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Henry Silk, Artist & Basket Maker

May 10, 2013
by David Buckman

Of all the painters that comprised the East London Group, I rate none more highly than Henry Silk and so I am delighted that I was able to persuade David Buckman, author of the authoritative history From Bow to Biennale : Artists of The East London Group, to write this feature.

At his Uncle Abraham’s basket shop in Bow

The recent exhibition of East London Group painters in Bloomsbury  – the first in eighty years – raised the question: Which of the members most closely embodied what the Group stood for ? There are many advocates for Archibald Hattemore, Elwin Hawthorne, Cecil Osborne, Harold & Walter Steggles, and Albert Turpin – all painters from backgrounds that were not arty in any conventional sense who became inspired by their teacher John Cooper, the founder of the Group. Yet for some, the shadowy figure of Henry Silk, creator of highly personal and poetically understated images, is pre-eminent.

Silk’s talent was quickly recognised as far away as America, even while the Group was just establishing itself in the early thirties. In December 1930, when the second Group show was held in the West End at Alex. Reid & Lefevre, the national press reported that over two-thirds of pictures were sold, listing a batch of works bought by public collections. The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times revealed that, in addition to British purchases, the far-away Public Gallery of Toledo in Ohio had bought Silk’s ‘Still Life’ for six guineas.

American links continued when, early in 1933, Helen McCloy filing an insightful survey of the group’s achievements for the Boston Evening Transcript, judged Silk to have “the keenest technical sense of all the limitations and possibilities of paint.” Coincident with McCloy’s article, Hope Christie Skillman in the College Art Association’s publication Parnassus, distinguished Silk as “perhaps the most original and personal of the Group,” finding in his works such as The Railway Track, The Platelayers, The Tyre Dump and The Wireless Set, “beauty where we were taught not to see it.”

Silk’s early life is obscure.  He was an East Ender, born on Christmas Day 1883, who worked as a basket maker for an uncle, Abraham Silk, at his workshop and shop in the Bow Rd.  Fruit baskets were in great demand then and men making baskets became features of Silk’s pictures. “He used to work for three weeks at basket-making and spend the fourth in the pub,” Group member Walter Steggles remembered, describing Silk’s erratic work and drink habits. Yet Steggles also spoke of Silk with affection, admitting “He was a kind-hearted man who always looked older than his years.”

Silk was the uncle of Elwin Hawthorne, one of the leading members of the group, and lived for a time with that family at 11 Rounton Rd in Bow. Elwin’s widow Lilian – who, as Lilian Leahy, also showed with the group – remembered Silk as “generous to others but mean to himself.  He would use an old canvas if someone gave it to him rather than buy a new one.” This make-do-and-mend ethos was common among the often-hard-up Group members when it came to framing too. Cooper directed them to E. R. Skillen & Co, in Lamb’s Conduit St, where Walter Steggles used to buy old frames that could be cut to size.

During the First World War, the young Silk was already sketching.  Even on military service in his early thirties, during which he was gassed, he would draw on whatever he could find to hand. By the mid-twenties, he was attending classes at the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute and exhibited when the Art Club had its debut show at Bethnal Green Museum early in 1924. The Daily Chronicle ran a substantial account of the spring 1927 exhibition, highlighting Henry Silk, the basket maker, whose paintings depicted “Zeppelins and were bought by an officer ‘for a bob.’”

Yorkshireman, John Cooper, who had trained at The Slade, taught at Bethnal Green and, when he moved to evening classes at the Bow & Bromley Evening Institute, he took many students with him including George Board, Archibald Hattemore, Elwin Hawthorne, Henry Silk, the Steggles brothers and Albert Turpin. They were members of the East London Art Club that had its exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the winter of 1928, part of which transferred to what is now the Tate Britain early in 1929.  These activities prompted the series of Lefevre Galleries annual East London Group shows throughout the thirties, with their sales to many notable private collectors and public galleries, and huge media coverage.

Henry Silk was a prolific artist. He contributed a significant number of works to the Whitechapel show in 1928, remained a significant exhibitor at the East London Group-associated appearances, showed with the Toynbee Art Club and at Thos Agnew & Sons.  Among his prestigious buyers were the eminent dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, Tate director Charles Aitken and the poet and artist Laurence Binyon. Another was the writer J. B. Priestley, Cooper’s friend, who over the years garnered an impressive and well-chosen modern picture collection. Silk was also regarded highly by his East London Group peers, Murroe FitzGerald, Hawthorne’s wife Lilian and Walter Steggles, who all acquired works of his.

As each of the East London Group artists acquired individual followings as a result of the annual and mixed exhibitions, the Lefevre Galleries astutely organised solo shows for several of them. Elwin Hawthorne, Brynhild Parker and the brothers Harold & Walter Steggles all benefited.  Yet, in advance of these, in 1931 Silk had a solo show of watercolours at the recently established gallery Walter Bull & Sanders Ltd, in Cork St.  The small exhibition was characterised by an array of still lifes and interiors. Writing in The Studio magazine two years earlier, having visited Cooper’s Bow classe, F. G. Stone noted that Silk often saw “a perfect design from an unusual angle, and he has a Van Goghian love of chairs and all simple things.”

Cooper urged his students to paint the world around them and Silk met the challenge by depicting landscapes near his home in the East End, also sketching while on holiday in Southend and as far away as Edinburgh. Writing the foreword to the catalogue of the second group exhibition at Lefevre in December 1930, the critic R. H. Wilenski said that French artists were fascinated by the “cool, frail London light.” and many asked him “what English artists have made these aspects of London the essential subject of their work.” He responded, “The next time a French artist talks to me in this manner I shall tell him of the East London Group, and the members’ names that I shall mention first in this connection will be Elwin Hawthorne, W. J. Steggles and Henry Silk.”

Even after the East London Group held its final show at Lefevre in 1936, Henry Silk continued to show in the East End, until his death of cancer aged only sixty-three on September 24th, 1947. He left a widow and appears to have given up basket-making, since he was described on his death certificate only as a “taxicab driver.”

Thorpe Bay

St James’ Rd, Old Ford

Old Houses, Bow (Walter Steggles Bequest)

My Lady Nicotine

Snow (Walter Steggles Bequest)

Still Life (Walter Steggles Bequest)

Basket Makers (Courtesy of Dorian Osborne)

Boots, Polish and Brushes

The Bedroom

Bedside chair (Courtesy of Dorian Osborne)

Hat on table, 1932 (courtesy of Doncaster Museum)

The view from 11 Rounton Rd, Bow, photographed by Elwin Hawthorne

You may also like to read David Buckman’s other features about the East London Group

From Bow To Biennale

Elwin Hawthorne, Artist

Albert Turpin, Artist

Phyllis Bray, Artist

From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group by David Buckman can be ordered direct from the publisher Francis Boutle and copies are on sale in bookshops including Brick Lane Bookshop, Broadway Books, Newham Bookshop, Stoke Newington Bookshop, London Review Bookshop, Town House, Daunt Books, Foyles, Hatchards and Tate Bookshop.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. May 10, 2013

    Thanks, David, for more fascinating insights on the East London Group. I especially admire the intense Van Goghian joy of Silk’s ‘The Bedroom’ – and the French artists’ attraction to the “cool, frail London light”. Has that quality disappeared since the 1930s, or does it take an outsider to see it?

  2. Peter Holford permalink
    May 10, 2013

    I love the still-life. Together with Lady Nicotine it shows a sense of humour and perhaps his acceptance of a smoking habit.

  3. Sally permalink
    May 11, 2013

    I love ‘The bedroom’ and ‘Bedside chair’.

  4. May 11, 2013

    I always look forward to reading this blog, and it never disappoints. Another great post. Love the paintings – a touch of Vincent in that bedroom one.

  5. Jean Edwards permalink
    May 15, 2013

    As mentioned in Elwin Hawthorn’s biography, Henry Silk was my mother’s uncle (therefore my great uncle) and he lived with her until his death. My mother is still alive and is 93! She is Elwin Hawthorn’s sister.

    I have just been reading “From Bow to Biennale” and have found is fascinating as there are many quotes in there, some about mum, which she has forgotten about herself!

  6. Jean Edwards permalink
    May 15, 2013

    By the way, also forgot to mention that I, too, lived in 11 Rounton Road with everybody until my mum and dad moved in 1960. So the bottom photograph taken by Elwin is of particular interest to me!

  7. mandy gifford permalink
    August 9, 2014

    elwin was my g uncle his sister christna maud being my grand mother on my mothers side.I would like to ask Jean Edwards what sister is she refering to,We must be cousins.

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