Sketching a rich slice of social history

For nearly 60 years Fred Lawson drew aspects of life in the Yorkshire Dales for love rather than money. His huge output is now a social archive – and increasingly valuable. Even a small album of his pictures has become an exhibition. John Woodcock reports

It could be said that what LS Lowry did for Lancashire mill towns, Fred Lawson did for Yorkshire market towns, and the Dales.

Their art reflected very different territory – Lowry's industrial landscapes are crowded with humanity, whereas Lawson repeatedly caught the solitude of country life – but in the undefined figures of both is the story of a vanished England.

Many of Lowry's mills and factories have made way for shopping malls or apartments. Likewise, would Lawson recognise today's rural byways without hawkers' caravans, drovers, a traction engine at threshing time, or horse-drawn carts buckling under their cargo of wool?

These were familiar scenes during much of the six decades he was drawing and painting in North Yorkshire. Nearly 40 years after his death, any number of people have a practical reason to be grateful for his deceptively simple social commentary.

The art world has caught on to Lawson's value, and prices for his work are escalating. Fred would probably have been amused and surprised.

They say he was a man with little care for money. His surroundings, and events within them, were his main currency. He was so prolific that when strapped for cash it was not unusual for him to pay his grocery or milk bill with a picture. Umpteen households in the Dales are said to have at least one Lawson on their walls, and how many are waiting to be rediscovered in drawers and cupboards?

Other people were acquainted with him through his contributions to The Dalesman magazine, and some wrongly assumed he was a dalesman himself.

He was born in Yeadon in 1888, studied at art schools in Dewsbury and Leeds, and then the Royal College of Art in London. A holiday in Wensleydale in 1910 was the turning point in his life and led to him and his friend, George Graham, establishing a studio at Castle Bolton. Though the Dales became his home and the inspiration for Fred's rt – he, in turn, inspired an artists' group there – he wasn't confined by the area's routines and expectations. He sought out art on the Continent and in France he was influenced by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. His travels may also have had another significant impact. During the First World War he was a conscientious objector, ironic given that his family in the West Riding manufactured greatcoats for the Army. Their business connections, however, were a link to patrons and one of his more unusual commissions.

It is the subject of a forthcoming exhibition – believed to be the first devoted solely to Fred's work since his death in 1968, when he was 80 and still productive.

We owe it to a Victor Thomas of Nab Wood, near Bradford, who had presented him with a blue-bound sketchbook of blank pages, just 10in x 8in. The brief was to produce an album with whatever took Fred's fancy. He began working on the project at Castle Bolton on June 1, 1935, and four months and five days later there was a picture on every page.

The resulting 96 scenes in pen and ink and watercolours was entitled A Book of Drawings and mainly they feature the Dales and neighbouring towns in all seasons, each with a title as unassuming as their creator: Dinner Hour, Sheep Dipping, The Sale, Coming From School, Repairing the Roof, A Wet Day, The Tramp, Desolate, The Back Yard...

In one or two, a figure suspiciously like Fred, with his trademark pipe, trilby, and crumpled tweeds, is hovering on the edge of a crowd, the artist tickled perhaps by the idea of the observer being observed.

He also included a few images done further afield, including Leeds, Whitby, the Northumberland coast, Edinburgh, and five set in France. The book did not lack surprises. Provence, Avignon and Paris featured next to Hawes, Askrigg, Ripon, and "Wallops", a form of skittles played on the green at Redmire. The book is a significant discovery in the Lawson archive, according to art dealer William Greenwood, who acquired it last year and then faced the dilemma of what to do with it. He thinks it was seen by probably only a handful of people, which was a factor in his decision to split up the contents and present and sell them as separate works. The book was also showing its age, and its staples were rusting.

Although it means good business for him, Greenwood says that breaking up any collection involves some agonising. "Keeping it intact would perhaps have made sense for an individual collector, but work in a book is not as rewarding as seeing it on a wall. I felt that presenting 96 Lawsons individually would bring wider pleasure, and give more people the chance to own his work."

There was also a personal reason why the dealer hesitated. The Greenwoods had had a connection with the book since the early 1980s. William, then a newcomer in the art world, and his late father Bill, a collector and GP in Bedale, were rival bidders for it at an auction in Retford. Father won but sold the book after it appeared at Wakefield Art Gallery in 1988 in an exhibition featuring works by the Lawson family – Fred, his wife Muriel Metcalf, and their daughter Sonia, now a leading figure at the Royal Academy.

Greenwood junior says he had forgotten about the unusual volume until a customer offered him several of Fred's pictures, and The Book of Drawings was among them. "The works are pithy, often humorous, and uncomplicated, all a fair summary of Fred. They also provide nostalgia. They reflect their time and how life in the Yorkshire countryside, particularly the Dales, used to be. Essentially it is a local perspective. Older people often recognise a parent or grandparent in a Fred scene.

"He painted larger work in his studio but these drawings indicate the spontaneity of much of his huge output. He didn't drive and couldn't carry many materials to work on the spot, which is why he rarely used oils. So he kept it simple, capturing something as it happened and working quickly before the scene changed.

"People remember him being out in all weathers. I don't think he was trying to say anything in particular, but wanted to paint and draw whatever was around him. To that extent it's social history. He would create in a field one day, a market place the next, sometimes adding the colour later. He was scrupulous, too. If he did a Dales scene and people asked him 'why no sheep?' he would reply 'because I didn't see any'. Fred was not one to embellish.

"We don't know how much he was paid to fill the book but my guess is that it wasn't much. Maybe 20 or so. Commercially he was not very ambitious. Now, of course, he's established as a significant 20th century English artist, and in particular a Yorkshire artist, and prices for his work reflect that."

They have made 3,000 and the 1935 drawings in the exhibition are priced from 130 for a sketch, up to 1,450, with prints also available at 95.

The exhibition of Fred Lawson's drawings is at The Gallery, Burneston, near Bedale, North Yorkshire, April 22-May 7. Daily 10am-5pm. For details 01677 424830.