John Dolan, Artist, & George the Dog
John Dolan and his thoughtful dog, George, have become an East End landmark in recent years, sitting patiently day after day in the same spot opposite the petrol station on Shoreditch High St while the world and the traffic passed by. Yet, all this time, John was watching and, after a year of looking at the same view each day, he picked up a pen and began to draw what he saw before him. Soon after, John’s drawings were published in a local magazine and it proved to be a life-changing moment.
“That’s when I knew in life what I should do,” he assured me, standing in the Howard Griffin gallery where he has his first exhibition. It is just across the road from the spot where John used to sit and has been a sell-out success, leaving him inundated with commissions and a book deal. Yet George takes it all in his stride even if John is rather startled by the attention, gratefully embracing this opportunity to forge a new identity for himself as a artist. ‘None of this could have happened without the support of Roa, the street artist,” John admitted to me, in relief at the current twist of fate, “It’s got me away from breaking into shops to steal money.”
When you meet John, you are aware of a restless man with a strong internal life and he looks at you warily, his eyes constantly darting and moving, as if he might leave or take flight at any moment. But although John may have only one foot on the ground, George plants himself down and surveys the world peacefully – as the natural counterpoint to his master’s nature.
“I’m from King’s Sq, Goswell Rd, and I could walk from my door to St Paul’s in five minutes when I was a kid,” John revealed, speaking with affection for this neighbourhood in which he has spent his life, “From my window I could see the three towers of the Barbican and the dome of St Paul’s. At fourteen, I climbed up the to the top of St James Clerkenwell when it was covered in scaffolding.” John’s minutely detailed urban drawings are equally the result of an observant sensibility and an intimate knowledge of the streets and street life of Shoreditch.
A few years ago, a series of misadventures and spells in Pentonville Prison led to a low point when John found himself bereft. “I was spending my days in day centres and only mixing with homeless people and I couldn’t relate to my family at that time,” he confessed, “but having this exhibition has been a way of getting back to them – when they came on the opening night, they were very impressed. It’s been called ‘a successful debut show’ and you can’t get much better than that.”
The exhibition has been the unexpected outcome of a series of events that coalesced to permit John to regain control of his life. “I got rehoused in a flat in Arnold Circus after I had been living in temporary accommodation on Royal Mint St and before that I was homeless,” he explained, “In the recent benefits shake-up, I had my benefit cut to £36 a week and, each time I appealed, they cut it down more until I had nothing. I’ve got arthritis in my legs and I can’t walk very far, so I came down here to Shoreditch High St and started begging to get some money. But I’m no good at it, so I put a cup in front of George like he was begging and people gave him money. Then I got bored and I started drawing the two buildings on the opposite site of the road.”
John outlined to me how he acquired George, the dog that gave him a new focus. “When I was living in Tower Hill, I used to let homeless people come and live with me and there was this couple – and one of them, Sue, she was offered the chance to buy George for the price of a can of lager by a Scottish fellow, so she gave him £2o.” John recalled, speaking in almost a whisper, underscored by an emotional intensity, “He was a pretty violent guy who would go round robbing homeless people.”
“George is my first dog in a very long time, I had a dog from the age of ten until I was twenty-three – Butch. He was named after a dog that my grandfather had that was legendary. It was so painful when Butch died, I said I would never have another – but George was such a lovely dog and needed a home. When the Scottish fellow came back and told people he was going to take the dog off me and expecting money every time he saw me, I had to have serious words with him.”
John gave me a significant look that indicated he and George are never to be separated now. “I went to Old St Central Foundation School and the only thing I was good at was Art,” he informed me proudly, puffing on his cigarette in excitement, “The teacher said I was so bad at Geography it was a wonder I could find my way home.”
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
Howard Griffin Gallery, 189-190 Shoreditch High St, E1 6HU
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