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Harold & Walter Steggles, Artists

July 26, 2017
by the gentle author

Today I present another extract from my new book EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October. Click here to preorder your copy

Harold Steggles (1911-71) and his elder brother Walter were precocious artists who found early success as adolescents. Harold was the second of five children and grew up in Ilford with a father who managed a specialist shoe shop in the Strand and a mother who worked as dressmaker but had always wanted to be a painter.

When Harold left school and found employment as a clerk with a solicitor in Grays Inn at fourteen years old, he and Walter took to visiting galleries and viewing the national painting collections together. Soon they were undertaking sketching trips to pursue their shared passion, and reading widely about art, discussing the writings of John Ruskin and Joshua Reynolds.

In 1925, they visited an exhibition of paintings by the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute Art Club at the Bethnal Green Museum and signed up for lessons at the Institute, aged fourteen and seventeen respectively. However, the brothers were quickly disappointed with the tuition and they transferred to John Cooper’s art classes at the Bromley & Bow Institute where he encouraged them to paint scenes in the vicinity of the Institute in Bow. Under his tutelage, both brothers flourished as artists and they were to become the youngest members of the East London Group.

When Harold was just seventeen years old, John Cooper hung eight of his paintings at the East London Art Club exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1928, and Charles Aitken, Director of the Tate Gallery bought one, offering twice the asking price of one guinea.

Photographs of the brothers at this time show them as a pair of smiling handsome youths with short, neat haircuts and near-identical matching suits, sometimes worn with plus fours. Enjoying the fruits of their artistic success, they took motoring trips together and expanded the range of their subject matter to include the rural landscapes of East Anglia.

“All my brother’s pictures found buyers,” wrote Walter in excitement at his younger brother’s triumph when they showed with the East London Group at Lefevre Galleries and, over successive years, Harold contributed more than sixty pictures to these exhibitions. Before long they found themselves sought after by other galleries and Harold became a protoge of the flamboyant aesthete Eddie Marsh who lived near his office in Gray’s Inn as well as accepting a prestigious commission from Villiers David to paint the gentlemen’s clubs of St James.

The climax of this run of success for the brothers came with Harold & Walter Steggles’ joint exhibition at Lefevre Galleries in 1938, yet Harold continued his work as clerk apart from some time in hospital being treated for stomach ulcers which he attributed to malnourishment in childhood.

When the war came, both were excluded from service for health reasons and applied to become war artists but were turned down. Instead, Harold was asked by Muirhead Bone to contribute paintings to an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford which were to be sold to benefit the Red Cross.

In 1943, when he was thirty-two, Harold married Lilian Wood, the widow of a Spitfire pilot, even though her father did not approve of Harold being an artist. It was a curious union of contrasting personalities, Harold considerate and quiet, and Lilian, outgoing, keen on tennis and uninterested in art. Harold took legal exams and advanced in his work at the solicitors but considered himself lacking in the necessary education and temperament, confiding to his daughter Elizabeth that, if it had not been for the war, he might have carried on with commissions. Twenty-five years after Harold died at the age of sixty, Walter wrote, “I have not yet recovered from the shock of losing him.”

Grove Road, Bow

Warner Street, Clerkenwell, 1935

Grove Hall Park, Bow, 1933

Blackwall

When Walter Steggles (1908-1997) left school at fourteen, he joined a shipping firm in the City of London, working, “as dogsbody in the superintendent’s department which meant spending periods in the drawing office.” Once he and his younger brother Harold started regular art classes in 1925, such was his enthusiasm that he would take the train from Fenchurch Street Station back to the family home in Ilford for dinner before returning to the East End.

Like Harold, Walter enjoyed the encouragement of John Cooper at Bow, whom he described as “probably the best teacher I ever knew,” recalling how “He would always find a good point to remark on in someone’s work and would say, ‘You are trying to imitate someone not as good as yourself.’” Walter also appreciated the participation of established artists at the classes in Bow, writing “Sickert’s advice has been constantly with me,” and was both challenged and flattered when John Cooper sometimes asked him to take over the class.

At twenty years old, Walter contributed eleven paintings to the East London Art Group Show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1928, three of which were then hung in the Tate. With admirable lack of ego, Walter wrote, “I do not like one man shows, my pictures look better mixed in with others.” He and Harold both exhibited at all the East London Group shows at the Lefevre Galleries between 1928 and 1936, followed by a joint show in 1938, and the two brothers found themselves part of a cosmopolitan artistic milieu that included Ben Nicholson, Charles Ginner, Philip Wilson Steer, George Braque and Raoul Dufy. In the midst of this success, Walter’s crowning achievement was having a painting in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1936.

In 1939, excluded from military service due to asthma and not chosen as a war artist, Walter was transferred to the Ministry of Transport for war work but continued his art studies at Central School of Art. Offered a job as an art teacher by London County Council after the war, instead he returned to work at the shipping company in the City.

After Harold’s marriage, Walter’s sister Muriel sometimes accompanied him on painting trips and she remembered that when he found a scene that he liked, he would sketch it on the spot and then work up the painting at home, also Sickert’s preferred method. Walter wrote, ”sketching is better than a camera, I only did one painting from a photograph and it was dead.”

Inspired perhaps by the presence of Stanley Spencer, Walter moved to Cookham where his parents came to live with him, much to his father’s regret, declaring “We should never have left Romford!” By now his mother was painting prolifically. “My son has his own studio,” she boasted to Stanley Spencer. “He’s lucky, I paint in my bedroom,” replied the old master.

Still working into the nineteen-nineties, Walter wrote, “I sometimes wonder what makes us pursue the arts. It is not money as people in insignificant jobs usually do better.” At the end of a long and sustained painting career, he wrote proudly, “It is sixty-five years since I sold my first picture at a public exhibition. It was bought by Sir Joseph Duveen and was hung at the Tate Gallery in 1929.”

Old Houses, Bethnal Green, 1929

The Railway Fence

Bryant & May Wharf

The Red Bridge

Bow Bridge

5 Responses leave one →
  1. July 26, 2017

    The paintings of the Steggles brother give the East End streets a quiet and modest dignity. Valerie

  2. Molly Porter permalink
    July 26, 2017

    In the 21 July ’17 edition of the Islington Tribune there is an illustrated page short review of the work of Phyllis Bray (excellently profiled by the Gentle Author at greater length on 24 April 2013), another member of the East London Group of artists. It is prompted by the publication of “Titania and Oberon,” illustrated by Phyllis Bray, with a foreword by David Buckman, described as ‘an art historian who is an expert in the lives and times of the East London Group.’ Pavilion Children’s Books, £12.99.

  3. Paul Ridgway permalink
    July 26, 2017

    Excellent article and fine illustrations.

  4. July 26, 2017

    Marvellous. What a family!

  5. Jim McDermott permalink
    July 27, 2017

    Harold’s paintings remind me strongly of early Magritte; Walter’s are wonderfully atmospheric – I love the Bryant & May Wharf.

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