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John Allin, Painter

May 20, 2016
by the gentle author

Gun St, Spitalfields

John Allin (1934-1991) began painting while serving a six month prison sentence for minor theft, and achieved considerable success in the sixties and seventies with his vivid intricate pictures recalling the East End of his childhood. There is a dreamlike quality to these visions in sharp focus of an emotionalised cityscape, created at a time when the Jewish people were leaving to seek better housing in the suburbs and their culture was fading from those streets which had once been its home.

Returning from National Service in the Merchant Navy, Allin worked in the parks department planting trees, later as a swimming pool attendant and then as a long distance lorry driver – all before his conviction and imprisonment. After discovering his artistic talent, he devoted himself to painting and won attention with his first exhibition in 1969 at the Portal Gallery, specialising in primitive and outsider art. In 1974, he collaborated with Arnold Wesker on a book of reminiscence, “Say Goodbye: You may never see them again” in which he reveals an equivocation about the East End. “I saw it as a place where people lived, earned their living, grew up, moved on … they had dignity … I like painting the past with dignity…” he said in an interview with Wesker, “but what they’ve done to the East End is diabolical! They’ve scuppered it, built and built and torn down and torn out and took lots of identity away and made it into just a concrete nothing… But people go on, don’t they? Eating their eels and giving their custom where they’ve always given their custom … Funny how people can go on and take anything and everything.”

Like Joe Orton in the theatre, Allin’s reputation as an ex-con fuelled his reputation in newspapers and on television but he found there was a price to pay, as he revealed to Wesker, “You know how I started painting don’t you? In prison! Well, when I come out the kids at school give my kid a rough time … the silly bloody journalists didn’t help. ‘Jail-bird becomes painter!’ You’d've thought I’d done God knows what … I mean the neighbours used to say things like ‘Look at ‘im! Jail-bird and he’s on telly! Ought to be sent back inside the nick!’ I was the oddity in the district, the lazy fat bastard that paints. Give me a half a chance and I’d move mate.” In fact, Allin joined Gerry Cottle’s Circus, touring as a handyman to create another book, “John Allin’s Circus Life” in 1982.

Although he was the first British recipient of the international Prix Suisse de Peinture Naive award in 1979, the categorisation of Outsider or Primitive artist is no longer adequate to apply to John Allin. More than twenty years after his death, his charismatic paintings deserve to be recognised as sophisticated works which communicate an entire social world through an unapologetically personal and emotionally charged visual vocabulary.

Spitalfields Market, Brushfield St.

Great Synagogue, Brick Lane.

Jewish Soup Kitchen, Brune St.

Christ Church School, Brick Lane.

Heneage St and Brick Lane.

Rothschild Dwellings, Spitalfields.

Whitechapel Rd.

Christ Church Park, Commmercial St.

Wentworth St.

Fashion St with gramophone man in the foreground..

Churchill Walk.

Young Communist League rally, corner of Brick Lane and Old Montague St.

Hessel St.

Snow Scene.

Anti-Fascist Rally at Gardiners’ Corner, 1936.

Cole’s Chicken Shop, Cobb St.

Factory Workers

You may also like to look at

Doreen Fletcher, Artist

Nicholas Borden, Artist

Alfred Daniels, Artist

Noel Gibson, Artist

Dan Jones’ Paintings

Mark Gooderham, Artist

16 Responses leave one →
  1. May 20, 2016

    Lovely work and he was so right about the city. Love the painting with the wool market.

  2. May 20, 2016

    John’s painting’s are fantastic, he captured East London as I remember it in my childhood. Valerie

  3. May 20, 2016

    A great talent. His work literally jumps off the page and takes me there.

  4. James Harris permalink
    May 20, 2016

    Brilliant paintings, especially Brushfield Street. How did you come across that piece of film? Easy to forget how much the place has changed until you get a memory jolt like that. I can still smell old Spitalfields now.

  5. rosemaryHoffman permalink
    May 20, 2016

    I used to go to Samuels stores in Gun street every day as a teenager as I lived nearby and I have the book with all these pictures they re wonderful

  6. Ron Pummell permalink
    May 20, 2016

    I really enjoyed the film. Thank you G.A.

  7. Linda Granfield permalink
    May 20, 2016

    Great little film. And it’s always nice to ‘meet’ an artist after viewing his/her works. Vibrant–the men and the art! Thank you.

  8. May 20, 2016

    John was a gifted artist. His draughtsmanship of his buildings and the brick-work is superb. I liked Gun St and Spitalfields Market scenes also the congregation leaving the Great Synagogue. Get all the brick-work right and the buildings will shape up proportionally correct. He has a good scale for the people too. Nice blog for John’s work and GA. John

  9. Paul Shaviv permalink
    May 20, 2016

    Thanks. Where are the originals of these paintings now?

  10. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    May 20, 2016

    The vibrancy in these works is simply magnificent! Thanks, gentle author….yet again.

  11. Peter Holford permalink
    May 20, 2016

    I like these – very reminiscent of Helen Bradley. Or is it the other way round?

  12. May 20, 2016

    A great tribute to a wonderful artist.

  13. pauline taylor permalink
    May 20, 2016

    I like these, and dare I say that there is something about them that I find much more enjoyable than all those Lowry’s. A very talented man. Thank you GA for making us aware of the man and the paintings.

  14. May 21, 2016

    The comparison to Lowry jumps out, though these paintings have more realism and no bleakness. Quite the opposite, they shine with warmth and nostalgia for the Old East End.

    Apart from your blog, fleeting visits, TV programmes,and the paintings of the East End group, I have no connection or direct knowledge of East London yet I often feel it has a deeper connection to the industrial North West, places like Wigan, Manchester, Salford and Bolton than it does with suburbs like Ealing or even Putney and Fulham or wealthy inner London ‘villages’ such as Chelsea and Knightsbridge. The sense of community, idealised perhaps, and probably long gone, is still potent, if only as an idea.

  15. May 21, 2016

    Apologies for the double post but was able to watch the short film on my PC and wanted to say how full of warmth and nostalgia it was and now it functions as a piece of nostalgia in itself! I remember George Innes from off the telly.

  16. Philip Marriage permalink
    May 22, 2016

    The film clip is superb (where did you find it?). Lovely to be taken on a stroll around Spitalfields by two such characters completely at ease in their environment. I loved seeing Joe’s Shoe Repairs again at 5 Toynbee Street, gone now of course but Toynbee Street is a rare part of present-day Spitalfields that has yet to be developed.

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