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So Long, Maurice Sills

June 26, 2017
by the gentle author

With sadness, I must announce the death of Maurice Sills yesterday afternoon – just a few weeks before what would have been his one hundred and second birthday in July

Maurice Sills – ‘I learnt to live – I think – a full life’

If you were to read the staff list at St Paul’s Cathedral, where Maurice Sills was described simply as ‘Cathedral Treasure’, you might assume that a final ‘r’ had been missed from the second word. But you would be wrong, because Maurice Sills was in the world longer than you or I have been in the world – longer, I venture, than anyone reading this article. The truth is that Maurice Sills lived to be nearly one hundred and two years old, and he genuinely was a ‘Cathedral Treasure’ at St Paul’s.

Travelling to work by rail and tube from his home in North London three times a week, Maurice regularly gave up his seat to what he terms ‘old ladies,’ by which he meant women of a generation later. There was an infectious enthusiastic energy about Maurice which he kept alive through a long term involvement with sport and his delight in the presence of young people.

We met in the Chapter House at St Paul’s but Maurice was keen to take me up to the magnificent library, embellished with luxuriant carving by Grinling Gibbons, high in the roof of the old cathedral. When completed, the shelves were empty since all the books had been destroyed in the fire, but now the library is crowded with ancient tomes and Maurice had catalogued every one.

In this charismatic shadowy place, Maurice was completely at home – as if the weight of all his years fell away, rendered insequential by comparison with the treasures of far greater age that surrounded us, sequestered in an ancient library where time stood still.

Maurice – My earliest memory of anything – it must’ve been 1918 – was when I was staying with a relation who was manager of a grocer’s shop called Palmer’s in Mare St, Hackney, while my mother was having another child. They sold provisions – on one side you had bacon, butter and so forth and the other side fruit and vegetables. I can still picture us going down the wooden stairs of the shop into the cellar and, in the cellar, there was an oil stove, one of these with little holes in the top that cast lights onto the ceiling – I can still see those lights there. I worked out from my relations who I stayed with that it was a Zeppelin raid! So that was my first memory of life – those little marks on the ceiling while I was down in the cellar.

The Gentle Author – Maurice, are you a Londoner?

Maurice – Certainly I’m a Londoner, if West Norwood is London, yes. I was born there in 1915 and my baby brother still lives in the same house where he and I and five brothers were born, six of us all together.

The Gentle Author – What were your parents?

Maurice – My father worked in the Co-operative Bank. My mother was purely a mother, with six boys she had no choice but to be a mother! Norwood, in those days, was almost a village. My mother’s family were the local undertakers and everybody knew them. When somebody else opened up another undertakers that caused trouble. My parents got married a few months after my mother’s father died. My mother had to look after him when he was a widower, so she couldn’t get married. That’s how families were in those days, but when her father died that was freedom, so she had a quiet wedding and we were brought up in the house.

The Gentle Author – And what kind of childhood did you have?

Maurice – Being the eldest of six I had a lot of freedom because my mother had enough to do looking after the others – the three youngest boys were triplets. So I learnt to enjoy life. I was encouraged to enjoy sport by my father who played cricket and I became scorer for his team when I was eight. Cousins made sure I knew what soccer was like, so I enjoyed soccer for the whole of my days until lately. I played for my old school boys until I was forty-nine when I then got hurt badly and had to give up. My mother said, ‘Serve you right, you should’ve given up before,’ but I still played cricket until I was demoted to be the umpire because they wanted younger people, they said.

The Gentle Author – How old were you then?

Maurice – About eighty. They often asked me, as an umpire, where my dog was? Well, a blind man has a dog!

The Gentle Author – Did your parents bring you up to London to the West End?

Maurice – No, because we didn’t go far. We had a fortnight’s holiday every year in Bognor, Eastbourne or Clacton – a long way then. Other than that, the only outings I took on my own would be on bank holidays when I went to Crystal Palace where there was always a lot to see, whether it was motorcycle racing, speedway racing, or concerts.

When I was eleven, I obtained a free place at St Clement Dane’s school close to Bush House in the Aldwych, so I used to travel from South London on a tram every day to the Embankment and walk up the road to school.

The Gentle Author – What were your impressions of the city then?

Maurice – One was of The Lord Mayor’s show, which was not always on a Saturday as it is today. We were allowed to go into the churchyard at St Clement Danes and see the procession go by. The other thing which stuck in my mind was that every Christmas, Gamages in Holborn used to have a cricket week where well-known cricketers came, so I would go to obtain their autographs. But other than that, in a quiet way, I suppose I got to know London very well. I had a season ticket to town so, after two or three years, I would go to museums on my own. I was allowed complete freedom.

The Gentle Author – How wonderful for you to explore London.

Maurice – It meant I learnt a lot about it. I went to evening classes at Bolt Court just off Fleet Street. There were lectures on the City of London and summer evenings would be spent walking round to see things we had heard about.

The Gentle Author – Were you a good student?

Maurice – I did all the essays I was asked to do. I kept them til a few months ago when I was moving into an old people’s home and I decided I’d just got to say goodbye to them. I’ve no regrets. It was all wastepaper, it had been in a drawer for twenty years.

The Gentle Author – What age did you leave school?

Maurice – Seventeen. At that time it was very difficult to get a job.

The Gentle Author – This is the Depression?

Maurice – 1932. Like in the world today, it’s not who you are but who you know, and my father knew somebody so I started working. I went for interviews in banks, but I couldn’t pass the medical test. They weren’t very sure about my heart so they wouldn’t take me on. My father knew somebody at Croydon, not too far from where we lived, at the Co-operative there, so I worked at the office from 1932 to 1940, doing clerical work, and playing football and cricket, until the war came and I then went into the Navy for five years.

The Gentle Author – How did your involvement with St Paul’s Cathedral come about?

Maurice – In 1978, when I was at evening class at Bolt Court, a lady said to me at the tea break,‘You’ve just retired, you could come and help at St Paul’s.’ I came for a few months every Thursday and one day I took a school party round. Evidently, they wrote and said they had an interesting time, because the Dean asked me the next day if I could come more often.

The Gentle Author – Did you know the history already?

Maurice – I’d already got the background you see. I went home and said to my wife, ‘They want me to come more often, and she said, ‘Well, why can’t you?’ She was younger than me and was keeping me in the state of life that I wanted. She was kind. She only made one mistake in her life but there we are. She put up with it and suffered me for forty years!

The Gentle Author –  Were you the mistake?

Maurice – Yes!

The Gentle Author – Why have you stuck with St Paul’s?

Maurice – After the Dean asked me and my wife said, ‘Of course you can,’ I took it on and for twenty-odd years I did all the school visits to the cathedral. But eventually they decided that the modern idea was to have an education department which meant they wanted a full-time paid person. I had been working twenty years for nothing and, because I worked for nothing, I enjoyed it – I didn’t have to worry what the other people thought. So I wouldn’t have put in for the new job and, fortunately, the headmaster at the Cathedral School said, ‘If they don’t want you, you can come here every day.’ So then I moved to working in the school.

The Gentle Author – Were you teaching?

Maurice – Helping out in various ways, especially hearing children read and going with the boys to watch them play football and cricket. For the last fifteen years I went every day, until eighteen months ago when I decided to cut it down and now I only go on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But the little children make a fuss of me.

The Gentle Author – How are you involved with the cathedral?

Maurice – In the morning I’m in the Cathedral School but then, after school lunch, I help in the library. One of my jobs is to ensure that we have two copies of every service, I put them all in order and file them away. I look up letter queries for the librarian. When people write to say, ‘I believe my great grandfather was in the choir at St Paul’s,’ I go through the records. Usually they hadn’t, they had sung here but with a visiting choir probably.

The Gentle Author – Do you know the collection well?

Maurice – Oh yes, many years ago the librarian decided we ought to have a list of all the books. And so, in my spare time, for about five years I wrote down on sheets of paper all the books. The ones in Greek were difficult, I just had to copy the alphabet. Those records are kept and the librarian still consults them today.

The Gentle Author – That’s a big achievement.

Maurice – I was lucky I had a librarian who chased me around in good fun and called me rude things, saying, ‘Get some overalls on you lazy so-and-so and get some work done!’

The Gentle Author – Do you like the cathedral?

Maurice – It’s given me a great deal. I’ve walked with school parties up to the top of the dome at least two thousand times, but I can’t do it any longer.

The Gentle Author – When was the last time you went up on top?

Maurice – Oh, probably five years ago. I’ve only become an invalid in the last two to three years really.

The Gentle Author – You don’t seem like an invalid.

Maurice – I’m wearing out. It’s hard work now – I have to make myself come here whereas I used to be dashing here. When I was a schoolteacher, I knew how many days before the next holiday. But here, when the school says they’re away for three weeks, ‘Oh,’ I say, ‘I’m going to miss you. And the school lunch!’

The Gentle Author – Do you have any opinions about Wren’s architecture?

Maurice – Only insofar as I’ve read so much about it that I realise, in my lack of knowledge, what a wonderful person Wren was to do what he did, despite all the handicaps that he was up against.

The Gentle Author – What kind of man do you think Christopher Wren was?

Maurice – Well, he was so gifted at so much, you see, he was brilliant not just in one subject but in many things. And he persisted in what he wanted, even though it wasn’t always easy for him financially. He was a marvellous person to have done it and I realise it was 300 years ago, you know.

The Gentle Author – Three times your lifetime.

Maurice – That’s right and a lot has changed in my lifetime, so 300 years ago it was very different…

The Gentle Author – What do you think are the big changes in your lifetime?

Maurice – One of the biggest is computers, and now I realise my day is up. If I sit on the tube in the morning, if there are a dozen people – six here, six there – nine of them are playing with these tablets and phones. I’m not talking to anybody you see!

The Gentle Author – It’s rare to meet someone so senior, so I want to ask what have you learned in your life?

Maurice – I’ve learnt from experience how wonderful it can be to have sensible friends and a sensible upbringing and a perfect wife. My parents were strict insofar as we were told what was right and what was wrong. ‘I’d rather your hand was cut off than you stole something,’ my mother would say.

I learnt to live – I think – a full life. I’ve enjoyed my sport. How fortunate I have been in life that I have been pushed to do things rather than had ambition. I have no ambition.

When I was ending my time in the Royal Navy a colleague who was a schoolteacher said, ‘When the war is over you would make a good schoolteacher,’ and I said, ‘Of course I wouldn’t – my schoolteachers would laugh if you said that.’ But when the war was over, they were so short of male teachers, they were willing to take almost anybody. The result was my mate made me fill out a form – he pushed me and I became a teacher.

Every Christmas, I hear from about two dozen of my pupils of fifty years ago. When I go to watch cricket at the Oval when the season starts, one of my pupils of 1959, he’ll be there saying, ‘Oh you’re still breathing! We prayed for you every night and you always turned up in the morning despite our prayers!’

(Transcript by Rachel Blaylock)

Maurice Sills (1915-2017)

Benjamin Kipling, Bell Tuner

June 25, 2017
by the gentle author

In this first of an occasional series of features celebrating the work of former employees of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, I present my interview with Benjamin Kipling the Bell Tuner, who now works for Matthew Higby & Co, Church Bell Engineers.

You can experience a virtual reality film of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, The Final Bell created by VISUALISE, as part of ART NIGHT 2017 on Saturday 1st July 6-11pm in Spitalfields Market.

Benjamin Kipling

On a recent Sunday morning, I joined Benjamin Kipling and his bellringing pals for a congenial breakfast in Waterloo Station after they had rung the bells before the service at St John’s church across the road. Once we had finished our chat, I accompanied Benjamin who could not resist returning to Francis Octavius Bedford’s handsome bell tower of 1822 to ring again after the service. With a new job in Somerset from Monday to Friday, Benjamin commutes back and forth by car each weekend to fulfil his bellringing commitments in the capital. Even when we shook hands to say goodbye and he climbed into his sports car, Benjamin was setting off to judge a ringing contest in Cranford as a detour on his journey to the West Country – such is the passion of the man for bells.

The Gentle Author – How should a bell sound?

Benjamin Kipling – A nice bell should have a crisp, clear strike note, followed by the hum coming through underneath, and the hum should be stable and long-lasting.

The Gentle Author - What does the job of a bell tuner consist of?

Benjamin Kipling - Well, the basics involve mounting the bell, mouth upwards, on a very big vertical lathe and taking metal out of different areas inside to alter the partial tones within the mouth. A bell does not just produce a single frequency, a bell has lots and lots of different modes of vibration, and each mode of vibration produces a different frequency and therefore a different note. The standard for bell tuning for the last century has been to aim towards what we refer to as Simpson tuning, so the five lowest notes in the bell strike a minor chord.

The Gentle Author – Why cannot a bell be cast to make the right sound?

Benjamin Kipling – The thickness of the wall of a bell has to be precise to get exactly the right note and – to be perfectly honest – casting techniques just are not that good, they never have been. So to get a bell absolutely precise, the only way is to cast it deliberately too thick and scratch a bit off.

The Gentle Author – Once a bell has been cast, are you the next person to work on it?

Benjamin Kipling - The people in the loam shop dig the newly cast bell out from the mould, removing the core of bricks and loam, and doing a little bit of tidying up on the inscription. Then the bell is passed to me and I do a bit more work to the inscription just to make it looks as nice as possible. I start by putting the bell mouth down on the lathe and skimming across it to give a flat surface on the top before I turn the bell over, bolt it to the machine, and tune it.

The Gentle Author – How do you assess a bell in order to tune it?

Benjamin Kipling - This has been one of the limiting factors in the development of bell tuning. It was only in late Victorian times with the advent of the calibrated tuning fork that it became possible to accurately record the frequencies within a bell. Calibrated tuning forks were the normal way of doing things up until the nineteen seventies and Whitechapel’s tuning forks were still in use until the end – we used them sometimes to double check.

Today, we have other ways of doing it. An electronic stroboscope tuner employs a microphone attached to a light which shines through a spinning wheel, and you can adjust the speed so that if there is a frequency in the sound that corresponds to the spinning wheel, it will appear to stand still. This is the method I use for finishing tuning bells because it is reliably accurate, but there is also a quicker – if slightly less accurate way – of pitching bells using a laptop computer and Fourier Transform software which instantly reads the main partial tones.

The Gentle Author – So it is a question of striking the bell and then bridging the difference between what it is and what you want it to sound like, do you expect to get there immediately or is it a long process?

Benjamin Kipling – Bell tuning is a job of many stages. Calculating what I am aiming for in a particular bell gives me the size of the gap. Usually, I try and make a series of cuts that will get me halfway between where I was and where I need to be, so I can check the bell is responding as I expect it to. Then I will go half as far again, and half as far again, and gradually close in, which theoretically means I never get there. Yet, in practice, this is engineering not mathematics and if I overshoot by a fraction of a semitone then nobody is going to notice. I try and tune a bell to within a cent, which is 1/100 of a semitone, but nobody is going to hear if it is two or three cents out.

The Gentle Author – Are there different kinds of cuts you make to a bell?

Benjamin Kipling – Only in terms of shallow cuts or deep cuts, but they are in different areas of the bell. For instance, if you cut metal out of the shoulder of the bell, the second partial tone flattens more quickly. In the middle of the bell, it is the hum note, the lowest one, that flattens the most quickly. Towards the lip, it is the nominal tone which flattens most quickly. Generally, wherever you take metal off a bell all of the partial tones will move – so it is a juggling act.

The Gentle Author – What is the minimum number of cuts?

Benjamin Kipling – One! But if you are tuning a bell and you are getting very close, you might make one little scratch and test it again, and make another scratch and test it again – it could take dozens.

The Gentle Author – Do you rely upon your ears or instruments?

Benjamin Kipling - The ear is always the final arbiter as to whether a bell sounds good or not. The instruments are there to tell me what is wrong and by how much. I can hear if something is wrong with a bell but I may not necessarily be able to tell exactly what is wrong or by how much, and that is where the instrumentation comes in.

The Gentle Author – Tell me some bells that you are proud to have tuned.

Benjamin Kipling - Absolutely. The five largest at St James Garlickhythe and also all ten of the new bells at St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street. The tenor bell there is the only bell where I have ever managed to get it to exactly where I want within a fraction of a 100th of a semitone. On paper, that is the best bell I have ever cut. In practice, bigger bells always sound better than little bells. They have more presence and more power, and so the best of all would probably be the largest bell I have tuned, which was for a carillon in the United States. It was cast at 43 hundredweight – a little over two tonnes – and finished at 37 hundredweight, after I tuned six hundredweight out of it. You could hit the bell, walk away, come back a couple of minutes later and you still hear it humming.

The Gentle Author – Is there an element of subjectivity in this work?

Benjamin Kipling – There is more than one way to skin a cat. You get differences in character of bells and that can be down to how the tuner approaches the bell. Also, the shape of a bell varies according to who cast it. There are subtle differences between the profile of a Whitechapel Bell, the profile of a Taylor bell or a Gillett & Johnson bell.

The Gentle Author – How did you become a bell tuner?

Benjamin Kipling – At school, I did not like music very much which was maybe because I did not want to learn to play an instrument. I had an interest in music theory, but the teachers did not think it was worthwhile teaching me music theory if I was not going to be learning an instrument. So I dropped music at the earliest opportunity.

Then, in sixth form, a friend of mine who was a bell ringer said, ‘Why don’t you come along on Wednesday night and learn to ring bells?’ So I did and I found it very addictive, and bell ringing became my hobby and I did a lot of bell ringing at university. I studied Physics, then I dropped out and started Computer Science, until I dropped out of that as well. I spent quite a long time at Nottingham University without getting a degree. Possibly, that was because I was spending too much of my time ringing bells rather than getting any work done.

The Gentle Author – Yet you have managed to fit all those things together in your career, how did you enter the industry of bell making?

Benjamin Kipling – There was a bell hanging company in Nottingham at the time, Hayward Mills. I got a holiday job with them and stayed for a couple of years. However, I discovered I was not keen on site work but I did like the theory behind the tuning of bells and, although Hayward Mills did not have a bell tuning machine, they were considering getting one. So when I dropped out from university, they took me on full time, doing admin and occasional bell hanging, with a view to me being the one who would do the tuning when they got a bell tuning machine which – a couple of years later – they did.

The Gentle Author – Are you a self-taught bell tuner?

Benjamin Kipling – Partly. I found some tuning graphs on the internet showing how the different partial tones respond according to where you take metal off a bell. But I had to teach myself how to drive the machine and how much metal to take off, which obviously is nerve-wracking and involves taking off tiny amounts to begin with and checking. Then you find the sound of the bell has hardly changed and so you take off a bit more, until you realise you actually have to take quite a bit of metal off to make any significant difference.

The Gentle Author – Did you ever take too much off?

Benjamin Kipling - The simple answer is ‘No.’ If you are gradually homing in on what you want, that should not be a problem. In practice, with four of the five partial tones, it is possible to go back up again if necessary. Generally, you are thinning the wall of the bell and making it more flexible so it vibrates at a lower frequency. Each time you take a little off, the notes go down. However, by taking more metal off the lip of the bell, it is possible to get four of those five to come back up. So there are usually ways of sorting these things out.

The Gentle Author – Do you find this rewarding work?

Benjamin Kipling - Oh absolutely, it is a lasting legacy. Hopefully my handiwork will be there for centuries because bells do not go out of tune. A lot of old bells were never in tune to begin with, they would just try and cast a bell as close as they could to the right note and, if it was a long way out, they would take out a hammer and chisel and try and chip bits off until it was bearable. That is the reason why old bells are retuned.

The Gentle Author – Is retuning a major part of your work?

Benjamin Kipling – Oh yes. At Whitechapel, probably half of the bells I tuned were old ones that came in for retuning.

The Gentle Author – How is that different?

Benjamin Kipling – The difference is that, whereas a new bell has been cast with enough metal in the right places to be able to do what you want, in an old bell the chances are there may not be enough metal in the places you need. You just have to try and push it in the right direction as much as you can. In the last few years, we tended to do more tuning of old bells on the outsides as well as on the insides and I found you can get much better results by doing that.

The Gentle Author – What are the oldest bells you have retuned?

Benjamin Kipling – Bells over a certain age tend to be listed for preservation.

The Gentle Author – They cannot be retuned?

Benjamin Kipling - It means there is a presumption against tuning, but different dioceses have a different interpretation of what that means. In some dioceses, you will never get permission to tune a listed bell, while in other dioceses – as long as you put a sensible case forward – they have no problem with you retuning anything of any age. The diocese that I have found which is most likely to give permission for tuning old bells is Bath & Wells. There were some bells in Bath & Wells diocese from the fourteenth, if not the thirteenth century, that I have tuned. The profile of bells and the composition of the bell metal has changed remarkably little in all those years.

The Gentle Author – Does bell tuning make you happy?

Benjamin Kipling – Absolutely, when people ask me what my job is, I like to see the expressions on their faces, ranging from disbelief that there could be such a job to complete fascination.

The Gentle Author – Tell me about the Royal Jubilee bells.

Benjamin Kipling – These were cast for St James Garlickhythe but first they were installed in a barge to go down the Thames as part of the Royal Jubilee pageant in 2012.

The Gentle Author – Where were you on that day?

Benjamin Kipling – I was close to St James Garlickhythe, struggling to get to the water’s edge to catch a view of them going past from the bank of the Thames, along with umpteen thousand other people, but the crowds were so deep that I missed them. The framework was fabricated at an engineering company in Edenbridge, so I did hear them and got to ring them on the frame in the works even if I never got to hear them on the river or see them in the barge. The sound of bells tends to bounce off water in a pleasing way. Certainly, I know the bells at St Magnus the Martyr at the northern end of London Bridge sound at their best if you stand just the other side of the river and I think the same is probably true of the Southwark Cathedral bells if you stand on the north bank. People told me my bells did sound very nice on the river.

Transcript by Rachel Blaylock

Benjamin Kipling, Bell Tuner

You may also like to read about

Alan Hughes, Bell Founder

Royal Jubilee Bells at Garlickhythe

An Old Whitechapel Bell

A Visit To Great Tom At St Paul’s

The Most Famous Bells in the World

John Claridge at Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Roland Collins, Artist

June 24, 2017
by the gentle author

In the twelfth of my series of profiles of artists featured in EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October, I present Roland Collins’ paintings. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

Roland Collins

Ninety-seven year old artist Roland Collins lived with his wife Connie in a converted sweetshop south of the river that he crammed with singular confections, both his own works and a lifetime’s collection of ill-considered trifles. Curious that I had come from Spitalfields to see him, Roland reached over to a cabinet and pulled out the relevant file of press cuttings, beginning with his clipping from the Telegraph entitled ‘The Romance of the Weavers,’ dated 1935.

“Some time in the forties, I had a job to design a lamp for a company at 37  Spital Sq” he revealed, as if he had just remembered something that happened last week,“They were clearing out the cellar and they said, ‘Would you like this big old table?’ so I took it to my studio in Percy St and had it there forty years, but I don’t think they ever produced my lamp. I followed that house for a while and I remember when it came up for sale at £70,000, but I didn’t have the money or I’d be living there now.”

As early as the thirties, Roland visited the East End in the footsteps of James McNeill Whistler, drawing the riverside, then, returning after the war, he followed the Hawksmoor churches to paint the scenes below. “I’ve always been interested in that area,” he admitted wistfully, “I remember one of my first excursions to see the French Synagogue in Fournier St.”

Of prodigious talent yet modest demeanour, Roland Collins was an artist who quietly followed his personal enthusiasms, especially in architecture and all aspects of London lore, creating a significant body of paintings while supporting himself as designer throughout his working life. “I was designing everything,” he assured me, searching his mind and seizing upon a random example, “I did record sleeves, I did the sleeve for Decca for the first Long-Playing record ever produced.”

From his painting accepted at the Royal Academy in 1937 at the age of nineteen, Roland’s pictures were distinguished by a bold use of colour and dramatic asymmetric compositions that revealed a strong sense of abstract design. Absorbing the diverse currents of British art in the mid-twentieth century, he refined his own distinctive style at his studio in Percy St – at the heart of the artistic and cultural milieu that defined Fitzrovia in the fifties. “I used to take my painting bag and stool, and go down to Bankside.” he recalled fondly, “It was a favourite place to paint, especially the Old Red Lion Brewery and the Shot Tower before it was pulled down for the Festival of Britain – they called it the ‘Shot Tower’ because they used to drop lead shot from the top into water at the bottom to harden them.”

Looking back over his nine decades, surrounded by the evidence of his achievements, Roland was not complacent about the long journey he had undertaken to reach his point of arrival – the glorious equilibrium of his life when I met him.

“I come from Kensal Rise and I was brought up through Maida Vale.” he told me, “On my father’s side, they were cheesemakers from Cambridgeshire and he came to London to work as a clerk for the Great Central Railway at Marylebone. Because I was good at Art at Kilburn Grammar School, I went to St Martin’s School of Art in the Charing Cross Rd studying life drawing, modelling, design and lettering. My father was always very supportive. Then I got a job in the studio at the London Press Exchange and I worked there for a number of years, until the war came along and spoiled everything.

I registered as a Conscientious Objector and was given light agricultural work, but I had a doubtful lung so nothing much materialised out of it. Back in London, I was doing a painting of the Nash terraces in Regent’s Park when a policeman came along and I was taken back to the station for questioning. I discovered that there were military people based in those terraces and they wanted to know why I was interested in it.

Eventually, my love of architecture led me to a studio at 29 Percy Studio where I painted for the next forty years, after work and at weekends. I freelanced for a while until I got a job at the Scientific Publicity Agency in Fleet St and that was the beginnings of my career in advertising, I obviously didn’t make much money and it was difficult work to like.”

Yet Roland never let go of his personal work and, once he retired, he devoted himself full-time to his painting, submitting regularly to group shows but reluctant to launch out into solo exhibitions – until reaching the age of ninety.

In the next two years, he enjoyed a sell-out show at a gallery in Sussex at Mascalls Gallery and an equally successful one in Cork St at Browse & Darby. Suddenly, after a lifetime of tenacious creativity, his long-awaited and well-deserved moment arrived, and I consider my self privileged to have witnessed the glorious apotheosis of Roland Collins.

Brushfield St, Spitalfields, 1951-60 (Courtesy of Museum of London)

Columbia Market, Columbia Rd (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St George in the East, Wapping, 1958 (Courtesy of Electric Egg)

Mechanical Path, Deptford (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

Fish Barrow, Canning Town (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St Michael Paternoster Royal, City of London (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St Anne’s, Limehouse (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St John, Wapping, 1938

St John, Wapping, 1938

Spark’s Yard, Limehouse

Images copyright © Roland Collins

Click here to preorder a copy of EAST END VERNACULAR for £25

John Allin, Artist

June 23, 2017
by the gentle author

In the eleventh of my series of profiles of artists featured in EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October, I present John Allin’s paintings. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

Gun St, Spitalfields

John Allin (1934-1991) began painting while serving a six month prison sentence for minor theft, and achieved considerable success in the sixties and seventies with his vivid intricate pictures recalling the East End of his childhood. There is a dreamlike quality to these visions in sharp focus of an emotionalised cityscape, created at a time when the Jewish people were leaving to seek better housing in the suburbs and their culture was fading from those streets which had once been its home.

Returning from National Service in the Merchant Navy, Allin worked in the parks department planting trees, later as a swimming pool attendant and then as a long distance lorry driver – all before his conviction and imprisonment. After discovering his artistic talent, he devoted himself to painting and won attention with his first exhibition in 1969 at the Portal Gallery, specialising in primitive and outsider art. In 1974, he collaborated with Arnold Wesker on a book of reminiscence, “Say Goodbye: You may never see them again” in which he reveals an equivocation about the East End. “I saw it as a place where people lived, earned their living, grew up, moved on … they had dignity … I like painting the past with dignity…” he said in an interview with Wesker, “but what they’ve done to the East End is diabolical! They’ve scuppered it, built and built and torn down and torn out and took lots of identity away and made it into just a concrete nothing… But people go on, don’t they? Eating their eels and giving their custom where they’ve always given their custom … Funny how people can go on and take anything and everything.”

Like Joe Orton in the theatre, Allin’s reputation as an ex-con fuelled his reputation in newspapers and on television but he found there was a price to pay, as he revealed to Wesker, “You know how I started painting don’t you? In prison! Well, when I come out the kids at school give my kid a rough time … the silly bloody journalists didn’t help. ‘Jail-bird becomes painter!’ You’d've thought I’d done God knows what … I mean the neighbours used to say things like ‘Look at ‘im! Jail-bird and he’s on telly! Ought to be sent back inside the nick!’ I was the oddity in the district, the lazy fat bastard that paints. Give me a half a chance and I’d move mate.” In fact, Allin joined Gerry Cottle’s Circus, touring as a handyman to create another book, “John Allin’s Circus Life” in 1982.

Although he was the first British recipient of the international Prix Suisse de Peinture Naive award in 1979, the categorisation of Outsider or Primitive artist is no longer adequate to apply to John Allin. More than twenty years after his death, his charismatic paintings deserve to be recognised as sophisticated works which communicate an entire social world through an unapologetically personal and emotionally charged visual vocabulary.

Spitalfields Market, Brushfield St.

Great Synagogue, Brick Lane.

Jewish Soup Kitchen, Brune St.

Christ Church School, Brick Lane.

Heneage St and Brick Lane.

Rothschild Dwellings, Spitalfields.

Whitechapel Rd.

Christ Church Park, Commmercial St.

Wentworth St.

Fashion St with gramophone man in the foreground..

Churchill Walk.

Young Communist League rally, corner of Brick Lane and Old Montague St.

Hessel St.

Snow Scene.

Anti-Fascist Rally at Gardiners’ Corner, 1936.

Cole’s Chicken Shop, Cobb St.

Factory Workers

Henry Silk, Artist

June 22, 2017
by the gentle author

In the tenth of my series of profiles of artists featured in EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October, I present David Buckman‘s profile of Henry Silk. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

At his Uncle Abraham’s basket shop in Bow

Which of the members of the members of the East London Group of painters most closely embodied what the Group stood for ? There are many advocates for Archibald Hattemore, Elwin Hawthorne, Cecil Osborne, Harold & Walter Steggles, and Albert Turpin – all painters from backgrounds that were not arty in any conventional sense who became inspired by their teacher John Cooper, the founder of the Group. Yet for some, the shadowy figure of Henry Silk, creator of highly personal and poetically understated images, is pre-eminent.

Silk’s talent was quickly recognised as far away as America, even while the Group was just establishing itself in the early thirties. In December 1930, when the second Group show was held in the West End at Alex. Reid & Lefevre, the national press reported that over two-thirds of pictures were sold, listing a batch of works bought by public collections. The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times revealed that, in addition to British purchases, the far-away Public Gallery of Toledo in Ohio had bought Silk’s ‘Still Life’ for six guineas.

American links continued when, early in 1933, Helen McCloy filing an insightful survey of the group’s achievements for the Boston Evening Transcript, judged Silk to have “the keenest technical sense of all the limitations and possibilities of paint.” Coincident with McCloy’s article, Hope Christie Skillman in the College Art Association’s publication Parnassus, distinguished Silk as “perhaps the most original and personal of the Group,” finding in his works such as The Railway Track, The Platelayers, The Tyre Dump and The Wireless Set, “beauty where we were taught not to see it.”

Silk’s early life is obscure.  He was an East Ender, born on Christmas Day 1883, who worked as a basket maker for an uncle, Abraham Silk, at his workshop and shop in the Bow Rd.  Fruit baskets were in great demand then and men making baskets became features of Silk’s pictures. “He used to work for three weeks at basket-making and spend the fourth in the pub,” Group member Walter Steggles remembered, describing Silk’s erratic work and drink habits. Yet Steggles also spoke of Silk with affection, admitting “He was a kind-hearted man who always looked older than his years.”

Silk was the uncle of Elwin Hawthorne, one of the leading members of the group, and lived for a time with that family at 11 Rounton Rd in Bow. Elwin’s widow Lilian – who, as Lilian Leahy, also showed with the group – remembered Silk as “generous to others but mean to himself.  He would use an old canvas if someone gave it to him rather than buy a new one.” This make-do-and-mend ethos was common among the often-hard-up Group members when it came to framing too. Cooper directed them to E. R. Skillen & Co, in Lamb’s Conduit St, where Walter Steggles used to buy old frames that could be cut to size.

During the First World War, the young Silk was already sketching.  Even on military service in his early thirties, during which he was gassed, he would draw on whatever he could find to hand. By the mid-twenties, he was attending classes at the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute and exhibited when the Art Club had its debut show at Bethnal Green Museum early in 1924. The Daily Chronicle ran a substantial account of the spring 1927 exhibition, highlighting Henry Silk, the basket maker, whose paintings depicted “Zeppelins and were bought by an officer ‘for a bob.’”

Yorkshireman, John Cooper, who had trained at The Slade, taught at Bethnal Green and, when he moved to evening classes at the Bow & Bromley Evening Institute, he took many students with him including George Board, Archibald Hattemore, Elwin Hawthorne, Henry Silk, the Steggles brothers and Albert Turpin. They were members of the East London Art Club that had its exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the winter of 1928, part of which transferred to what is now the Tate Britain early in 1929.  These activities prompted the series of Lefevre Galleries annual East London Group shows throughout the thirties, with their sales to many notable private collectors and public galleries, and huge media coverage.

Henry Silk was a prolific artist. He contributed a significant number of works to the Whitechapel show in 1928, remained a significant exhibitor at the East London Group-associated appearances, showed with the Toynbee Art Club and at Thos Agnew & Sons.  Among his prestigious buyers were the eminent dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, Tate director Charles Aitken and the poet and artist Laurence Binyon. Another was the writer J. B. Priestley, Cooper’s friend, who over the years garnered an impressive and well-chosen modern picture collection. Silk was also regarded highly by his East London Group peers, Murroe FitzGerald, Hawthorne’s wife Lilian and Walter Steggles, who all acquired works of his.

As each of the East London Group artists acquired individual followings as a result of the annual and mixed exhibitions, the Lefevre Galleries astutely organised solo shows for several of them. Elwin Hawthorne, Brynhild Parker and the brothers Harold & Walter Steggles all benefited.  Yet, in advance of these, in 1931 Silk had a solo show of watercolours at the recently established gallery Walter Bull & Sanders Ltd, in Cork St.  The small exhibition was characterised by an array of still lifes and interiors. Writing in The Studio magazine two years earlier, having visited Cooper’s Bow classe, F. G. Stone noted that Silk often saw “a perfect design from an unusual angle, and he has a Van Goghian love of chairs and all simple things.”

Cooper urged his students to paint the world around them and Silk met the challenge by depicting landscapes near his home in the East End, also sketching while on holiday in Southend and as far away as Edinburgh. Writing the foreword to the catalogue of the second group exhibition at Lefevre in December 1930, the critic R. H. Wilenski said that French artists were fascinated by the “cool, frail London light.” and many asked him “what English artists have made these aspects of London the essential subject of their work.” He responded, “The next time a French artist talks to me in this manner I shall tell him of the East London Group, and the members’ names that I shall mention first in this connection will be Elwin Hawthorne, W. J. Steggles and Henry Silk.”

Even after the East London Group held its final show at Lefevre in 1936, Henry Silk continued to show in the East End, until his death of cancer aged only sixty-four on September 24th 1948.

Thorpe Bay

St James’ Rd, Old Ford

Old Houses, Bow (Walter Steggles Bequest)

My Lady Nicotine

Snow (Walter Steggles Bequest)

Still Life (Walter Steggles Bequest)

Basket Makers (Courtesy of Dorian Osborne)

Boots, Polish and Brushes

The Bedroom

Bedside chair (Courtesy of Dorian Osborne)

Hat on table, 1932 (courtesy of Doncaster Museum)

Henry Silk and his sister

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