A Return Visit to Alfred Daniels
Towards the end of my first visit to the studio of Alfred Daniels, the esteemed eighty-six-year-old painter of prolific talent from Bow, he asked me, “Do you think you could come back again next week?” It was an invitation I was happy to accept and – although it took me a little longer than a week – yesterday I travelled eagerly over to Chiswick to pay another call upon him in the large suburban house that his parents bought in 1946 to escape the bombing in the East End.
When I rang the bell twice and received no answer, I peered through the blind into the front room which serves as Alfred’s studio where I spied him, intently at work upon a painting. At first, I was reluctant to disturb his contented reverie but I knew he was expecting me, so I tapped lightly on the window and he sprang into life, coming to the let me in by his front door. Propped up on his desk was a painting of a cat reclining on a fish box with two small boats in the background that Alfred did yesterday. I complimented him on the spirited spontaneous quality of the picture, but he waved my words away with a good-humoured flourish.“It’s the doing of it that’s important not the results,” he informed me with a chuckle, as another thought struck him, “that’s why I gave up religion, because it stops people living in the present tense.”
Yet in spite of his comment, there are certain images that Alfred has returned to continuously throughout his long career and a particular favourite is the gramophone man who always sat in Wentworth St in the nineteen fifties. “I was getting into it,” he admitted in delighted surprise, “and it was becoming different.” The character portrayed in this painting is an East End legend, a subject Alfred first painted from life as a student on a field trip from the Royal College of Art more than sixty years ago. I was intrigued to discover him painting this new version, working from a photograph yet reconfiguring it. “I went there during the blitz, Petticoat Lane and Spitalfields,” he explained to me, thinking out loud again as he resumed work, “it was the first place I experienced a sense of being part of a community, it was the Jewish community then.”
I sat beside Alfred in silence as he grew absorbed in the picture again and cast my eyes around at his other works in progress. Reconsidering themes that resonate for him, he is working on a new depiction of the Royal Exchange in the City and an epic river view looking down the Thames with all the central bridges lined up in parallel. “I never wanted to be a painter,” announced Alfred unexpectedly, still puzzled by the reputation and financial security that his sly, subtly sophisticated paintings have brought him, “I wanted to be an illustrator of life.”
“It isn’t enough to make a picture of something – You have to be there, you have to touch it, you have to experience it.” he assured me as we studied different views of Leadenhall Market that Alfred has done over the years. And he became animated with enthusiasm to revisit the memory of sketching this market more than thirty years ago, an experience distilled further each time he has revisited the image.
Over the phone, Alfred had promised to seek out his Billingsgate sketchbook to show me, that he made in the late sixties when he began drawing on the street as a way to work with art students. “I never tried to teach them, I just took them out with me drawing and worked alongside them so they could see what I did,” he recalled with modest pleasure, pulling the battered hardcover foolscap book from among several in an old satchel on the floor. As Alfred turned the pages, nothing prepared me for the bold fluent quality of his drawings in this book, recording the lost City of half a century ago in crisp confident lines. Alfred’s equal facility with both the human figure and architectural structures creates a tension in these pictures that evokes the energy of the working city with an economy of line which belies the complexity of his vision.
“Did I tell you my story about Francis Bacon?” Alfred asked me, eager again to divert our conversation away from compliments, “He took over from John Minton, teaching us at the Royal College for a spell. In those days, if you were wealthy and well-connected it wasn’t hard to be successful as an artist.” It was an unexpected thought that stopped Alfred in his tracks, as one who possessed none of those prerequisites when he started out. Then, unfortunately, noise at the door terminated our conversation there and I never heard Alfred’s Francis Bacon story, and I never got to look at his stacks of other sketchbooks or hear more of his East End stories. Yet most of all I had enjoyed the peace of sitting with Alfred in his studio while he worked – so this time I was the one to ask the question, “Do you think I could come back again?”
From Alfred’s Billingsgate sketchbook of 1966.
Businessmen at the Royal Exchange and a view of Throgmorton St, 1966.
The old Times building demolished 1968, Upper Thames St.
Southwark Bridge, April 27th
View from the Angel Gardens up river towards Tower Bridge, October 11th Friday 1:30pm
Thameside people, October 1967
Thameside people, dockers, fish porters etc, October 1967
People on London Bridge.
Alfred is exhibiting in The Royal Society of British Artists Annual Exhibition at the Mall Galleries SW1, 29th February – 1oth March. On Wednesday 29th February 11:30am, he will be giving a talk in conjunction with Nick Tidnam on Sketchbooks and Drawing. On Wednesday 7th March 11:30am, he will giving another talk in conjunction with Nick Tidnam, on Arcylics and Mixed Media.
You may like to read about my original visit to Alfred Daniels, Painter