Brian Butler’s Furniture
After photographing Roy Kinnear’s railway arch, I dropped by 157 Martha St (just a couple of arches west) where the magnanimous Brian Butler has his business. I was curious to learn about Brian’s extraordinary collection of sculptures and signs, but instead he wanted to talk about the farm he used to have in the next arch.
Once upon a time, someone rang to say there were some stray hens on wasteground in Backchurch Lane, so Brian brought them back in his truck. Soon they were roosting under his arch and once the word got round, Brian was asked to shelter some stray goats from Old Ford Lock too. Then a pal took Brian over to Southall Market where he was smitten by an old horse that he bought on impulse at a bargain price. He walked it all the way back from Southall himself, an epic journey of over six hours and a measure of Brian’s devotion to animals.
Quickly acquiring more livestock and a reputation somewhere between Noah and Old MacDonald, the presence of Brian’s farm under the railway arch became controversial in this densely populated corner of Shadwell. With some reluctance, Brian handed his creatures over to an animal sanctuary in Surrey – apart from Charlie the goat. Such was the sentimental attachment of man and beast that Charlie lived out his days here with Brian, roaming freely around Shadwell and regularly dropping into the chip shop for a packet of salt and vinegar crisps.
Over the thirty years Brian has been running his business under his arch, he has taken the opportunity to indulge himself in collecting bizarre stuff and making artfully hand lettered signs advertising his own idiosyncratic philosophy and humour. The result is a striking installation worthy of any of our more fashionable galleries. He claims no-one has ever asked to buy one of his signs but I think it might only be a matter of time. Brian told me that the monster burger in the picture above came from a French fast food chain and used to have lettuce in it until some kids stole it. I was about the learn the origin of the bull too, when a woman tried to negotiate the price of a table that was good value at the asking price. But Brian doesn’t negotiate, so she paid his price and took the table, and I never learnt where the bull came from.
Next, Brian told me of his Spitalfields upbringing. Until the age of six, he lived in Hobson’s Cottages in Deal St. Later, the family moved to Toynbee St and then Cable St – five minutes from his railway arch. So for Brian it has been a lifetime within a square mile and it is apparent that he is profoundly at home here. Up on the wall inside the shop hangs a tin plate with a text painted by Brian in bold capitals “MY HEART LIES HERE”. “It’s true!” he says, with an open-hearted grin illuminating his generously rounded moon face.