Patricia Cleveland-Peck reviews Artists who painted London’s East End in the 20th Century. Edited by The Gentle Author
This volume, attractively bound in cloth with over one hundred well- reproduced paintings, many never published before, together with a biography of each artist and the editor’s informative introduction and epilogue, makes a very a valuable addition to the body of work about the East End of London.
Taken together the images in this book provide an unrivalled ovreview of the variety of the ever-changing East End scene. Some are the only reminder of buildings and streets now long gone and by showing us what is lost could maybe go some way to stemming the further demolition and destruction of the East End.
Although above all an art book, it also offers a fascinating glimpse of the social life of the area in the 20th century. As devotees of the editor’s Spitalfields Life blog will be aware, the East End exerts a potent nostalgic pull on anyone who has been brought up there or lived there for any period of time. In the 19th and early years of the 20th century much of the East End was considered a slum rather than a centre of culture. Damp rooms and poor sanitation were the norm, with many of the residents suffering serious poverty. It is to the credit of many of these artists that they managed to pursue their creative dreams.
Conditions were harsh but something East Enders never seemed to forget, even if they made good and moved away to more salubrious areas, was the spirit of the place. A nostalgic regret for what they had lost was often the price they paid for this better life – and some came to feel that bathrooms and inside toilets were all well and good but where was the warmth of a community where everyone was in the same boat and yet managed to look out for each other?
The East End, the London cockney and all it signified some would think quintessentially English – but with its waves of immigrants the area in fact, remembered fondly by Irish, Jews, Bangladeshis, Afro Caribbeans and Pakistanis to name but some of the residents past and present who enriched and continue to enrich it. In fact 120 languages are spoken in one area.
Some of the paintings in this book evoke these nostalgic feelings and will appeal to those whose roots are still there even if physically they are miles away. Now however, much of the East End has become fashionable, trendy even in the case of districts like Shoreditch; other parts including Spitalfields, have been so gentrified that those slum houses, now beautifully restored, cost sums which previous resident would find quite unimaginable.
The art depicted in this volume in fact covers a wide variety of styles and media including oils, charcoal, etchings, & lithography. Many of the artists were self-taught or attended local evening classes and most earned their livings from a variety of other jobs. The amount of time these artists could devote to their art was thus limited as was the amount they could spend on materials. At one time Elwin Hawthorne painted on sixpenny cleaning cloths he bought from Woolworths. A number did achieve recognition, some even showing at the prestigious Wildenstein Gallery but many have been unjustifiably neglected and so their inclusion here gives this volume a special value.
I was happy to encounter some of my favourites; the Steggles brothers Harold and Water, Harold’s strange empty street scenes reminiscent of Edwin Hopper and the canvases of Doreen Fletcher which have something of the same bleak quality. Doreen Fletcher was effectively rediscovered by The Gentle Author after years of neglect.
In complete contrast with those empty streets, Dan Jones’s brightly coloured lively paintings of markets, festivals and schools are packed to overflowing with figures. There is humour too in James Boswell’s gossiping women, Pearl Binder’s lithograph of Aldgate and Rose Henriques’ scenes of women washing and children playing. Some paintings like S.M Badmin’s Wapping Pier Head and Charles Ginner’s Bethnal Green Allotments have a gentle almost rural feel while others like John Allin’s Schoolyard, overlooked by ominous bright red buildings and resembling more closely a prison exercise yard than a school playground, are bizarre and troubling..
East End Vernacular will have a wide appeal: to those who roots are in the East End, to the wealthy newcomers and to today’s tourists for whom it will provide a lasting souvenir of their visit – for indeed there are now guided tours of the East End. To these can be added general art lovers to whom it will simply bring much aesthetic pleasure.
An ideal book to give as present to anyone who loves art, life and London.
Published by Spitalfields Life Books @ 25.00. Click the link below to buy