Happy Birthday Alfred Daniels!
“Edward Bawden taught me how important it is to sharpen your pencil properly!”
Alfred Daniels, the celebrated painter from Bow known as ‘the Lowry of the East End,’ is eighty-nine years old today and still painting with undiminished passion. I went over yesterday to take this birthday portrait and I found him in the throes of preparing his new exhibition that opens at the Russell Gallery next week, including all the paintings shown below.
“I saw a film of myself walking and I thought, ‘Who’s that bloody old man?’ Because I don’t feel old, even though I look like my grandfather – the one from Plotsk,” Alfred admitted with a weary grin, contemplating his venerable age. Alfred confided to me that he is astonished to be alive, having cheated death three times.
“My brother Sid & I were walking down the Whitechapel Rd trying to pick up girls. We only had a bit of bombing in Bow, it wasn’t intensive like in Whitechapel and Stepney,” Alfred remembered, “Sid wanted to take the underground from Stepney Green but I had a funny feeling about it, so we walked home instead and I learnt next day that Stepney Green station had been hit.”
“My father was an air raid warden and my mother was a nurse, so they told us both to sleep in the shelter while they went to work at night,” Albert told me, recounting his second brush with mortality, “And when next door got bombed, the blast blew the wardrobe on top of the bed in our room and would have killed us.”
“Then I got a mastoid at the base of my skull when I was in the RAF and it had to be removed, so I dropped out of my squadron,” revealed Alfred, “and they were all killed, except for my friend who was invalided out, and me.”
We sat in silent gratitude in Alfred’s first-floor kitchen, admiring the autumn leaves in the neighbouring gardens and considering Alfred’s near misses of so long ago, that had permitted him to survive to see this annual spectacle on the eve of his eighty-ninth birthday.
And, taking this moment to look back over such a prolific career, he recalled how it all started.
“I began my career at the age of fourteen and a half, in 1939, by working in Commercial Art Studios. One in Chancery Lane, then at Clement Dane Studio and finally at my Uncle Charles’ studio in Fetter Lane which got bombed in the big raid on the city in December 1940.
The value of working in a studio was that nobody taught you anything, so you taught yourself by observing how the other artists worked and tried it for yourself. You were told what to do but not how to do it. Working in a studio was a unique experience for a fifteen-year-old: the atmosphere, the bright light, the smells of paint and cow gum – and learning the use of soft and hard brushes, coloured inks, poster paint, pencils and crayons, ruling pens, set squares and T squares, Bristol board and fashion card. Quite different from my Grammar School, which my Uncle had persuaded my parents to let me leave.
At the Clement Dane Studio in the Strand, I had to file the work of the illustrators and poster designers they represented, and I was greatly impressed by the way they told stories. Alas, they closed after Dunkirk and I went to work for my Uncle Charles in Fetter Lane, on the top floor of the Vogue magazine photographic studio. I was his only assistant and I did lettering, layouts, paste-ups and various illustrations both comic and serious, and when photographic retouching was needed I did that too, all for one pound a week.
It helped me to draw better and so I went to Life Classes at Woolwich Polytechnic Art Department at weekends, since all the London Art Schools were closed at night because of the intense bombing. The Head of the Department, Mr Buckley, was so impressed by my efforts he suggested I apply for a Scholarship to Art School and I was given one at ten shillings a week which upset my mother because it was less than the pound I was earning from Uncle Charles.
During the war, I served as a wireless operator and gunner in the RAF and in 1947, after I was demobbed, I went to the Royal College of Art where I received a first class degree and stayed on for a year to study mural design. The college was crowded with demob students like myself and I indulged in inactivity in the Student Common Room and was elected Social Secretary. I looked after the theatre group, the film society and the weekly dances. For my efforts, I was rewarded fifty pounds which I spent on a student visit to Italy and what I saw there made me want to become a mural painter.
Over the years, I have carried out many public commissions including paintings, murals for Hammersmith Town Hall, calendars for Oxford University Press and posters for the General Post Office. But my future career grew from what I learnt working in those Commercial Art Studios. To do things on your own initiative, to stick to your objective, and to work to a deadline and deliver to the client on time.”
Gramophone man on Brick Lane
London Coal Exchange with St Mary-at-Hill and St Margaret Pattens
The Yellow Cello in the Portobello Rd
St Paul’s from Bankside
Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge
Tower of London
Boat Race at Hammersmith Bridge
Old Shepherd’s Bush Station
On Hastings’ Beach
Alfred’s cat, Flinty, who died on July 2nd
Flinty’s successor, Pushkin, who arrived on July 4th
In Alfred’s studio
Happy Birthday Alfred Daniels!
Paintings copyright © Alfred Daniels
Read my other stories about Alfred Daniels