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Anthony Eyton, Painter

June 20, 2017
by the gentle author

In the eighth of my 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, I present the work of Anthony Eyton. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

I took the 133 bus from Liverpool St Station, travelling down south of the river to visit the ninety-six year old painter Anthony Eyton at the elegant terrace in the Brixton Rd where has lived since 1960 – apart from a creative sojourn in Spitalfields, where he kept a studio from 1968 until 1982. It was the 133 bus that stops outside his house which brought Anthony to Spitalfields, and at first he took it every day to get to his studio. But then later, he forsook home comforts to live a bohemian existence in his garret in Hanbury St and the result was an inspired collection of paintings which exist today as testament to the particular vision Anthony found in Spitalfields.

A tall man with of mane of wiry white hair and gentle curious eyes, possessing a benign manner and natural lightness of tone, Anthony still carries a buoyant energy and enthusiasm for painting. I found him working to finish a new picture for submission to the Royal Academy before five o’clock that afternoon. Yet once I arrived off the 133, he took little persuasion to lay aside his preoccupation of the moment and talk to me about that significant destination at the other end of the bus route.

“That biggest strangest world, that whirlpool at Spitalfields, and all the several colours of the sweatshops, and the other colours of the degradation and of the beautiful antique houses derelict – I think the quality of colour was what struck me most.” replied Anthony almost in a whisper, when I asked him what drew him to Spitalfields, before he launched into a spontaneous flowing monologue evoking the imaginative universe that he found so magnetically appealing.

“From Brick Lane to Wilkes St and in between was special because it’s a kind of sanctuary.” he continued, “And looking down Wilkes St, Piero della Francesca would have liked it because it has a kind of perfection. The people going about their business are perfectly in size to the buildings. You see people carrying ladders and City girls and Jack the Ripper tours, and actors in costume outside that house in Princelet St where they make those period films, and they are all in proportion. And the market was still in use then which gave it a rough quality before the City came spilling over and building its new buildings. Always a Mecca on a Sunday. I used to think they were all coming for a religious ceremony, but it’s pure commerce, and it’s still there and it’s so large. It’s very strange to me that people give up Sunday to do that… – It’s a very vibrant area , and when Christ Church opens up for singing, the theatre of it is wonderful.”

Many years before he took a studio in Spitalfields, Anthony came to the Whitechapel Gallery to visit the memorial exhibition for Mark Gertler in 1949, another artist who also once had a studio in an old house in one of the streets leading off the market place. “Synagogues, warehouses, and Hawksmoor’s huge Christ Church, locked but standing out mightily in Commercial St, tramps eating by the gravestones in the damp church yard. “Touch” was the word that recurred,” wrote Anthony in his diary at that time, revealing the early fascination that was eventually to lead him back, to rent a loft in an eighteenth century house in Wilkes St and then subsequently to a weavers’ attic round the corner in Hanbury St where the paintings you see below were painted.

Each of these modest spaces were built as workplaces with lines of casements on either side to permit maximum light, required for weaving. Affording vertiginous views down into the quiet haven of yards between the streets where daylight bounces and reflects among high walls, these unique circumstances create the unmistakable quality of light that both infuses and characterises Anthony Eyton’s pictures which he painted in his years there. But while the light articulates the visual vocabulary of these paintings, in their subtle tones drawn from the buildings, they record elusive moments of change within a mutable space, whether the instant when a model warms herself at the fire or workmen swarm onto the roof, or simply the pregnant moment incarnated by so many open windows beneath an English sky.

Anthony’s youngest daughter, Sarah, remembers coming to visit her father as a child. “It was a bit like camping, visiting daddy’s studio,” she recalled fondly, “There were no amenities and you had to go all the way downstairs, past the door of the man below who always left a rotten fish outside, to visit the privy in the yard that was full of spiders which were so large they had faces. But it was exciting, an adventure, and I used to love drawing and doing sketches on scraps of paper that I found in his studio.”

For a few years in the midst of his long career, Spitalfields gave Anthony Eyton a refuge where he could find peace and a place packed with visual stimuli – and then eight years ago, a quarter of a century after he left, Anthony returned. Frances Milat who was born and lived in the house in Hanbury St came back from Australia to stage a reunion of all the tenants from long ago. It was the catalyst for a set of circumstances which prompted Anthony to revisit and do new drawings in these narrow streets which, over all this time, have become inextricable with his identity as an artist.

Christine, 1976/8 - “She was very keen that the cigarette smoke and grotty ashtray should be in the picture to bring me down to earth.”

Liverpool St Station, mid-seventies

Studio interior, 1977

Back of Princelet St, 1980

Girl by the fire, 1978

Workers on the roof, 1980

Open window, Spitalfields, 1976-81 (Courtesy of Tate Gallery)

Open window, Spitalfields, 1976

Anthony Eyton working in his Hanbury St studio, a still from a television documentary of 1980

Wilkes St, 2011

Fournier St from Banglatown, 2011

Pictures copyright © Anthony Eyton

Paintings by Anthony Eyton are currently on display at Eleven Spitalfields, 11 Princelet St, E1 6QH, as part of the exhibition SUBSTANCE & LIGHT until 5th July

5 Responses leave one →
  1. June 20, 2017

    Anthony is a remarkable and prolific artist. I love the way his paintings seem to shimmer in a haze of light. He is remarkably fit for his age, too. Valerie

  2. June 20, 2017

    Beautiful paintings … subtle color harmonies … reminding me a bit of Augustus John.

    Especially love “Girl by the Window” (1978) and also the recent drawing, “Fournier St from Banglatown” (2011).

    Remarkable man.

  3. June 20, 2017

    The SUBSTANCE AND LIGHT show at ELEVEN SPITALFIELDS GALLERY

    Is a the third show we have curated of Anthony Eyton RA, and is joined by Julie Held [of the Royal Drawing School] and two room installations by Clarisse d’ Arcimoles

    The gallery is open all days of the week EXCEPT Mondays

    HOURS OF OPENING – 12 noon until 5pm

    FOR ACCESS please call the following number 020 7247 1816 DURING WORKING HOURS
    or mobile 078 0894 7276

    This show will close on the 5th July 2017

  4. June 20, 2017

    More amazing work. This book will be a revelation when it is published because it will challenge the narrative that the East End has been an empty vessel for painting is in the 20th century. Anthony looks great at 96.

  5. Martin Palmer permalink
    June 20, 2017

    Chris,
    Sadly, I cannot make it to London by the 5th of July. Is there the possiblity of another show?

    How well I remember Liverpool Street Station in the 1970′s, and how disappointed I was that the new changes wiped away what I recall: Especially, running down the stairs, late for work. But there are those very stairs in Anthony Eyton’s work. I could be a ghost on those stairs. A photograph could not have evoked the memory so well.

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