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Hester Mallin, Artist & Autodidact Polymath

January 7, 2018
by the gentle author

Since the publication of East End Vernacular, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century, several notable artists whose work has never been seen have been brought to my attention, including Hester Mallin whom it is my pleasure to introduce today

Langdale St leading to Cannon St Rd

Like the princess in the tower, at ninety-one years old Hester Mallin is confined to her flat on the top floor of a tall block off the Roman Rd in Bow, where I had the privilege of visiting and hearing her story. From this lofty height, Hester contemplates the expanse of her time in the East End. Born to parents who escaped Russia early in the last century, Hester spent the greater part of her life in Stepney, where she grew up in the close Jewish community that once inhabited the narrow streets surrounding Hessel St.

Of independent mind and down-to-earth nature, Hester took control of her destiny at thirteen and has plotted her own path through life ever since. When the Stepney streets where her parents’ sought their existence emptied as residents left to seek better housing in the suburbs and demolition followed, Hester could not bear to see this landscape – which had such intense personal meaning – being erased. So she began to photograph it.

Decades later, when her photographs were all that remained, Hester transformed these images, coloured by memory, into the haunting, austere paintings you see here. Of deceptive simplicity, these finely wrought watercolours of subtly-toned hues are emotionally charged images for Hester. Even if the streets and buildings are gone and even if Hester can never go back to her childhood territory, she has these paintings. Today, she keeps them safely beside her bed to cherish as the only record of the place which contains her parents’ lives, their community and their world, which have now all gone completely.

In later years, Hester discovered a talent as a gardener, celebrated for her flair at high-rise gardening, exemplified by her thirty-five foot balcony garden on the twenty-third floor in Bow, where the great and the good of the horticultural world came to pay homage to Hester’s achievements. Feature coverage and television appearances brought Hester international fame and demands for lectures, including a trip to the Falkland Isles to inspire the troops with horticultural aspirations.

Yet in spite of her remarkable life and resources of creativity, Hester modestly considers herself a ‘typical East Ender’ – as she confided to me recently.

“I never got married and had children. In my experience, marriage for the working class girl was horrible. If she was unlucky, she met a man who she thought was nice, she would marry and he would change and become a wife beater. It was not for me. I saw so much of it. I thought ‘I’d rather stay single than get beaten up every time my husband gets drunk, Jewish or not.’ It never appealed to me. I never wanted to be married. Other people wanted to marry me but I never wanted to be married.

My father, Maurice Smolensky, came in his early twenties  from Lomza which is part of Poland now and I think my mother came from Russia too, but I am not quite sure. Her name was Rachel Salzburg – what was she doing with a German sounding name like that?

It was very sad, she was sent on her own at fourteen years old. Can you imagine? A very beautiful young girl, illiterate, speaking no English and knowing nothing. There must have been a reason why they chucked her out to England. She was in terrible danger. She stood staring in bewilderment and grief. This was the time of the white slave trade when young girls were packed off to South America to be prostituted, yet she was luckyecause there was a gang of Jewish men looking out at the port in London. If they saw any young girl travelling alone, they would ask ‘Have you been sent?’ They would look after these girls and this is what happened to Rachel, my mother. They took her to the Jewish shelter in Aldgate and from there she spent a bewildering youth, working as a servant when she could get work. She was always pure. Poor girl. She was beautiful, with blonde teutonic looks.

Apparently, her family came to the East End years later and she was in touch with them but only loosely. There must have been some big family goings-on, but I know not. They were bombed out of their house in Sutton St, off Commercial Rd, and disappeared, they did not take her. There must have been a falling-out.

My father was a journeyman baker, who learnt his trade in Russia where, apparently, his father owned a mill. He worked in all the local bakeries around Hessel St, Christian St, Fairclough St – all those adjacent streets in Stepney where there were lots of little Jewish baker’s shops. He worked in the basements.

My parents were put together by a Jewish matchmaker, that was how they met.

At Raynes Foundation School, when I drew, my teacher used to say I was copying it from somewhere – but where would I copy it from? I remember we were all asked to draw a biblical scene. So I drew a picture of Moses leading his people out into the desert in chalk, with all these figures disappearing into the distance led by Moses with a long stick. I remember it clearly, the teacher stormed over to my desk and said, ‘Where did you get this from?’ Of course, I was flummoxed, I did not know what she was talking about so I could not answer. ‘No answer!’ she said, ‘You didn’t draw this.’ I was a shy child, I was absolutely silenced and defeated. That was my introduction to Art.

I grew up in Langdale St Mansions, a block of two hundred flats of the slum variety and almost entirely occupied by Jewish people. It was horrible but my mother was exceptionally clean, she was fighting dirt all the time. I had a brother, Harry, he died a few years ago. He turned Left and became Communist, and that wrecked everything. He was lured into it by shameful people.

My mother was a brave, brave woman. She went along to the Battle of Cable St to see what was going on. She was an amazing lady. When she came back, I asked ‘What was it like?’ but she would not answer me. It was obviously horrible. Even though she was illiterate, my mother knew what was happening in the world. Jewish people felt under threat.

I left school at thirteen and a half just as the war began. Nobody bothered about me because they were doing their own thing. I found any old job – odds and ends of work in an office for six months. Then I started as an Air Raid Precautions messenger girl but that was not good enough for me – it was not dangerous enough – so I decided I wanted to be warden. I persisted and I became Britain’s youngest Air Raid Warden. I chose to do it because I wanted to do my bit and it was interesting because there was always action – Stepney was bombed and bombed and bombed. People got used to the sight of this little girl in warden’s uniform. I was not frightened, I was excited.

Some of the elderly Jewish men who were too old for the armed services would come with me and we would stroll through the streets with bombs falling all around us. Our job was shutting doors. Street doors would pop open every time a bomb fell and we would put out a hand and shut it, and on the way back we would shut the same door again. There was a lot of looting going on.

Towards the end of the war, I was moved into doing office work for Stepney Borough Council on the corner of Philpot St and Commercial Rd. It brought some money into the house and relieved my poor dad. He worked like a slave and died of overwork at seventy-one. He worked all night.

I taught myself photography, I am a self-taught woman – an autodidact polymath. During the war, I realised the houses were all going, so I started to photograph them. I thought, ‘Why aren’t more people doing this?’ I photographed architecture and out of my photographs came my paintings. The houses were being pulled down and I wanted to make a permanent record. So I took a lot of photographs and later on I thought, ‘That would make a good subject for painting.’ It was one of those things, I just started painting because it attracted me. I never went out in the street and did paintings, some are from photographs and some are from memory. I never exhibited my work.

I worked at the council until I was sixty when I retired because I wanted to concentrate on gardening and painting. I always wanted a garden when I was a child growing up in that slum flat on the fourth floor of hideous Langdale Mansions. I do not know how I knew, but I just knew I wanted plants. I never learnt about plants, it was instinctive for me. I used to buy seeds and little plantlets.

In 1980, I moved into this tower block and there was an opportunity to create a thirty-five foot long balcony garden. I looked for plants that were low maintenance, wind resistant, needed little watering and did not grow too big. I had to teach myself and learn by experiment. I did many exhibitions of my gardening including one at Selfridges. I did the whole thing myself.

I am always asked the same question, ‘Why do you speak so nicely?’ I do not know why I speak as I do. I listen to myself and I think ‘Where did you get that phrase from?’ I am self-educated, I have read a lot but anyone can do that. I am not a feminist, feminists have many faults and can be as vicious as anyone else.

I have always lived in Stepney, not by choice – it was just one of those things. I always lived in slum flats until this one. I am a typical lifelong East Ender of the old kind, I have never lived anywhere else.”

Entrance to Langdale St

Cannon Street Rd

Burslem St Shops (Demolished 1975)

Rear of Morgan Houses, Hessel St

Hessel St

Hessel St leading to Commercial Rd

Wicker St Flats

J. Symons, my mother’s favourite butcher, Burslem St

“The idea of making a garden on the topmost twenty-third floor of a council tower block in East London might be compared with a brave, but astonishingly foolhardy attempt to make a garden in a crow’s nest of an old fashioned sailing ship” – Hester Mallin, 1980

Hester Mallin & Joe Brown in 1988

Hester’s father Maurice Smolensky stands centre in this photograph taken early in the last century

Paintings copyright © Hester Mallin

You may also like to take a look at

Dorothy Rendell, Artist

Pearl Binder, Artist

Grace Oscroft, Artist

Rose Henriques, Artist

Dorothy Bishop, Artist

Doreen Fletcher, Artist

21 Responses leave one →
  1. January 7, 2018

    What great pictures, and a lovely garden.
    There was a BBC programme about victorian bakers working overnight shifts in basements. Unbelievably hard work.
    Thanks for this fascinating story. Best wishes to Hester.

  2. Russell permalink
    January 7, 2018

    A wonderful story, albeit sad, but altogether human. Lovely paintings. thank you.

  3. January 7, 2018

    Hester’s paintings are wonderful, and her garden is a marvel. Valerie

  4. David Bishop permalink
    January 7, 2018

    What an amazing lady!

  5. January 7, 2018

    That’s an interesting story,I like the pictures ,she says she took photos, be nice to see them ,perhaps they could be put somewhere ,like recorded ,

  6. John Barrett permalink
    January 7, 2018

    By looking at her paintings you ‘get the picture’ her attention to detail is amazing including street name plates. Yes her paintings have character – her character. John a bus pass poet

  7. Sarah permalink
    January 7, 2018

    She is a remarkable and talented lady with a great deal of courage

  8. Jamie Surman permalink
    January 7, 2018

    Yet another example of wonderful social history from the area, painstakingly curated by The Gentle Author… ‘Ordinary’ people often have the most interesting stories, as does Miss Mallin.

  9. January 7, 2018

    What an inspirational lady and a life well lived. I knew about Hester’s fame as a gifted high-rise gardener in the 90s but had no idea she created these haunting, evocative paintings. I hope we get to see an exhibition of them in the near future.

  10. January 7, 2018

    For some reason the ‘M. Strongwater’ painting moves me more strongly than the rest (though they’re all impressive). Miss Mallin’s mother’s story moved me deeply. What a terrible thing, to be sent to a strange land, alone, at that age.

  11. January 7, 2018

    “Rear of Morgan Houses”…….I find myself totally THERE at this moment. I hear my own solitary footsteps down this narrow passage, heading for the distant opening, wondering what is ahead.
    I love when art has this kind of narrative power. At first glance, there is a simplicity at play
    here, and then a detail catches my eye…..a window frame, a glimpse of a sign, mortar between
    scaly bricks…..and then I am caught up in the mood of the place.
    Ms. Mallin is an incredible, vibrant discovery.
    Many thanks for shining a light.

  12. Helen Breen permalink
    January 7, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what an inspiring story of Hester Mallin who found fulfillment in life through her own creativity and resourcefulness.

    Love her paintings which do measure up to those in East End Vernacular. Thanks for sharing …

  13. January 7, 2018

    I can hardly believe that this is the first time Hester’s work has been shown. What an extraordinary body of work. I would love to see Hester’s photographs.

  14. Gary Arber permalink
    January 7, 2018

    I remember Hester well she use to be a regular visitor to my shop in Roman Road she was working as a librarian at the end of her working life, a well educated and very smart woman.
    The last time that she visited my shop her health was failing, I am delighted that she is still with us.
    She made no mention of her artistic talents when conversing, her work is exceptional.
    I wish you well Hester.
    Gary

  15. Adele Lester permalink
    January 7, 2018

    Thank you for bringing another East End artist to our attention, GA. I’m so proud when I read of people who although they grew up in adversity persevere and are self taught and follow their dreams. To 120, Hester Mallin.

  16. Ruth permalink
    January 7, 2018

    One of my cousins has just sent me a link to this wonderful article about our Aunt Hester Mallin and I’m writing to thank you for this amazing interview and enabling her to talk about her life in Stepney. It’s a surprise that she agreed to speak about things which are so personal and it’s certainly filled in many gaps for me. Aunt Hester was always a talented and unusual woman, very independent and courageous, and the article has touched us, her family, very deeply. It’s the first time that I’ve seen some of her paintings which are exceptionally good.

    Most of her family live abroad and stay in weekly phone contact from afar. A few of us are the children of Hester’s older half-brothers, her father’s children from his first marriage which she didn’t mention in the interview. Only one cousin still lives in the London area and he and his wife visit her regularly. It’s far from being ideal but we care very deeply for her and appreciate that she has been able to express herself via this fascinating Blog. It’s also lovely to read the warm comments.

    Many thanks for the wonderful article!

    Ruth Sobol (Hester’s niece)

  17. Jenny permalink
    January 7, 2018

    The paintings are very moving. They capture personal memories.
    What an interesting lady Hester is.

  18. Ros permalink
    January 7, 2018

    I find these paintings extraordinarily powerful in their intensity of vision, lack of sentimentality and their evocation of a whole once-teeming world bound by a few abandoned streets. They are a testimony to the human spirit’s ability to rise above unworthy housing conditions and much suffering to create better lives. I remember Hessel Street in its last gas-flickering years and the network of streets that was its hinterland. I too would love to see Hester’s photographs, as well as an exhibition of her work. And that 23rd-storey balcony garden is just wonderful!

  19. January 8, 2018

    One of the most beautiful story blogs I have ever read & seen.

  20. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 8, 2018

    What an amazing and inspiring story despite the sad events running through it. I love the paintings, where Hester has created beauty in dereliction. They are truly wonderful. I was pleased to learn that she rose above the contempt of that horrible and cruel teacher in her early life after showing her talent for art, but so sad that Hester was subjected to such treatment. It must have been so frightening and bewildering. We live in a cruel world, but it sounds as if Hester created beauty on every path she trod, later with her gardening. A talented and special lady who I wish well. Thank you for this wonderful blog.

  21. Tina curran permalink
    January 9, 2018

    Loved reading this inspiring story ..love your paintings hester..also your beautiful garden..i lived in Langdale mansions during the 60s..so the paintings brought back lots of memories ..thank you.

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