recently that I've been able to zoom in and find more intimate things like a chip shop or a burger bar. I suppose it's still about light and colour, and that's what really appeals to me really."    

Mancunian images

Liam Spencer is often most frequently associated with images of Manchester, but he doesn't see himself as primarily a Mancunian artist. After completing an arts foundation course at Burnley College, he went to Manchester Polytechnic to complete a fine art degree.

Peveril of the Peak - by Liam Spencer

Peveril of the Peak - by Liam Spencer

Whilst studying he became more aware of his surroundings and the beauty of the urban landscape and he was inspired by the city's deserted canals and its gritty industrial scenes.

"I think what struck me most really were all the warehouses, and the mill buildings, to a lesser extent - these wonderful, red brick structures.  That made a big impression.

"I like the fact that the canals run right through the heart of Manchester and they're slightly hidden, although less so now, and you just had this linear oasis through rough parts of the city like Ancoats."

Liam has always been attracted to water so canals were an obvious subject in his early career.

"Water's always an attractive subject - it's got the illusionism and the reflections and the movement - and it just creates lots of dynamic rhythms."

Turf Moor at night by Liam Spencer

Home turf

One of Liam's favourite places to paint is his home town of Burnley where everyday locations have once again inspired his work. When he was a boy he remembers the industrial landscape vividly, with its mills and moors.

"I remember the cotton mills were still working when I was young, although it came to an end shortly after that," recalls Liam.

Today it's Turf Moor, home of the town's football club, which provides inspiration for many of his paintings.

"It's something about the night matches and the artificial lights that appeals to me as a painter and as a football fan as well."

Photographic memory

Liam used to work mostly from observation but over the years, he's started to spend a lot of time taking photographs which he sifts through to act as a source of inspiration and memory when he gets back to his studio.

Building by Liam Spencer

Liam likes Manchester's red brick

"I don't want to create a photographic painting. It still has to be a painting and be about brush strokes and paint and texture and colour."

The finished painting draws on the photographs but retains its physical qualities - this isn't photo-realism.

Spencer's famous painting of the IMO car wash was an image that he caught on camera quite fortuitously as he drew up in a car. He was able to capture the moment and the light in a very opportunistic way.

"It was glowing really.  It was looking quite enigmatic and it was taken off just a single photo."

A lot of Liam's work is about capturing the moment. "it's just what happens to make an impression at the time", he says.

"It's only more recently that I've been able to find more intimate things like a chip shop or a burger bar. I suppose it's still about light and colour"

Liam Spencer

Manchester's panorama

One of Liam's favourite views is a street in Salford which he remembers from when he was a child sitting on the top deck of a bus.

"This is the view of Manchester I have always loved, coming down the hill here.  This big wide road ahead of us and the skyline of the city all laid out before us. 

"It's a view I'll never tire of," says Liam who also remembers the same view when he used to work in Salford in an artists' studio.

Another favourite location is the Mancunian Way, frequently captured in his early paintings. This concrete flyover, unloved by many Mancunians, has become something of a trademark image in his work. 

Manchester's Albert Square and Piccadilly are other everyday places that Liam has made to look cosmopolitan and cool.

Albert Square - by Liam Spencer

Albert Square by Liam Spencer

Rising star

Some have dubbed Liam Spencer the new LS Lowry but are comparisons with Salford's best loved son way off the mark? And could there be a hint of Edward Hopper in his stylised landscapes?

Whilst there are glimpses of both artists in his work, Spencer's paintings are more cheerful and uplifting in style than his famous predecessors.

"I think the comparisons with Lowry are inevitable really as I suppose he pioneered art about the industrial north, and in some ways I've picked up on that," he says.

Although Hopper was never an influence, he thinks that perhaps it's their shared enthusiasm for low angled sunlight and red brick that draws comparisons.

"My work is perhaps closer to Impressionism in that I'm responding to what's there and to light, colour and weather conditions," says Liam. 

Liam Spencer continues to draw inspiration from his North West roots. Today he works from his studios in the Rossendale Valley, making and exploring new things, as Liam explains.

"If you keep doing the same work again, it becomes a kind of routine, pedestrian act, and I'm not really interested in that."

For his specially commissioned painting for the BBC, Liam combines past and future, drawing on Salford for inspiration but breathing new life into his latest work.

Watching this Mancunian master at work is fascinating experience, as he teases and tweaks his work. It's clear that this young British star is one to watch in the future.

'A Picture of Manchester' is part of a new series called 'A Picture of Britain' which runs weekly on BBC One from June 2005.

Liam's work can be viewed at:

Wendy J Levy Contemporary Art Ltd
17 Warburton St, Didsbury
Manchester M20 6WA
Tel/fax: 0161 446 4880

Philips Contemporary Art
10a Little Lever St
Manchester M1 1HR
Tel: 07968 047224

last updated: 29/05/2008 at 15:15
created: 11/05/2005

You are in: Manchester > Features > Places > Liam Spencer: Picture of Manchester

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