Pearl Binder, artist & writer
“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, I could not help noticing the number fifteen bus which still runs through Aldgate today. In her lithographs, Pearl Binder found her 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, the rhyme collector, who 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 bookshop in Wentworth St.
Pearl Binder ( 1904-1990)