Dan Jones at Bethnal Green Library
Click to enlarge Dan Jones’ painting of St Paul’s School Wellclose Sq, 1977
Last week, Dan Jones‘ splendid mural from 1977 of children and their rhymes in the playground of St Paul’s School Wellclose Sq was installed at the Bethnal Green Children’s Library, so Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Chris Kelly and I went along to join the celebrations.
The Children’s Library is on your right as you enter the building and from the lobby you can see the huge colourful painting at the far end of a long room with windows facing onto the Green. Once I reached this point, I could already hear “The wheels on the bus go round and round…” sung by an enthusiastic chorus of toddlers and their mothers led by librarian Jusnara Khanam as the beginning of a day’s festivities that involved children of all different ages coming in to the library to see Dan’s painting and enjoy some lively rhymes, songs and games.
“In 1970, I was a youth worker and I ran a youth club in the hall on the right of the painting. I used to have two hundred kids dancing in there!” recalled Dan fondly, “And so most of the children in the school were known to me.” Living close by in Cable St, Dan, who began collecting rhymes in 1947, has followed the shifting currents of playground culture over all this time. “Some of these rhymes in the painting are still to be heard in the playground there,” he told me, “But others they don’t do anymore, or only sporadically.”
A local plasterer coated three boards with a fine coat of plaster to give a smooth finish for Dan to paint on and, inspired by Bruegel’s “Children’s Games,” Dan set to work upon the dining table in his front room, painting individual portraits of the children with their rhymes inscribed alongside. It took over a year’s work and Dan framed the life of the playground with the architecture of the school, including its weathervane in the shape of tall ship and Tower Bridge looming on the horizon – all portrayed beneath a distinctively occluded London sky. And now that most schools wear primary coloured shirts, it is fascinating to observe the wide variety of characterful clothing – reflecting the styles of the time – displayed by these children.
Astonishingly, the painting caused great controversy when it was first displayed, with the Daily Telegraph accusing Dan Jones of turning East End youth against the police force, because he included the rhyme - “There’s a cop, cop, copper on the corner, all dressed up in navy blue. If it wasn’t for the law, I would sock him on the jaw. And he wouldn’t be a copper any more, more, more…” A rhyme which Dan had simply recorded along with all the others in the playground.
At first, the mural graced the London’s Children’s Centre and in recent years it filled the narrow hallway of Dan’s house, but in its new home in the Children’s Library it fits perfectly, as if it had been painted for this space. Dan’s picture hangs above the library corner, where children can play or sit on the floor and read books, casting a benign spell upon this favoured spot. And it was a beautiful spectacle to observe life imitating art as Dan led the children in reciting rhymes and singing games in front of his painting crowded with these same activities. “I haven’t done enough recording of four years olds,” Dan confided to me, ever eager to expand his vast archive of thousands of rhymes he has recorded here and around the world – some of which he played for my amusement as snatches on a CD during the lunch break. Then older children arrived from Columbia School and Bangabandhu School, and it was time to go outside for more boisterous activities on the Green, enacting the life of Dan’s painting in the spring sunshine.
More than thirty years have passed since Dan made his picture – the first of several on this subject and at this scale he has done in subsequent years – yet the delighted responses of the children at Bethnal Green Library revealed that it remains as fresh and immediate as the day he completed it in 1977.
Breuegel’s “Children’s Games,” 1560 – Dan’s inspiration.
Dan added his self-portrait recently.
Dan Jones with his grandson Rumi
Photographs copyright © Chris Kelly
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