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.