Giorgione In Clapton
You enter a disused tramshed in Clapton, climb a ramshackle staircase and discover yourself in the studio of Giorgione, one of the greatest Venetian artists of the High Renaissance, who died in 1510. How can this be? Here in a room of comparable size to one of the smaller chambers at the National Gallery you are confronted with an array of masterpieces – familiar works, like Giorgione’s most famous painting The Tempest, surrounded by others that were thought to be lost, known only by engravings. Potentially the lair of an art thief or a master forger, it is some kind of miracle you have stumbled upon.
Neither thief nor forger, the magus responsible for working this magic is Danny Easterbrook who has devoted the last sixteen years to repainting the canon of works of Giorgione at the rate of three a year, using all the correct pigments and practices of Giorgione’s time. It is an extraordinary project rendered all the more astonishing by its location in this deserted tramshed and thus it is no surprise to discover that Danny is almost as passionate about the building as he is about Giorgione.
“The Tudor palace of Brooke House, dating from 1470, stood across the road from here until it was demolished in 1955,” Danny explained, widening his eyes in wonder, “The stables and coach yard for Brooke House were on this side of the road, becoming the Clapton Coachworks and, in 1873, The Lea Bridge Tramway Depot.”
The tramshed was shut more than a century ago, when the system switched from horsepower to electricity in 1907, and since then the buildings have served as a warehouse for Jack Cohen, the founder of Tesco, and as the home to the Odessa recording studios, employed by Iron Maiden, Dire Straits, The Police and Pete Doherty among others. Until recently, the entire complex was in use as artists’ studios and crafts workshops, but they have all gone now, except Danny and a small company selling foam rubber.
The imminent demolition of the building underscores the melancholy of Giorgione’s dreamlike paintings, that emphasise the transient, ephemeral nature of the world, and colours Danny’s quest to recover something lost centuries ago. Vasari believed Giorgione to be the peer of Leonardo and Michelangelo, yet today only a handful of paintings are ascribed to him and his reputation has faded to an enigma that matches the mysterious nature of his subjects. “We don’t know much about Giorgione, he died young and he’s been obscured by Titian, who was his pupil,” admitted Danny with a frown, “Many of his paintings have been taken away from him and given to Titian.”
“When I came to London from New Zealand in the seventies, I was a bass player,” Danny revealed, speaking of his own past,“but a painter lived across the road and it sparked my interest. Since the late eighties, I’ve been painting and making lutes.” Then he took one from a whole line of different lutes he had made, hanging upon the wall, and began to improvise upon it with the ease of a virtuoso, and I realised I was in the company of a genuine Renaissance man.
A talented individual with a fierce scholarly intelligence, Danny has immersed himself in Venetian culture of Giorgione’s time, exploring the provenance of disputed works, and - in his versions - removing overpainting and images that have been added, in order to get closer to Giorgione. Through his intimate understanding of Giorgione, Danny seeks to restore the reputation of his beloved master by demonstrating the true range of his achievements in painting.
It is an endeavour that sits somewhere in between art history and conceptual art, and Danny’s accomplishment is breathtaking – even manufacturing elaborate gilt frames for each of the paintings in the authentic method. You look around the room and you realise you are seeing something impossible, something even Giorgione never saw – all his works in one room. Through comparison, Danny is beginning to construct a tentative sequence of Giorgione’s paintings and also, through comparison, to establish that paintings misattributed to others are in fact the work of Giorgione.
Ten years ago, Danny spent a year putting a new roof on his studio which is also his home, high up in the former stables of the former tramshed. He has been a good custodian of a dignified old building but now he is forced to leave, he can find nowhere else in Hackney to continue his project and is looking at moving to Wales or the West Country. “When I came here it was cheap and you didn’t have to work a sixty hour week just to pay the rent, it was a perfect space for what I wanted,” he confessed to me regretfully.
Yet it is apparent that Danny’s visionary project will carry him forward wherever he goes. “I believe Giorgione painted sixty or so paintings,” he admitted to me, “and if I live long enough I’ll run out of paintings to paint.”
Danny Easterbrook’s studio
A corner of the studio
The old stableyard
A blacksmith operated from here until recently
A ring to tether a horse
This foam rubber company is the last business still operating in the tramshed
A hidden passage at the tramshed
A secret yard at the tramshed
The North Metropolitan Tramways Company Depot was opened in 1873
Rails where the trams once ran
Brooke House in the twenties
Brooke House in the eighteen-eighties, drawn in the style of Wenceslas Hollar
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien