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Pearl Binder, artist & writer

May 1, 2010
by the gentle author

“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 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)

17 Responses leave one →
  1. May 1, 2010

    Alan Lomax was the collector of American folk music. A L Lloyd was more interested in English music, which he recorded extensively in a distinctive, high voice. He was an inspiration for and encourager of later musicians like Fairport Convention. He and Pearl Binder were part of the artistic and social circle that existed around the Communist Party in the 1930s.

  2. Fay Cattini permalink
    May 6, 2010

    I’m old enough to remember the old lady sitting outside Blooms with her basket of beigels in Whitechapel High Street. I often wondered how she made a living outside such an expensive restaurant. At the end of the week, old folk would go to the back of Blooms and be given food that was left. I never ate there but would buy lutkas which I loved. It was a sad day when they closed. I discovered the Kosher Dining Rooms in Greatorex Street in the early ’90s which was very reasonable and delicious food. I saw a man there who I’d been at school with and found out he was a rabbi in Old Castle Street synagogue. Unfortunately the dining rooms too went when the building was sold not long after.

  3. Lou Taylor ex Elwyn Jones - sister to Dan Jones permalink
    July 27, 2010

    I am delighted about this site and the great images you have put up.

    Our father was MP for Keir Hardie’s old constituency. He was elected with a landslide in July 1945, still in military uniform. Polly grew up in Fenton, near Stoke when she young and moved to Elizabeth Street Manchester when she about seven. Her father was an unsuccessful jobbing tailor. Her mother Janet, Jewish- was born in England. Mum had one brother Maurice and one sister Anne. Polly was the youngest. Our mother went to a series of schools in Manchester winning a scholarhsip to high school and staying there till she was sixteen. She worked as a clerk in a textile mill for a year or two because she had learned accountancy at school. She always wanted to draw and went to the free evening classes offered at Manchester School of Art till 1926, when she went to live in London to try and make her way as a graphic artist. By 1933-34 she was involved in left-wing artistic circles and was one of the founders of the Artists International Association.

  4. Maggie Phillips permalink
    September 26, 2010

    My Great Uncle and Auntie where dear friends of Pearl Binder and Elwyn Jones. They spent a lot of time together. Pearl drew many pictures for them both, which I now have. Some of them are personal to my family and are about time they spent together, and others are just of ‘Pearly Kings and Queens’. They tell great stories!!

  5. January 11, 2011

    whenever i read your blog, i feel that i am discovering a village, not a suburb, in the midst of the great city of london; your penning creates works similar to that of pearl’s artwork, and it will be regarded in the future as a perfect description of a place in time

  6. Ray Abrahams permalink
    January 13, 2011

    RE Pearl Binder. I have enjoyed your account and the illustrations. Before her marriage to Elwyn Jones she was married to Jack Driberg for some years and illustrated at least one of his books. Driberg was rather older. He had been a maverick Colonial Administrator in Uganda and the Southern Sudan, and later became a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at Cambridge before taking up Government Service in WW2. He was the elder brother of Tom Driberg, the well-known Labour MP and peer. I have a paper on Jack Driberg, currently in press, and would be glad to send you a copy. He was a quite remarkable character.

  7. March 27, 2011

    I am PB’s elder daughter and studied social anthropology with Dr Audrey Richards at Newnham College Cambridge at the end of the ‘fifties- I wrote several obits of her – I did a little research on Jack Driberg – I heard from NWPirie FRS who knew him at the end of his life that he was quite a remarkable person when he taught in Cambridge – his wish not to have children was one of the reasons PB left him but there were others. I would very much like to read your paper and correspond. I am leaving for Philadelphia on April 5th for eight weeks but will have my laptop with me.
    I have read ‘Engato the Lion Cub’ amd ‘People of the Small Arrow which PB illustrated – she was in love with him all her life but their Bloomsbury marriage did not work out for her or presumably him. PB admired his mother greatly. Her family were shocked at the marriage because he was as they saw it not a Jewish Driberg – the family came from South africa – PB thought them very top drawer. I have the excellent memorial read at Tom driberg’s memorial service – if it is of any interest to you I will find it and send it to you – it was sent to my parents on the occasion of TB’s death
    .
    Most sincerely, Jo Gladstone

  8. Ray Abrahams permalink
    May 10, 2011

    Hi Josephine. Nice to get your response which I have only just seen. My paper is in JASO and is on line at http://www.isca.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/ISCA/JASO/JASO_Jan_2011/Abrahams.pdf

    We must almost have overlapped in soc anth. I went to the field in East Africa in 1957. Audrey drove me round Kampala in her haphazard way while avering that she had never actually killed anybody! I came back in 1960 and she became my Ph.D supervisor. Have you seen the wonderful portrait of her in Newnham.

    I found your comments quite touching – I had wondered about the marriage. He was a truly remarkable man though not to everyone’s taste these days in a world of political correctness. Your mother was alo a quite remarkable artist – I think the illustrations in People of the Small Arrow are superb.

    It would be nice to hear from you. I am a fellow of Churchill College. I see you have published at least one childrens’ (?) book illustrated by your Mum.

  9. Lilian Wynn permalink
    June 19, 2011

    Pearl Binder was my mother’s cousin and my earliest recollection of her was when I was about ten years old. My mother and I were in a local park in Manchester in the 30′s. A lady walked towards us, dressed in a large black cape and a kind of black sombrero on her head. She looked like an advert for “Sandeman’s Port” – a popular drink at the time.

    “Good heavens,” my mother said, “it’s Pearl.” They spoke for a while, then Pearl walked on in her outrageous costume, much to the amazement of passers-by.

  10. MANNIE KHAN permalink
    August 2, 2011

    I REMEMBER IN PARTICULAR ELWYN JONES WHO WAS PERSONABLE FRIENDLY
    AMIABLE NOT AT ALL WHAT I EXSPECTED AN MY MP TO BE LIKE.
    MY PARENTS WERE MEMBERS OF BECTON WARD LABOUR PARTY AND THE
    WARD MEETINGS WERE HELD AT KEIR HARDIE SCHOOL.
    HE HAD A LASTING IMPRESSION ON ME WHEN I FIRST MET HIM WHICH WAS IN THE 1950′S.
    I ALSO MARVELLOUS MEMORIES OF THE PARTY IN 1964 WHEN HE WAS MADE ATTORNEY GENERAL.
    TRULY HE AND HIS WIFE AND FAMILY WERE TO ADMIRE AND EMULATE AND THEY WERE DEARLY LOVED IN WEST HAM SOUTH /NEWHAM SOUTH HIS CONSTITUENCY.

    MANNIE KHAN

  11. David Aaronson permalink
    November 15, 2011

    Just to say I have a signed lithograph Petticoat Lane Sunday morning dated 1932 it has a signed dedication for Laz – Nisi – with love Pearl Binder 1932 . Lazarus Aaronson was my father who was brought up in Spitalfields. He was a very well respected poet and Lecturer in Economics at The City of London College he died in 1966 when I was 13
    David Aaronson

  12. Bonnie Williams Speeg permalink
    January 25, 2012

    This is beautiful. Thank you for the charming and real material on this most interesting woman.

  13. March 28, 2013

    My mother Dr Alison Macbeth was a close friend of Pearl Binder, so we accumulated a fair collection of her lithographs and charcoal drawings. A lot of them got pinched during the war, in the blitz when there were good opportunities for well-informed thieves. Two that survive were a charcoal portrait of Paul Robeson as a very handsome young man, when he first hit London around 1934, and a charcoal sketch of a little Chinese girl on the back of a menu. The Communist and fellow-travelling circle referred to in your excellent article included a surprisingly large number of fading Russian aristocratic exiles.

  14. November 25, 2013

    dear gentle author, i am currently writing a biography of my late aunt edith tudor-hart. she was a close friend of pearl binder, dan jones’ mother. i would be most thankful if you could put me in touch with mr. jones – i have a question i would very much like to ask him. thank you in advance! peter stephan jungk

  15. Simon Cook permalink
    April 30, 2014

    My Grandmother Lillian Pratten (Molly) was a live in maid for Pearl and my parents knew her as Aunt Polly. They have all passed on now but I have been entrusted with the two lithographs she did for my Grandmother and my parents. Both Pearl and Lord Elwyn Jones visited my parents in New Zealand in 1975 which caused quite a stir in a very quiet and sleepy suburb of Te Atatu Sth, Auckland when they turned up with police escort and British High Commission limo. They are part of our family history and it is great to learn more about her life.

  16. Pamela Marre permalink
    July 14, 2015

    I am collecting together some of the history of my mother – Soochie Marre – who will be 100 years old this year. She was born and lived in Bethnal Green until bombed out on the second night of the Blitz in the 2nd World War. She has often told me about working for Pearl Binder – whom she really admired. I think she was some kind of assistant but I’m not sure what she did and her memory is now too far gone for her to recall. I suspect she worked for her for a fairly short time, but if you ever come across her name or have any idea what work she did for Pearl, I would really love to know.

  17. Johanna Hecht permalink
    October 29, 2015

    I was delighted to find this site as it helped me identify a lithograph that passed down to me from my family’s collection and to learn so much about its creator. (My uncle was the American painter, Ben Shahn and it may be that he or his brother Philip were acquainted with Pearl Binder through lefty circles.) I’m looking for a home for the litho, the one you identify as Aldgate. Do you know of any British collections that might be interested? I’m also looking here in the US but thought it might make more sense in the UK.

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