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Albert Turpin, Artist, Window Cleaner & Mayor Of Bethnal Green

June 12, 2017
by the gentle author

In the first of a series of profiles of artists featured in EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October, David Buckman author of From Bow to Biennale examines the life of Albert Turpin, artist, window cleaner & Mayor of Bethnal Green. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

Albert Turpin, Artist, Window Cleaner & Mayor of Bethnal Green

It is thanks to chance that the work of artist Albert Turpin has been preserved. Based in Claredale House, Claredale St, Bethnal Green, Turpin pursued his mission to record the area where he had been born and lived until his death in 1964. His work always sold well but, by the time his widow Sally died in 1981, Turpin’s realism had become unfashionable.

With their only daughter Joan living abroad, Sally worried about what to do with the legacy of paintings remaining after Turpin’s death. They might easily have ended in a skip but, luckily, storage was secured and they survived. Chance also played an important part in steering Turpin towards the East London Group and John Cooper, the man who inspired it.

Turpin’s background was not an auspicious one for an aspiring artist, born in 1900 in Ravenscroft Buildings off Columbia Rd, Bethnal Green, an area of acute deprivation. His father earned what little he could at jobs including being a tea-cooper, feather sorter and casual docker. When Albert Turpin left Globe Rd School at fourteen, like his father, he tried a bit of everything to earn a crust. But at fifteen, he joined the army until – at his father’s insistence – when the first World War was killing thousands, he was extracted and enlisted in the Royal Marines.

On ship, he began “to dabble away, trying to get Gibraltar and other overseas scenes down on canvas.” He was sufficiently encouraged by shipmates that, after he married Sally Fellows in 1922 and took up window cleaning, he finished the windows by lunchtime so he could spend the rest of the day painting. Interviewed after the Second World War when he was an established exhibitor at the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s East End Academy shows, Turpin revealed his motives as “a love of nature and a desire to copy it,” and the wish to show others “the beauty in the East End and to record the old streets before they go.”

Turpin was aware that tuition could improve his technique and he spent six years taking evening classes at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Institute and at the Bow & Bromley Commercial Institute, showing paintings in exhibitions held by the Institute at the Bethnal Green Museum. Among Albert’s teachers in Bethnal Green was the inspirational John Cooper, whose classes at Bow led to the important East London Art Club show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in December 1928, in which Albert exhibited ten canvasses. They included characteristic and popular Turpin subjects, such as ‘The Dustbin,’ ‘At the Ale House,’ ‘Street Scene,’ ‘The Fruit Stall’ and ‘Jellied Eels’, but a portrait of ‘The Artist’s Wife’ was not for sale.

The Whitechapel show was so successful that Charles Aitken, Director of the National Gallery, Millbank, (now Tate Britain), transferred some of the pictures to his own gallery, including several of Turpin’s. Then, in the spring of 1929, a modified version of the Tate show toured to Salford, featuring Turpin’s ‘The Artist’s Wife’ and ‘The Dustbin,’ which had been bought by the influential dealer Sir Joseph Duveen.

While studying in Bethnal Green, Turpin met other future East London Group exhibitors who continued their tuition with John Cooper at Bow – men such as George Board, Archibald Hattemore, Elwin Hawthorne and the Steggles brothers, Harold and Walter. Hawthorne’s wife Lilian recalled Albert fondly as“a jolly chap” and Walter Steggles, who sketched with him, remembered his great sense of humour, describing Turpin as a man who “made jokes about everything including himself. He was liked by all who knew him.”

When Alex Reid & Lefevre launched the first of its eight annual exhibitions of work by the East London Group in November 1929, Turpin showed three pictures and in following years he contributed regularly to other East London Group exhibitions, as well as these annual shows at the Lefevre Galleries. But latterly his submissions became sporadic and his work was not present in the sixth exhibition in December 1934 or the last in December 1936. Group member Cecil Osborne told me that John Cooper had declined one of Turpin’s later pictures, a painting of his wife, and that the artist “went off in a huff and that was the last we saw of him.” Yet by the mid-thirties, Turpin had other demands upon his time.

In his fascinating unpublished autobiography, Turpin recalls how, once, on the way to an art group, he had been impressed to hear a speech by Bill Gee, a working class activist. It was during the winter of 1926, in the year of the General Strike, and Turpin wrote that Gee “did not teach me anything I did not already know, but what he did do was to make me forget all about my art class and join up with the organised workers right there.” Turpin joined the Labour Party, becoming affiliated to the North-East Bethnal Green Branch and eventually also to the Co-operative Party.

The East London Group had no political affiliations itself, but for Albert Turpin his political standpoint and his art merged naturally. His cartoons in local newspapers always “had a message,” Walter Steggles recalled. Speaking of Turpin’s painting ‘The Dustbin,’ originally displayed at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Steggles recalled Turpin’s original title was ‘Man Must Eat,’ and the canvas depicted a man eating food scavenged from a bin – until Turpin modified the picture to avoid offending the public. Yet Turpin’s forthright titles did not deter the critics. Writing about the picture he submitted to the second Lefevre exhibition in December 1930, that model of refinement, The Lady, compared Turpin’s subjects to those of Daumier and Hogarth, praising his “rare and precious gift! – a sense of the physical beauty of oil paint.” Later Lefevre contributions would include titles that speak for themselves, such as ‘Unemployed,’ ‘Night Shelter,’ ‘Rags’ and ‘Slum Clearance.’

It was a tribute to Turpin’s physical stamina and determination that while earning his living as a window cleaner, he managed to pursue his political career and his art. He was an active anti-Fascist protester and, while a member of the Bethnal Green Borough Council, appeared at Old St Police Court accused of using insulting words and behaviour and assaulting a constable.  He was also active in the Ex-Servicemen’s National Movement “for Peace, Freedom and Democracy” and supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

The Second World War offered further outlets for Turpin’s artistic talents. Having served part-time with the London Fire Brigade from early 1938, then full-time in September 1939 when he acted as secretary of a branch of the Fire Brigades Union, Turpin joined the National Fire Service in August 1941, remaining with it until October 1946.  From 1940, he was an official Fire Brigade War Artist with his work exhibited both in Britain and North America. While an instructor at a London Fields Fire Service training school, after telling students the right way of doing a thing, he would sometimes “make a lightning sketch to show what might happen if they ignored my advice.”

After leaving the Fire Service, Turpin resumed window cleaning and part-time painting and was unanimously elected Mayor of Bethnal Green, 1946-47. He refused to wear mayoral robes, the Evening News reported, “because he thinks it is a waste of taxpayers’ money.” As a man with a strong moral standpoint, loathing gambling and – his mother having died of cirrhosis of the liver – refusing to clean pub windows, Turpin found Dr Frank Buchman’s Moral Re-Armament (MRA) movement attractive when he encountered it in 1946. Buchman hoped for “moral and spiritual rearmament” to achieve “a hate-free, fear-free, greed-free world.” After seeing the MRA play ‘The Forgotten Factor,’ Turpin was gripped by their message and became active in the cause. Early in 1947, MRA’s publication ‘New World News’ pictured Turpin on its cover as “Victory Mayor,” standing among blitzed ruins.

Until his death, seventeen years later, he continued to make drawings and paintings of Bethnal Green, Stepney, Hackney, Hoxton and Islington. Although the East London Group was no longer active post-war, Turpin still showed his pictures – at Morpeth School in Bethnal Green, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Guildhall Art Gallery and Qantas Gallery in Piccadilly.

Albert Turpin’s paintings are a unique record of the old East End by one who knew it intimately.

Columbia Market - Oil on board

The Arches, Mare St – Oil on board

Cable St - Oil on board

Marian Sq, Hackney - Oil on canvas, 1952

Rebuilding St Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green - Oil on canvas, c.1956

Verger’s House, Shoreditch - Oil on canvas, 1954

Salmon & Ball, Bethnal Green - Oil on canvas, c.1955

Shakey’s Yard in Winter - Oil on Canvas, c.1952

Hackney Empire – Oil on board

6 Responses leave one →
  1. June 12, 2017

    Great post, I love Turpin’s work. Valerie

  2. Peter permalink
    June 12, 2017

    What a grand way to start the week! Thank you

  3. June 12, 2017

    Albert has been brought back to life for us today by SL. He was a project man always on the go. His time in the fire service during the WW2 blitzkrieg was difficult with his life sometimes hanging on a thread all London firemen were heroes at this time. His art form was rigid and colourful he portrayed London as he saw it in his time. Could be valuable for art historian’s. As a window cleaner and artist he knew most people in Bethnal Green, valuable when it came to voting time for office of Mayor. I am sure he would have made his presence felt at meetings ?did he wear his chain of office I hope he did. Photo of him here in action shows us he has a fine broad head lots of brain power there. He appears to be roughing out a sketch on location. Behind every great man there is a lady that was wife Sally. Poet John

  4. Dianne permalink
    June 13, 2017

    So lovely to see history preserved and so sad that realistic painting still seems to be unpopular unless collected by those interested in the stories and places that went before us. Thank you again GA for enlightening us – please don’t ever stop writing these stories.

  5. June 14, 2017

    Great post. A world of grey brought to life by vibrant colours. I have preordered the book. Looking forward to its publication.

  6. Ruth Richardson permalink
    June 18, 2017

    WONDERFUL PAINTER! So glad to see Morpeth Street School mentioned! Dorothy Bishop – another East End painter – was art mistress there for 21 years in the post-war era. I am sure she was instrumental in Turpin getting exhibited there. Were any readers taught by her??

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