The Return of Anthony Eyton
You may have noticed Anthony Eyton sitting in Wilkes St each day over the last few weeks. A discreet yet distinguished figure with his straggly white whiskers and extravagant flowing mane barely contained beneath a wide brimmed hat, perched upon his modest folding chair, holding his drawing board, and working intently at an intricate cityscape. He is pursuing a personal vision of these ancient narrow streets which is informed by his lifelong relationship with Spitalfields.
It was in 1948 that Anthony first walked up Brick Lane, after visiting the Mark Gertler retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery. The unique quality of the place held such enduring fascination to the young art student from Camberwell, new to London after finishing military service, that he kept a studio here for fourteen years from 1968 until 1982, and still returns with undiminished interest today, more than sixty years since he first visited.
“What struck me when I came out of the Whitechapel Gallery were the barrows, where everybody looked bigger and creamier. I walked along Brick Lane and saw all the sweatshops. It must have been a colourful time, it was decrepit but I thought it was alive. You certainly get attached to an area, you feel embraced by it, and I still get that feeling now.” Anthony told me as I sat upon the kerb beside him, peering down Wilkes St, while he focused his attention back and forth between the drawing and the street.
“At art school, we were taught drawing, but nothing about drawing outside,” he continued, gazing at people on mobile phones, standing like apparitions in the street, “though I’ve always drawn people in situations, and this was re-inforced when I went to Italy after art school and drew people in the streets there – it’s so much part of Renaissance painting, placing figures in spaces.”
Looking down Wilkes St, I had the feeling we were looking down a tunnel, a tunnel of light and a tunnel through time. Directly in front of us was the red brick house on the corner of Wilkes St and Princelet St with a blue plaque commemorating the eighteenth century silk designer, Anna Maria Garthwaite, who once lived there, and beyond that 2 Wilkes St, the house where Anthony rented his first studio in 1968, up on the top in the weavers’ loft. Filling the end of the street was the unremitting mass of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church with its line of circular windows along the side, like a vast ocean liner moored at a wharf. To the right was Puma Court, leading through to Commercial St which was the main source of the lunchtime passersby who were unaware of Anthony, even if they were central to the subject of his drawing.
“I wanted to do Wilkes St,” explained Anthony, “because the size of it is so perfect. A little wider than Princelet St, and Fournier St is so grand, but Wilkes St is the ideal scale for people. People look at home in this space, they go into a doorway and it has significance.” We sat in silence together and watched the people come and go, preoccupied with their mysterious intentions, and exchanged glances of amused fascination at this every day wonder, as if we were the sole audience to this spectacle of life and it was contrived for our diversion.
“My first impression, when I came back, was how drab it was,” admitted Anthony to me with a smirk, deliberating over his box of pastels, “In the old days it was all bright colours with so many factory signs, but now it is houses it’s all sombre colours. I remember blue front doors and the hum of machines.” And then he winced up at the sky in concern, hoping that the clouds would not break to let the sunshine through. “The sun gets in my eyes so much,” he confided, frowning, “the colours become blurred and misty. If it’s a dull light, the Dawlish cliffs (as he referred to house on the corner) become a wonderful rich ochre, there will be a yellow line round the windows and the bricks round the windows will be red, and all the colours will be much more intense. On a cloudy day, I can see colours in the shadows.”
I looked down Wilkes St again, and into the landscape of Anthony’s imagination, illuminated by more than sixty years of experience of this place, framed by the proportion of Renaissance painting, and enlivened by his love of the poetry of the fleeting life of the street.
“The friendly chap opposite, a Spanish architect called Hannibal, he kept on bringing me cups of tea and he even offered me a beer.” confessed Anthony, rolling his eyes in delight at the infinite adventure of being an artist working outdoors in the city, “And the lorry drivers, they glance down from their cabins and give me the thumbs up. “Alright uncle!” they say. And you feel you belong. A couple of times that happened, which is always nice. My theory is that everybody has a natural appreciation of art, so if a lorry driver likes it, that’s good enough for me.”