Which brings me to the last painting in this Town House in Lockdown exhibition. It’s by James Mackinnon and it’s an appropriate one to end with as the very first piece of East End art I encountered was by James. It was a long while ago in 1994 and ‘London Fields East: The Ghetto’ was an exhibition at the Museum of London and the memory of peering in through the windows of that extraordinary model of Ellingfort Road in Hackney stayed with me for a long while afterwards. The street was due to be demolished, but was being occupied by squatters at the time, many of them artists.
So, as my journey with East London art started unwittingly with a piece by James Mackinnon, it feels fitting that this lockdown exhibition should end with his Tower at Night, London Fields from 2012. It was the last in a series of paintings of the area around London Fields where he used to live.
To me this has that magical sense of a perfectly still night, that beautiful moon shining, not a breath of wind, like some of the beautiful nights with a spectacular moon we’ve had in lockdown. No cars out, or people walking around but the sense that people are still there in a multi coloured patchwork of urban life. When I stood in the gallery and looked at this painting I wondered what it would look like if someone switched those lights off….
As soon as lockdown started, I really wanted to to cycle into central London to see it as I’d never seen it before. I expected to find it rather beautiful, the buildings, uncluttered by hordes of visitors, finally revealed in all their glory. Instead I found it very sad, depressing even. The doors of St Paul’s were tightly shut with no one on the steps, just one other cyclist there having a look. Unlike this painting there was no lit window to reassure me that there was someone inside, that life was carrying on as normal. This was very definitely not normal and it made me realise that beautiful as they are, these city landmarks are made by the presence of people. The loss of that same buzz of visitors that I’ve noticed in my empty shop is magnified many times over looking at a tightly shut and desolate St Paul’s.
Which brings me back to Doreen’s Mile End Park. I’ve realised that because it doesn’t look like a city view, I don’t feel the need to find people in it, to see life going on behind the façade; it feels rural rather than urban. It’s the city views that need people, without them they are sad, just as central London has been sad in these terrible last weeks.
And that’s what I’ve taken from hanging these paintings together here: yes, East End art is about the buildings and the loss of them, the shops and markets, the poverty, even the beauty, but more than anything else I’ve realised during lockdown it’s about people and it’s about community.
You can see the video of the whole exhibition here:-
Living close to Peri at the same period was Doreen Fletcher. In fact, they knew each other as both were part of the same community of artists in the 80s although their work and whole approach to it was very different. Neither were born East Enders and whereas Peri seems to have taken a while to respond to it emotionally as a subject, Doreen knew when she arrived that she had to paint these dilapidated streets that were under threat before it was too late.
Mile End Park at Twilight was painted in 1983, shortly after Doreen’s arrival in the East End and the gasometer looms over the terrace in Cooperfield Road, illustrating the fading dominance of industry in the East End. It was the target of many bombing raids during the war and its position in the midst of the maze of little streets caused terrible bomb damage, which eventually led to the plans to re-develop the area long after the war. Here the terrace sits, awaiting its fate, shuttered and secured to prevent squatters and vandals.
Doreen is an optimist at heart though: she could have shown the buildings derelict as we saw in Peri Parkes’ painting and the palette could have been much gloomier. Instead Doreen has chosen to paint the scene at sunset, with a glorious multi coloured sky and a hopeful burst of light in the distance. And although we don’t see them, we sense there are still people inside: windows are lit and the street lights are shining, negating the effect of the dark and shuttered terrace.
The second of Doreen’s paintings I hung always looks like an 18th century painting of a Suffolk village by a young Thomas Gainsborough to me, although I suppose if you look closely the Tandoori Curry shop sign is a bit of a giveaway. It’s definitely not a typical East End painting though: no run-down buildings here, these are painted in cheerful colours, well kept, with pretty windows and a nice area of neatly mown grass in front. This is Mile End Park with Church from 1988 and although I hung it in chronological order in the gallery I’m going to return to it in the next post….
Unlike John Allin and Rose Henriques, the next artist, Peri Parkes, had trained at the Slade and moved to the East End after the break-up of his marriage: a friend was living there and Peri, trying to make his way as an artist, couldn’t afford anywhere else. This is one of a series of paintings executed when he was living in that prefab in Conder Street, Limehouse and dates to around 1982.
It’s another ‘backs of houses’ and is the fourth in Peri’s sequence of the street. Earlier on in the series the emphasis is on the rigorous measuring technique which he’d been taught at the Slade, the subject is just what’s available to him out of his window. But gradually you can see him being drawn in emotionally and he becomes fixated on the wall in the foreground that gradually disintegrates from one painting to another and a patch of moss that was cleaned off it. He wrote: ‘at the very beginning there was a rich snakeskin pattern of moss down the wall, one day it was scraped away, nonetheless I have determined that its absence remains the main focus of the painting’. For him these paintings become an allegory of the passage of time and so there is an air of forlorn dereliction to the painting without the signs of life in Walter Steggles’ painting even though the subject is similar. There’s just a faint air of decay and emptiness.
Except when I hung it in the gallery, I noticed something I’d never spotted before in this: the very faint head of a child looking out of the window, which is now the first figure to appear in one of Peri’s paintings. From this point on the East End becomes more than just whatever’s outside his window for Peri, it starts to get under his skin and the buildings with rubble outside that had been derelict and lifeless in his work, start to become inhabited and take on a life of their own
For a short video of the whole exhibition see the link below:-
While Rose Henriques paints her local community, and her people are faceless parts of a larger whole, the characters in John Allin’s work are real: his people are characters we feel we’ve met. He was the only artist of the six here, who was born in the East End in 1934 and so he spent his childhood and teenage years there through the war until the 50s. It was in his blood and whereas Rose Henriques did something practical in response to the grinding poverty she saw around her, John Allin was a more political animal and sometimes it creeps into his art, particularly early on.
The Launderette from 1968 depicts the one over which he lived at the time in Hackney. It’s a large work with bright colours and was painted using ordinary house paint, which he used early on in his career. It’s an attractive scene, but what about the faces? I hadn’t noticed before that none of them are smiling, although maybe the lady in blue might have a half-smile. Look at the man on the right and the small boy with the laundry sack, their figures are slightly bowed and downtrodden, like the people trudging along the street outside. And the lady behind the counter is definitely ready to go home after a hard day! But I like it, he’s portraying what he sees, but it’s more than a record, it’s also what he feels and hasn’t descended into the rather more commercial nature of some of his later work, once he’d achieved success and fame.
You can see a bit of this in the next one, which is slightly more formulaic and was painted about 6 years later in 1974. But what a wonderful image of East End shops, every item on sale carefully and lovingly drawn. Incidentally these shops were in Hessel Street, the same street as Rose Henriques’ market painting, but over 35 years later, after the market had gone. His affection for these little shops is almost palpable.
The next two paintings I hung in the gallery during lockdown are completely different. They’re by Rose Henriques, who lived in Whitechapel and who painted these just a few years after the Walter Steggles in the previous post. She and her husband Basil lived in Berner Street and made such a large contribution to the local community over the years, that the street was later renamed after them. They moved there in 1930 and the first painting is of the small court behind the main building. It’s called Our Court, from 1933 and shows the three cottages that they demolished that same year to build flats as accommodation for local people. She was self taught as an artist and her choice to record this court just before it disappeared suggests that her desire to make a record of the area around her was her motivation for starting to paint.
The court had probably changed very little over the 120 years it had been there and the way of life of the people you see in it here, had probably changed very little too. It’s one of those tiny East End courts that we all love to see in photographs, a bit like the Walter Steggles backs of houses, it’s like seeing what’s going on behind the scenes – something we don’t usually get the chance to see. But in this one there are people: two women, or a woman and a child maybe, washing celery and a costermonger with his barrow who’s come around with something to sell to a man waiting. It’s difficult to work out what it is. The barrow is unusual and seems to have a sink, is he washing something, perhaps fish? Preparing oysters? And the women outside their doors with their children: these are lives led on the streets, for all to see and definitely not behind closed doors. Gone are the empty streets of the East London Group, these are teeming with life.
Look at the next painting by Rose, called Upper and Lower Market: also from the 30s, it’s of Hessel Street market. It was re-developed in the 50s and the market was swept away, but here it’s thronging with people: market traders, someone carrying a sack on his back, children, babies in prams, stiff-tailed dogs sniffing each other, policemen chatting and someone with a tray selling ribbons maybe, who looks as though he’s walked straight out of a 19th century edition of Cries of London. This could just as easily be street life 1880 as 1930.
This post is the first in a series of nine about the exhibition Town House Spitalfields in Lockdown and there’s a link at the end to the video of the whole exhibition:-
Town House shut its doors on 20th March 2020. The lockdown started the following week and I have visited weekly just to keep an eye on things, to water the plants in the courtyard and once to make the window look a bit more spring like just in case there was anyone passing by.
Already that seems a long while ago. At first, I found it unbearably sad walking through the door: I hadn’t realised just how much I’ve got used to the buzz of people coming and going and to hearing their chatter as they walk round the shop.
And that was one of the two things I missed overwhelmingly when the lockdown started: the people who visit Town House and talk about their ancestors, the East End and their memories of it and the second thing I missed was the paintings themselves. I’ve found that lockdown has altered the way I look at some things, so I decided to hang some East End paintings in the gallery here and have a look at them all side by side to see.
The first one I hung in this lockdown exhibition was an obvious one: Old Houses Bethnal Green (1929), by Walter Steggles of the East London Group. It’s a tiny painting, much smaller compared to other works by the Group; there’s also less sky and it’s much darker in tone. The whole thing feels cramped and claustrophobic somehow, reflecting the houses it was depicting perhaps, and all emphasised by the size of that frame closing it in. There are no people, but you know they’re there: there’s washing hanging on the line, some junk piled up by a back door. We can sense the lives that the people who live here lead, even though we can’t see them. There’s something fascinating about paintings of the backs of houses, the artist may just be painting the buildings, but we all love to look for what might really be going on behind those closed doors.
A woman sits alone at her work, head slightly bent, absorbed in what she is doing. Not an uncommon theme in twentieth century art and literature, but this watercolour dates from just before the middle of the nineteenth century, when ordinary women in their domestic surroundings were usually to be found as tokens of hard work and drudgery in genre paintings depicting the toils of the working class. In these paintings it was the woman’s surroundings that were important: the sparsely furnished cottage with its fire, cooking pot and perhaps children – all symbols of the inescapable purpose of her life.
This painting is unusual as the women is centre stage for her own sake, the surroundings are almost irrelevant and the affection and familiarity of the painter’s gaze suggests that this was probably painted by someone close to her. Perhaps it was her daughter, practising the painting that would have been part of her education in a ‘middling sort’ of household and as she looked at her mother she would surely have thought of her life to come.
If so, she does not seem to have been unhappy about it as the painting is full of a sense of a quiet contentment. The woman seems to be enjoying her work and she can turn her gaze out of the window to the world beyond, hinting at a life of contemplation. ‘A woman and her thoughts’ or soul was to become a favourite theme for artists around the turn of the twentieth century as attitudes to the position of woman in society began the long, slow process of change. This watercolour that at first glance appears to be on a familiar theme, is in fact a quiet reminder that attitudes only begin to change in a small, unconscious way and take a long while to be perceptible on the larger stage.
This pen and ink drawing by the east end artist Madge Gill will be in ‘The Mind of the Artist’ on show at Town House 14th – 30th November. She received no formal training, but nearly a hundred years after she started painting Madge Gill’s work remains very popular. It almost always features the same female face with varying expressions and dark staring eyes, which she called ‘Myrninerest’ (My Inner Rest), but that face seems to strike a chord within us.
Madge had a difficult early family life: she was born in Marsh Street Walthamstow in 1882 to Emma Eades – the name of her father is unknown and in 1891 she was taken into care by Dr Barnardo’s at Barkingside and then sent to Canada in 1896 to work on farms and as a domestic servant. She returned to England in 1900 at the age of 19 and worked as a nurse at Whipps Cross Hospital, living with her aunt nearby.
In 1906 she had her first son with Tom Gill her cousin, whom she married in 1907 and over the next ten years she had two more sons. Tragedy struck in 1918 when her second son died age eight of Spanish flu and then in 1919 she gave birth to her daughter, who was stillborn. Madge was seriously ill for many months afterwards and was left blind in one eye. Her aunt had introduced her to spiritualism and astrology and while she was recovering she began her extraordinarily intricate drawings guided by her spirit guide.
In the obsessive pattern making, which covers the surface of the paper, Madge seems to want to immerse herself totally in the process of following the line to the exclusion of everything else. She first exhibited with the East End Academy at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1932 and became one of the most popular artists in the annual exhibition, showing every year until 1947. This work probably dates to around that time.
It was almost four years ago that I held my first art exhibition here ‘Spirit of Place’ by a group of students in their final year at the Sir John Cass School at London Metropolitan University. It was a wide range of work spanning photography, large pieces of abstract art through to exquisite jewel like watercolours. The last were by Beryl Touchard and talking to her one day she showed me her sketchbooks including some colour fields, which I absolutely loved for their spontaneous intensity of colour. I was struck too by her surprise at my liking them: to her they were just preparatory colour fields, of no interest outside their usefulness in her work. I just wanted to buy one, frame it and put it on the wall (which I did eventually).
About a month later I visited an auction to view a painting I had seen in the catalogue and which I thought might be of interest. Sadly it was not, but rather than have a wasted journey I looked round the rest of the sale including some sketches and watercolours in folios. To my surprise one included a design by Duncan Grant for a plate for the Festival of Britain and I was happy to be able to buy the folio in the sale.
Looking through that folio of watercolours and sketches made me realise that in general, works on paper reveal the mind of the artist in their immediacy with which they are committed to paper much more than say an oil painting, a much more forgiving medium that can be worked and re-worked over a longer period of time. So the germ of the idea for the next exhibition: ‘The Mind of the Artist’ was born, which will run in the gallery from 14th – 30thNovember at Town House. It will include works by Hercules Brabizon Brabizon, Laura Knight, Feliks Topolski, Madge Gill, Austin Osman Spare, Scottie Wilson, E Q Nicholson and of course the Duncan Grant design for the plate.
I had an unexpected treat when I visited Anthony Eyton to collect the paintings and drawings which are going to be included in Now and Then, an exhibition of current figurative artists living and working in the East End opening here on the 28th November. Anthony is no longer living in Spitalfields, but he had a studio in Hanbury Street at the end of the 60’s, when he was drawn to Spitalfields and Whitechapel by the noise, colour and vibrancy of the area.
He had managed to get most of the paintings together, but was still unable to find a couple, so that meant a lot of rummaging through stacked up paintings, looking for the elusive ones. Nothing nicer I think, because of course we discussed the paintings we came across as we searched, in a much more companionable way than you’d expect given that I hadn’t met him before. We were drawn together for the time being by the magic of seeing old friends for him, and the magic of seeing the many facets of his work for the first time for me.
This painting, from his studio in Hanbury Street in 1981, encapsulates for me his view of the East End at the time. No sky, just an overwhelming sense of buildings one after the other, run-down, but not depressing. A sense of lives lived on top of each other, but where someone has made a tiny patch of green amongst the endless brick. His is a gaze of great fondness for the city and although his paintings in the exhibition are mainly about the buildings, you sense a great love of life at the heart of them all.
My email box is unusually exciting at the moment as I’m being sent lots of images by the artists taking part in the new East London Group exhibition ‘Now and Then’ at Town House from 28th November – 8th December. The exhibition sets a group of six artists living and working in the East End now alongside some works of the original East London Group from the 1930’s and some works by Anthony Eyton working in the area from the 1960’s.
I love this etching of a mudlark and his dog, which arrived from Joanna Moore recently. At first it was the visual appeal of the sketching and the rapid strokes that convey the repetitive movement of man and dog as they search for ‘treasure’, almost resolving into a pattern. Yet it soon reminded me of an article I read recently about the artist Simon Ling, shortly to appear in an exhibition at the Tate, who also likes to work outside and whose intense focus is such that a detail becomes everything. I realised that Joanna is doing something similar in this etching, but focusing on the event rather than the object.
The etching comprises a series of sketches made as Joanna watched the mudlark and his dog, but by combining it into one image the event is analysed over a period of time so that we can view it from every angle. Not only does it convey the closely focused, minutely choreographed movement of the mudlark as he works, but we also understand the close relationship between man and dog much better than we would from a single sketch.
Until about 1830 Fournier Street in Spitalfields was called Church Street and in a spare moment last year I googled my address as it was then: 30 Church Street. To my surprise a result from a trade directory was first on the list, referring to Richard Ball, weaver, living here in 1794, and a resident of the building previously unknown to me. Unable to find any further information on him, I filed it away as another piece in the jigsaw of who has lived here for the past three centuries.
In an extraordinary coincidence a few months later I picked up a second-hand copy of ‘Life and Death in Spitalfields 1700 to 1850’ written about the excavation of the crypt in Christ Church and published in 1996. One of the vaults examined was the Ball family, specifically Mary and Martha who died in 1819 and 1821, aged 47 and 70 respectively – but no Richard. I assume, however, that these were his wife and daughter. I have since discovered that Richard Ball seems to have been in partnership with Stephen Sorel, forming the firm Sorel and Ball, weavers and silk merchants of Church Street, which was active c1770 – 1790.
So I am very much looking forward to the talk taking place on the 16th April in Christ Church on these excavations, part of the Huguenots of Spitalfields festival (8th – 21st April). Not that I think the Ball family will feature, but I’ll know a bit more about their lives in Spitalfields as I imagine them weaving in the attic here. The photo is one of the plates from Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness, 1746 and shows weavers with their tall looms, the cut-out for which was found during the work that took place here ten years ago and which survives to this day in the attic ceiling.
This is a cabinet of curiosities that isn’t. It is a bookcase into which I placed some smaller items of stock when I was moving things around for the arrival of the coffee machine earlier this year. Small objects, more self-consciously curiosities, had been in it previously and sold, but this time I was in a hurry and in need of somewhere to put things. So instead of selecting and arranging carefully I just put the things in: all have been moved around several times for various reasons, each time in a hurry. Yet the odd thing is that it doesn’t seem to make a difference to how people view the cabinet, mostly finding it fascinating, which has made me wonder why.
Placing the objects in a cabinet seems to take them out of context and makes us look at them in a new way, as though in a museum. There are some animal or mineral curiosities in there, but most are man-made and when I look at the photograph many are, to our modern eyes, slightly curious: a tea brick made for transport by sea, a pocket globe for carrying around, an unusual money box or a snuff box. Rather than being curiosities of a strange new world these are curious because they belong to a past world that is completely unfamiliar, rather like looking at an old faded photograph that initially looks recognisable and then being surprised at how much has changed.
In the past these cabinets were created to display to their audience wondrous man-made or natural objects of a world that was still being discovered. Now, perhaps, the wonder in looking at this lies in how much we have changed.
Saturday was cupcake day in the shop. We gathered at 10.30 to be taught how to decorate them by Lisa who has a passion for making them and baking in general. She supports the Spitalfields Crypt Trust and we offered a donation to the charity in return for a day’s tuition in cake decorating. I have a collection of 18th and 19th century hand written recipe books, which we are going to use to make the cakes to serve with the coffee arriving downstairs in the kitchen area of the shop in about a month. Cup cakes seem like a good idea too: there is something irresistible about these brightly coloured jewels. In the space of three and a half hours we made and decorated nearly two hundred of them and if you had told me at the beginning that we would be able to decorate the cakes that are in the photo I would have laughed and told you that it would be completely impossible. Nevertheless there they are and they created quite a stir as they appeared in the window of the shop so that by 2pm we had a queue forming and by 5pm we had sold out and raised nearly £200 for the charity. Thank you if you bought one and thanks to Lisa, we had a lot of fun.
(Seems a long while ago now and we never did do cupcakes in the coffee shop, which finally opened in May 2012 after a delay getting the coffee machine).
As I sit here in the shop in the cold waiting for the snow to arrive Robert Sayer’s engraving of skaters in January seemed appropriate.
The figures in this are very appealing: the bulk of the figures are around the fire, so bundled up that they can hardly move in contrast to the lightly clad figures on the ice, keeping warm through exercise. But perhaps he is also illustrating the folly of youth in its refusal to dress up warmly. I am not a print dealer, but from the research I have done into Robert Sayer, these figures seem to be typical. Slightly elongated limbs, with quite distinctive faces and a sparse approach to the landscape setting which has a very linear/graphic feel to it. The lines underneath read:
‘The old ones, round the fire give sage advice,
And cry ‘tis dang’rous skaiting on the Ice’,
But Fribble heeds not what old people say
Because he thinks he’s got more wit than they.’
‘Fribble’ means a coxcomb or dandy and I assume that’s the figure being pushed in the chair on the ice as he looks rather elegantly dressed. Apparently David Garrick played a character of the same name in a play, which fits with a date of mid eighteenth century for this set of prints.
I set off early on Wednesday morning: up at 5am in France (4am as far as I was concerned), to go with friends to the ‘brocante’ at Le Mans. I hadn’t been to it for a long while– it’s not much fun going on your own, struggling up at that time of the morning, driving for an hour and a half and then fighting for a parking space in the middle of a muddy field, so I was looking forward to going with the others. Of course once we arrived and had a quick cup of espresso to warm up, it was down to work and then you’re on your own: unspoken etiquette demands that you separate and go your own way to avoid the difficulties of everyone wanting the same thing. So it’s first come first served until the initial rush is over and then everyone meets up for another coffee and to compare notes.
I’m told that I’m very fussy about what I buy…. and there were lots of attractive things which, on the whole, weren’t as outrageously priced as I had expected. But it always has to be something I love for one reason or another and this dish from Provence was one of them. Partly it is the shape: I have two plates in the shop at the moment with the same glaze, so I was pleased to find a serving dish. Then there is the colour: such a suggestion of summer warmth against which any food would look good. But one food sprang to mind as soon as I saw it – asparagus. It’s not only that English asparagus is delicious, but the fact that it is only around for such a short time heightens my anticipation. And it is soon followed by broad beans, peas and all the other harbingers of summer. More than anything else though, it is the fact that asparagus would look perfect against the warm yellow of this glaze.