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The Working Artist: The East London Group

October 28, 2017
by Michael Rosen and Emma-Louise Williams

Michael Rosen & Emma-Louise Williams write about THE WORKING ARTIST, the exhibition of East London Group paintings they have curated which runs at The Nunnery Gallery in Bow until 17th December. There will be a panel discussion discussing The East London Group, Then & Now featuring Michael Rosen & David Buckman on 15th November.

Rebuilding Bethnal Green, The Victoria by Albert Turpin

There is an interesting contradiction between painting and the city, none so apparent as when anyone attempts to seize scenes, moments or people in the East End. After all, this has been a place of change and movement for hundreds of years and yet a painting is still: a fact accentuated by the way in which we frame it and hang it on the wall.

Any painter wanting to imply stability, certainty or continuity might well have felt at almost any time over the last few centuries that the likes of Whitechapel, Stepney, Bishopsgate or Spitalfields were not ideal subjects. What is more, the constant lure of the rural, the pastoral and the maritime will not be be satisfied by East End streets. Though the Thames could always be relied on for its width, grandeur of a classical nature, it had to be found at Greenwich and Westminster – as Canaletto shows us.

All the more surprising then, that a group of painters established themselves in the late twenties and thirties as being predominantly interested in grabbing this environment. My mother and father, both born in 1919, though great lovers of London, are testament to the idea that if a person wants to feel uplifted or liberated, the places to go were ‘in the country’. The organisers of the Jewish Boys’ Clubs of their time saw it as their duty to get the boys out of the slums and tenements and into tents in Epping Forest or even further afield. This reminds us that the few square miles of dense habitation, industry and trade are not easily typified as the hopeless ‘Babylon’ of nineteenth century journalism. In spite of the poverty, filth and overcrowding, there was aspiration and because of the degradation there was do-goodery. Both forces offered improvement which might express itself in religion, education, sports, the arts or political activity. Some of the buildings that housed my parents’ aspirations still stand: Myrdle St and Globe Rd Primary schools; Central Foundation School and Davenant Foundation; the ‘Brady St’ Boys’ club in Hanbury St (!) and the Bethnal Green Museum.

It would be wrong to characterise John Cooper’s evening classes for painters as some kind of lone fountain irrigating a desert. Thousands of people were flocking to the Yiddish Theatre, attended classes in Toynbee Hall, filled the Whitechapel Library and Gallery. The streets themselves were full of outdoor meetings and rallies calling people to struggle against unemployment, rogue landlords or Fascist aggression.

In the group, one painter in particular was engaged in the locality in another way: politics. Albert Turpin, who would eventually become Mayor of Bethnal Green, was an active member of the Labour Party and in the upheavals of the thirties had taken a public stand against an organisation which sought to divide the East End: the British Union of Fascists. Quite explicitly, the Fascists led by Oswald Mosley tried to harass, threaten and organise against Jews, the most populous and most recent immigrants living in the East End’s Victorian streets and tenements. Because Turpin could see the threat this posed to everyone’s life – not only the lives of Jews – he took an active part in the fight against the Fascists, earning their contempt and hate in the process – a side of Turpin we are able to represent in the exhibition, thanks to Turpin’s family. Visitors can see newspaper cuttings and a poster where these upheavals are played out.

The East London Group is a pre-war phenomenon, but Turpin had much more painting and drawing to do. As a consequence, he saw change, some of it imposed by the effects of the bombing and some by what the planners had in mind. He sketched and painted prefabs, that most temporary and yet unexpectedly persistent of housing. His eye fell on scaffolding and the first high rise blocks. He remembered the entrance to Bethnal Green Station where tragically so many people died in a wartime stampede. – Michael Rosen

Entrance to Bethnal Green tube by Albert Turpin

Old Ford Rd by Harold Steggles

Grove Rd, Bow by Harold Steggles

The East London Group captured the urban landscape in eerily still, detailed paintings.  Their works are a meditation on place and the narrative of the rise and fall of the group is a way to grasp the changing face of a city.

Between 2009 and 2011, there was a period of about eighteen months when I was roaming the streets of East London doing some intense looking: housing, old factory buildings, car workshops, disused pubs, an empty hospital, markets, parks, void ground – urban, social places and spaces. Layers of life.

I was making a filmpoem, Under the Cranes (2011), adapted from a play for voices by Michael Rosen.  It was about migration to Hackney over several hundred years but also an intervention in the discourse around regeneration, so-called: the kind of regeneration I could see going on everyday in Dalston where we lived: the kind of regeneration which is top-down, in the moment, and certainly not about creating the kind of housing which gives people duration through their lives.

In the film, I was able to show paintings by Leon Kossoff, Jock McFadyen and James Mackinnon, artists who, for me, seemed to find a clear-eyed beauty in the urban landscape. Their gaze inspired me to attempt the same with the camera.
Later, when I first came across paintings of the East London Group at the Townhouse gallery in Spitalfields and in the 2014 Exhibition at the Nunnery Gallery in Bow, I made the connection with Kossoff, McFadyen, Mackinnon and the like – these were artists who went out and painted what they saw in the places where they lived and worked in twentieth century London.

In The Working Artist: The East London Group, the new exhibition at The Nunnery which Michael and I have co-curated, we show works by William Coldstream, Elwin Hawthorne, Brynhild Parker, Harold Steggles, Walter Steggles with a special focus on Albert Turpin, the socialist window-cleaner, Cable St activist, fireman and Mayor of Bethnal Green.

Turpin’s stated intention in 1949 was “to show others the beauty in the East End and to record the old streets before they go.” It would be very easy to attribute this statement to clichéd sentiment, yet there is nothing nostalgic in paintings which show us the scrappy backs of things, dilapidation, side-alleys, back-yards, glimpses through bridges, steps winding down to a canal towpath, buildings coming down after the Second World War, pre-fabs and new tower blocks going up.

Turpin’s sketchbooks, on show for the first time, thanks to his daughter, Joan, capture buildings but also people: a man in a cap reading – a fireman; a piano-player at Butlins – “Mum, asleep” and Joan as a child.  These are intimate and affecting portraits in which emotion and attitude are caught in the confident line of his drawing.

My own response to the work on show has been to create a soundscape for the exhibition “Excuse me, are you looking for ghosts?” collaged from present day Strassenrausch or street clamour with its mix of diverse communities and living styles, news-reel archive and music. The flow of the city, rising and falling in contrast with the stillness in the paintings.
Albert Turpin’s insistence in his art on the streets and architecture where people live, work and get by, reads to me like an expression of camaraderie for a community which went through privations and upheaval, and deserved something better.  Everything has changed. Nothing has changed. – Emma-Louise Williams

At Rest by Albert Turpin. The subject is Jack Simmons (1907-1991) who served in the London Fire Service for the duration of the Second World War

THE WORKING ARTIST, paintings by the East London Group curated by Michael Rosen & Emma-Louise Williams runs at The Nunnery Gallery in Bow until 17th December. Admission Free.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Patricia ezzell permalink
    October 28, 2017

    I love reading about the old east end with its characters and citizen and artists. I have a sense of being a Londoner although I’ve never been there. Maybe in a previous life. It just seems so familiar when i read you.
    Keep it coming. I live in the states in Tallahassee Florida

  2. October 28, 2017

    The East End did have its down-side, but on the whole the warmth, companionship, friendliness and sense of belonging together more than made up for it. And it always had a very special light and feel to it, which these artists have managed to capture. Valerie

  3. October 28, 2017

    It is great to see these artists getting the recognition. They have made such an important artistic, cultural and social contribution. Proper rooted.

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    October 28, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, sorry I will not be in London on November 15 to attend “The East End Group, Then & Now” at the Nunnery Gallery.

    Kudos on your continued efforts to bring the work of these East End artists to light in today’s world. Despite the fact that –

    “Any painter wanting to imply stability, certainty or continuity might well have felt at almost any time over the last few centuries that the likes of Whitechapel, Stepney, Bishopsgate or Spitalfields were not ideal subjects. What is more, the constant lure of the rural, the pastoral and the maritime will not be be satisfied by East End streets.”

    Interesting social history too …

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