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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

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

Pearl Binder, Artist

June 21, 2017
by the gentle author

In the ninth 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 the work of Pearl Binder. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

“City and East End meet here, and between five and six o’clock it is a tempest of people.”

This is Aldgate pictured in a lithograph of 1932 by Pearl Binder, as one of a series that she drew to illustrate The Real East End by Thomas Burke, a popular writer who ran a pub in Poplar at the time. Among the many details of this rainy East End night that she evokes so atmospherically with such economy of means, notice the number fifteen bus which still runs through Aldgate today. In her lithographs, Pearl Binder found the ideal medium to portray London in the days when it was a grimy city, permanently overcast with smoke and smog, and her eloquent visual observations were based upon first hand experience.

This book was brought to my attention by Pearl Binder’s son Dan Jones who is also an artist. He explained that his mother came from Salford to study at the Central School of Art and lived in Spread Eagle Yard, Whitechapel in the nineteen twenties and thirties. It was an especially creative period in her life and an exciting time to be in London, when one of as the first generation after the First World War, she took the opportunity of the new freedoms that were available to her sex.

In Thomas Burke’s description, Pearl Binder’s corner of Whitechapel sounds unrecognisably exotic today, “It is in one of the old Yards that Pearl Binder has made her home, and she has chosen well. She enjoys a rural atmosphere in the centre of the town. Her cottage windows face directly onto a barn filled with hay-wains and fragrant with hay, and a stable, complete with clock and weather-vane; and they give a view of metropolitan Whitechapel. One realises here how small London is, how close it still is to the fields and farms of Essex and Cambridgeshire.” From Spread Eagle Yard, Pearl Binder set out to explore the East End, and these modest black and white images illustrate the life of its people as she found it.

Her best friend was Aniuta Barr (known to Dan as Aunt Nuta), a Russian interpreter, who remembered Lenin, Kalinin and Trotsky coming to tea at their family home in Aldgate when she was a child. Dan described Aunt Nuta announcing proudly, “Treat this bottom with respect, this has sat upon the knee of father Lenin!” He called her his fairy godmother, because she did not believe in god and at his christening when the priest said, “In the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost…”, she added, “…and Lenin”.

Pearl Binder’s origins were on the border of Russia and the Ukraine in the town of Swonim, which her father Jacob Binderevski, who kept Eider ducks there, left to come to Britain in 1890 with a sack of feathers over his shoulder. After fighting bravely in the Boer War, he received a letter of congratulation from Churchill inviting him to become English. Pearl lived until 1990 and Nuta until 2003, both travelling to Russia and participating in cultural exchange between the two countries through all the ups and downs, living long enough to see the Soviet Union from beginning to end in their lifetimes.

Pearl left the East End when she married Dan’s father Elwyn Jones, a young lawyer (later Lord Elwyn Jones and member of parliament for Poplar), and when they were first wed they lived at 1 Pump Court, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, yet she always maintained her connections with this part of London. “Mum was trying to fry an egg and dad came to rescue her,” was how Dan fondly described his parents’ meeting, adding,“I think the egg left the pan in the process,” and revealing that his mother never learnt to cook. Instead he has memories of her writing and painting, while surrounded by her young children Dan, Josephine and Lou. “She was amazingly energetic,” recalled Dan,“Writing articles for Lilliput about the difficulties of writing while we were crawling all over the place.”

Pearl Binder’s achievements were manifold. In the pursuit of her enormous range of interests, her output as a writer and illustrator was phenomenal – fiction as well as journalism – including a remarkable book of pen portraits Odd Jobs (that included a West End prostitute and an East End ostler), and picture books with Alan Lomax and A.L.Lloyd, the folk song collectors. In 1937, she was involved in children’s programmes in the very earliest days of television broadcasting. She was fascinated by Pocahontas, designing a musical on the subject for Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. She was an adventurous traveller, travelling and writing about China in particular. She was an advocate of the pearly kings & queens, designing a pearly mug for Wedgwood, and an accomplished sculptor and stained glass artist, who created a series of windows for the House of Lords. The explosion of creative energy that characterised London in the nineteen twenties carried Pearl Binder through her whole life.

“She was always very busy with all her projects, some of which came about and some of which didn’t.” said Dan quietly, as we leafed through a portfolio, admiring paintings and drawings from his mother’s long career. Then as he closed the portfolio and stacked up all her books and pictures that he had brought out to show me – just a fraction of all of those his mother created – I opened the copy of The Real East End to look at the pictures you can see below and Dan summed it up for me. “I think it was a very important part of her life, her time in the East End. She was really looking at things and using her own eyes and getting a feel of the place and the people – and  I think the best work of her life was done during those years.”

A Jewish restaurant in Brick Lane.

A beigel seller in Whitechapel High St.

A Jewish bookshop in Wentworth St.

A slop shop in the East India Dock Rd.Pearl Binder’s self-portrait

Pearl Binder ( 1904-1990)

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Dan Jones, Artist

Bill the Ostler of Spread Eagle Yard

Anthony Eyton, Painter

June 20, 2017
by the gentle author

In the eighth 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 the work of Anthony Eyton. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

I took the 133 bus from Liverpool St Station, travelling down south of the river to visit the ninety-six year old painter Anthony Eyton at the elegant terrace in the Brixton Rd where has lived since 1960 – apart from a creative sojourn in Spitalfields, where he kept a studio from 1968 until 1982. It was the 133 bus that stops outside his house which brought Anthony to Spitalfields, and at first he took it every day to get to his studio. But then later, he forsook home comforts to live a bohemian existence in his garret in Hanbury St and the result was an inspired collection of paintings which exist today as testament to the particular vision Anthony found in Spitalfields.

A tall man with of mane of wiry white hair and gentle curious eyes, possessing a benign manner and natural lightness of tone, Anthony still carries a buoyant energy and enthusiasm for painting. I found him working to finish a new picture for submission to the Royal Academy before five o’clock that afternoon. Yet once I arrived off the 133, he took little persuasion to lay aside his preoccupation of the moment and talk to me about that significant destination at the other end of the bus route.

“That biggest strangest world, that whirlpool at Spitalfields, and all the several colours of the sweatshops, and the other colours of the degradation and of the beautiful antique houses derelict – I think the quality of colour was what struck me most.” replied Anthony almost in a whisper, when I asked him what drew him to Spitalfields, before he launched into a spontaneous flowing monologue evoking the imaginative universe that he found so magnetically appealing.

“From Brick Lane to Wilkes St and in between was special because it’s a kind of sanctuary.” he continued, “And looking down Wilkes St, Piero della Francesca would have liked it because it has a kind of perfection. The people going about their business are perfectly in size to the buildings. You see people carrying ladders and City girls and Jack the Ripper tours, and actors in costume outside that house in Princelet St where they make those period films, and they are all in proportion. And the market was still in use then which gave it a rough quality before the City came spilling over and building its new buildings. Always a Mecca on a Sunday. I used to think they were all coming for a religious ceremony, but it’s pure commerce, and it’s still there and it’s so large. It’s very strange to me that people give up Sunday to do that… – It’s a very vibrant area , and when Christ Church opens up for singing, the theatre of it is wonderful.”

Many years before he took a studio in Spitalfields, Anthony came to the Whitechapel Gallery to visit the memorial exhibition for Mark Gertler in 1949, another artist who also once had a studio in an old house in one of the streets leading off the market place. “Synagogues, warehouses, and Hawksmoor’s huge Christ Church, locked but standing out mightily in Commercial St, tramps eating by the gravestones in the damp church yard. “Touch” was the word that recurred,” wrote Anthony in his diary at that time, revealing the early fascination that was eventually to lead him back, to rent a loft in an eighteenth century house in Wilkes St and then subsequently to a weavers’ attic round the corner in Hanbury St where the paintings you see below were painted.

Each of these modest spaces were built as workplaces with lines of casements on either side to permit maximum light, required for weaving. Affording vertiginous views down into the quiet haven of yards between the streets where daylight bounces and reflects among high walls, these unique circumstances create the unmistakable quality of light that both infuses and characterises Anthony Eyton’s pictures which he painted in his years there. But while the light articulates the visual vocabulary of these paintings, in their subtle tones drawn from the buildings, they record elusive moments of change within a mutable space, whether the instant when a model warms herself at the fire or workmen swarm onto the roof, or simply the pregnant moment incarnated by so many open windows beneath an English sky.

Anthony’s youngest daughter, Sarah, remembers coming to visit her father as a child. “It was a bit like camping, visiting daddy’s studio,” she recalled fondly, “There were no amenities and you had to go all the way downstairs, past the door of the man below who always left a rotten fish outside, to visit the privy in the yard that was full of spiders which were so large they had faces. But it was exciting, an adventure, and I used to love drawing and doing sketches on scraps of paper that I found in his studio.”

For a few years in the midst of his long career, Spitalfields gave Anthony Eyton a refuge where he could find peace and a place packed with visual stimuli – and then eight years ago, a quarter of a century after he left, Anthony returned. Frances Milat who was born and lived in the house in Hanbury St came back from Australia to stage a reunion of all the tenants from long ago. It was the catalyst for a set of circumstances which prompted Anthony to revisit and do new drawings in these narrow streets which, over all this time, have become inextricable with his identity as an artist.

Christine, 1976/8 - “She was very keen that the cigarette smoke and grotty ashtray should be in the picture to bring me down to earth.”

Liverpool St Station, mid-seventies

Studio interior, 1977

Back of Princelet St, 1980

Girl by the fire, 1978

Workers on the roof, 1980

Open window, Spitalfields, 1976-81 (Courtesy of Tate Gallery)

Open window, Spitalfields, 1976

Anthony Eyton working in his Hanbury St studio, a still from a television documentary of 1980

Wilkes St, 2011

Fournier St from Banglatown, 2011

Pictures copyright © Anthony Eyton

Paintings by Anthony Eyton are currently on display at Eleven Spitalfields, 11 Princelet St, E1 6QH, as part of the exhibition SUBSTANCE & LIGHT until 5th July

Elwin Hawthorne, Painter

June 19, 2017
by the gentle author

In the seventh 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 Elwin Hawthorne. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

Elwin Hawthorne with his painting of the Bryant & May Factory, 1929

In November 2008, when Sotheby’s auctioned pictures assembled by Sir David and Lady Scott, there was keen bidding for oils by Elwin Hawthorne. Sir David acquired a taste for the artist’s work in the early nineteen thirties when Hawthorne was a star exhibitor at Alex Reid & Lefevre’s galleries of work by the emerging East London Group.

Yet by the time of that Sotheby’s sale, Hawthorne was a forgotten name to all but a tiny group of enthusiasts who, like Scott, had been seduced by his melancholy, rather surreal views of London suburbs. The artist died in 1954, unremarked apart from family and friends, when he ought to have been in his prime as a creative artist. Instead, disheartened by the lack of opportunities to exhibit, he had lost heart in his work.

While researching my book From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group, I was lucky to meet Elwin Hawthorne’s widow, Lilian, then living in Vicarage Lane, East Ham. She had also exhibited with the Group, and provided invaluable memories of the triumphs and disappointments of her late husband’s career. Finally, when Lilian died in 1996, so unregarded was Elwin’s output that rescue work had to be carried out to save several pictures – two of these are among his paintings in my book.

Elwin and Lilian moved into a newly-built block of flats in September 1953, only thirteen months before he died.  Since the coal bunker had no shelf, Elwin used  one of his fine oil paintings on board “Trinity Almshouses, Mile End Rd,” shown at Lefevre in 1935.  After Elwin died, Lilian rescued it, filling in two screw holes with wood filler and painting over the damage.  A canvas entitled “Ilfracombe” was also discovered in the coal bunker, rolled up and flattened like an old rag under a pile of rubbish – this has recently been professionally de-creased and mounted on a panel.

By the time of his death, Hawthorne had become a versatile artist, competent in oils, watercolour and printmaking, though his career as a painter in oils, his main achievement, was concentrated in just fifteen years, 1925-40.

Born in the Bromley sub-district of Poplar in 1905, to a father who was house painter and decorator, his background was not auspicious for what he wanted to do. Elwin, his parents, five brothers and a sister and a basket-maker uncle, Henry Silk ( another member of the East London Group), lived hugger-mugger in a small, crowded two-storey building.

When Elwin left elementary school at fourteen with no qualifications, he became an errand boy. While unemployed he developed an interest in painting which led to classes at the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute and then the Bow & Bromley Evening Institute where the teacher was the inspirational John Cooper who was trained at the Slade School of Art.

Although he originally showed under his correctly spelled surname of “Hawthorn,” when his work was chosen for the 1928 Whitechapel Art Gallery East London Art Club exhibition, the forerunner of the East London Group Lefevre series at in the West End in the nineteen thirties, he was catalogued as “Hawthorne” and urged to retain that spelling.

He became a prolific exhibitor at Lefevre Galleries’ annual exhibitions and elsewhere, and attracted widespread press attention.  When the first East London Group show was held late in 1929, R R Tatlock, writing in the Daily Telegraph, devoted three paragraphs of a large review to Hawthorne, praising the subdued palette that would become an abiding characteristic of his work.  At the second Lefevre exhibition in 1930, The Times judged Hawthorne, “the most original artist of the group, producing pictures of East London which are the English equivalents – though more matter of fact – of what Utrillo is doing for Paris.” In fact, Hawthorne was compared to Utrillo several times .

In 1930, Lefevre signed a contract with Hawthorne to pay him a modest salary of eight pounds monthly in return for a first-refusal option on his work, with financial adjustments to be made as pictures sold. At this time. Elwin was about two years into a three-year period as assistant to Walter Sickert, who had lectured to Cooper’s Bow classes and exhibited with the East London Group for a short period. Sickert had taken an interest in Hawthorne, who supported the veteran artist on several important works.

Hawthorne was a full-time artist of great professionalism and some of his meticulous work sheets survive, including details such as each painting’s title and size, descriptions of the subjects, prices and whether sold or returned, or – in a few cases – destroyed when they did not fulfil his high standards. In the case of one work, there is the inscription, “Returned to me, now in the possession of Steggles, by exchange.” His fellow in the East London Group, Walter Steggles, thought highly of Elwin, commenting to me, “It is my opinion that Elwin was the best painter of London in the Twentieth Century. I am not alone in this view as a number of important collectors have expressed similar opinions to me.”

Notable collectors of Elwin’s work were abundant. In 1938, as well as Sir David Scott and his Foreign Office colleague Montague Shearman, Hawthorne was able to list among his buyers the “Contemporary Art Society, Earl of Sandwich, Viscount D’Abernon, Earl of Radnor, Earl of Rutland, Sir Edward Marsh, Gerald Kelly RA, J B Priestley, Charles Laughton, James Agate and numerous others.” Today, eight public collections in Britain hold Hawthorne paintings.

After signed the contract with Hawthorne which would continue for most of the nineteen thirties, Lefevre realised they had a star whose pictures were not restricted to the annual East London Group exhibitions. He was included in mixed shows both in Britain and overseas, and was given two Lefevre solo exhibitions.

His first was in 1934, coinciding with one by Vanessa Bell of the Bloomsbury Group, with her work accompanied by a foreword by Virginia Woolf in the catalogue. Hawthorne’s was well received, The Times critic commenting on his “discovery of artistic meaning in the commonplace.” Meanwhile, the Sunday Referee’s writer, who contended that “Mrs. Woolf’s mystical flutings on the theme of her sister’s paintings simply bewilder” yet found Bell’s work, “essentially commonplace.” The critic judged Hawthorne “an outstanding, possibly great artist in the making” and praised his display as “easily the best one-man show in town.”

In 1938, a second solo exhibition followed, but this time in tandem with one by Sickert’s third wife, Thérèse Lessore. Leading critics covered it, including T W Earp, Jan Gordon and Eric Newton. Again, Hawthorne’s work was generally favoured, with the critic of The Scotsman – who had liked his first solo show – seeing in his small pictures, “an impression of complete sincerity that is rare and inspiring.”

By this time, Hawthorne’s figure painting was developing yet even in one of his early works from 1929 – the picture of the Bryant & May Match Factory which proved a favoured subject for East London Group artists – the handling of the figures is assured.  For his fellow East London Group member Cecil Osborne, the absence of figures in Hawthorne’s work, gave them “a ‘Sunday Morning look” with the sparsely populated streets contributing to their surreal quality.  John Cooper was keen that his students visited exhibitions and it is possible that Hawthorne may have viewed the controversial 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, although a surreal atmosphere had already permeated Hawthorne’s work years earlier.

Hawthorne had other preoccupations in 1936.  Along with Walter Steggles, he had a painting chosen for the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale, with a contribution entitled “Una Via Di Londra.” It was a great accomplishment for a former errand boy to have his work shown alongside professional artists such as Sir Alfred Gilbert, Duncan Grant, Dame Barbara Hepworth and Philip Wilson Steer. Also in 1936, The Artist included a lengthy, illustrated profile of him as the twelfth in its “Artists of Note” series, beginning by extending “our special gratitude” to John Cooper, since “it is the East London Group that has given us Elwin Hawthorne”.

Although the final East London Group exhibition at Lefevre was in 1936, the gallery continued to promote individual artists’ works until World War II brought disarray to the art market.  The hostilities effectively ended Hawthorne’s exhibiting career. After Army service, for which he was temperamentally unsuited, he returned to Lefevre, but they had nothing for him and suggested he take a job.  He handled wages for radio and electronics firm Plessey, teaching art in schools part-time. Then, in 1954, he was taken ill on a bus to Woodberry Down School and died soon after in hospital. Elwin Hawthorne was only forty-nine, and he left a widow and two children – and he created a body of atmospheric paintings that survive to be acknowledged and appreciated now for their distinctive vision.

Cumberland Market, 1931 (Private collection)

Grove Park Rd W4, 1935 (Private collection)

Whipps Cross, 1933 (Gabriel Summers)

The Mitford Castle, 1931 (Private collection)

Bow Rd, 1931

Victoria Memorial Buckingham Palace, 1938 (Private collection)

Demolition of Bow Brewery, 1931 (Private collection)

The Guardian Angels, 1931 (Louise Kosman, Edinburgh

Trinity Almshouses, Mile End Rd, 1935 (Private collection) - rescued from use as a shelf in a coal bunker.

Ilfracombe, c.1931 (Private collection) – discovered rolled up in the coal bunker.

Walter and Harold Steggles, Lilian and Elwin Hawthorne (right), c.1937 (Walter Steggles Bequest)

Jock McFadyen, Painter

June 18, 2017
by the gentle author

In the sixth 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 the paintings of Jock McFadyen. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

Aldgate East by Jock McFadyen

Hidden behind an old terrace facing London Fields is a back street with a scrapyard and a car repair garage, and a row of anonymous industrial units where painter Jock McFadyen has his studio. You enter through a narrow alley round the back to discover Jock in his lair, a scrawny Scotsman with freckles, tufts of ginger hair, and beady eyes that look right through you. Yet such is the modesty of his demeanour, he acted more like the caretaker than the owner – concentrating on the coffee and biscuits, and leaving me to gasp at his vast canvasses of landscapes on a scale uncommon in our age.

The works of man appear insubstantial, either dwarfed by the scale of the landscape or partly obscured by meteorological effects in Jock’s paintings. With plain titles such as “Dagenham,” “Looking West,” “Pink Flats,” and “Popular Enclosure,” he evokes the terrain where East London unravels into Essex beneath apocalyptic northern skies, encompassed by an horizon that extends beyond your field of vision when you stand in front of these pictures.

Originating from Paisley, Jock has lived and worked in the East End since 1978, with studios in Butler’s Wharf, Bow and the Truman Brewery before arriving in London Fields twenty years ago. Although he has painted a whole series of epic landscapes of the East End, Jock remains ambivalent about its impact upon his work. “It’s difficult to say how much a place affects you because my real influences are other painters like Lowry and Sickert,” he admitted to me with a shrug, “You’re never just painting what’s in front of your nose, you’re aware of the history of painting.”

“When I was a student at Chelsea in the seventies, the previous generation were the pop artists and my work was quite stark and self-referential.” he confessed with a chuckle, breaking into a shy grin, “But when I became Artist in Residence at the National Gallery in 1981, I realised I couldn’t spend my life just making art about art, so I started painting what I saw in the street – What could be less fashionable?”

“Then in 1991, I got commissioned to design a set for the Royal Ballet. They thought, ‘It’s urban despair, let’s get Jock McFadyen!’” he continued, sipping his coffee with relish, “There were no figures in my design, because the dancers were the figures. And that’s when I realised I had been a landscape painter all along – I’d been painting people in places.”

So there we left our conversation – but before I departed his studio, I paused to admire a huge canvas of magnificent old rotting warehouses on the River Lea. It occurred to me that Jock came from Glasgow – a decayed port city with a vibrant working class culture  - and felt at home in the East End, a location with a similar identity. I saw Jock looking at me and I realised he knew what I was thinking. “If you are a landscape painter you can only paint one place at a time,” he said, anticipating my words “So the question is ‘Are you an East End painter or are you just a landscape painter that happens to live here?’”

Jock McFadyen in London Fields

Aldgate East

Three Colts Lane

The New Globe

Turner’s Rd

Bingo Hall, Mare St

Bethnal Green Garden

Looking West


From Beckton Alp


Showcase Cinemas

Tate Moss

Pink Flats

Jock & Horseshoe Jake in front of Popular Enclosure


Roman Rd

Jock McFadyen

Paintings copyright © Jock McFadyen

Portraits copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies

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