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At Gaetano Meo’s Grave

December 12, 2018
by the gentle author

Helen Craig with Tessa Hunkin

Mosaic Artist Tessa Hunkin invited me to meet her at the grave of Gaetano Giuseppe Faostino Meo (1849-1925) in Hampstead Cemetery one bright morning recently to learn the extraordinary story of its forgotten occupant – an artist who was a favourite model of the pre-Raphaelite painters. Even if you have never heard his name, anyone who knows these paintings will be familiar with his handsome features.

The cemetery offered a suitably atmospheric environment. Graves interspersed with growths of briar and gothic architecture conjured the requisite tone of dignified melancholy beloved of the pre-Raphaelites. It was an ambience not unlike that of Edward Burne-Jones’ painting of Love Among the Ruins for which Gaetano Meo served as one of the models, stretched out in languorous abandon, his pallid flesh swathed in a silken robe.

In 1864, at fourteen years old, Gaetano Meo walked to England from his home in the south of Italy to seek his fortune, carrying only his harp as a means to earn board and lodgings. Surviving attacks by brigands, at Calais he smuggled aboard a ship bound for Dover. Yet his intended destination was California where he hoped to strike it rich in the Gold Rush. In fact, he only made it as far as Clerkenwell which was known as ‘Little Italy’ in those days. The story goes that a tip from a barber led to an introduction to Dante Gabriel Rossetti who was seeking a model, while artist Simeon Solomon claimed to have discovered Gaetano Meo playing the harp on a London street.

What is clear is that Gaetano Meo’s swarthy mediterranean features and sensuous demeanour suited the imaginative fantasies of these artists in the creation of the literary and allegoric scenes which were the fashion of the nineteenth century. He became one among an elite of Italian artists’ models, working for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Lord Leighton, Ford Madox Brown, William Blake Richmond, Henry Holiday and Simeon Solomon among other luminaries.

In time, Gaetano Meo became assistant to William Blake Richmond, learning to paint and work in mosaic. He exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy and worked alongside Blake Richmond in the creation of the mosaics in St Paul’s Cathedral. Settling in Hampstead, he married Agnes Morton and they had a boy – Little Bertie – who died young, and three daughters – Elena Fortuna, Margarita Maria Agnes and Taormina Bertha. Elena was a violinist and married her next door neighbour Edward Gordon Craig, the theatre designer and son of actress Ellen Terry and architect Edward Godwin.

At the graveside, Tessa Hunkin introduced me to Gaetano Meo’s great granddaughter Helen Craig who is an illustrator celebrated for the creation of Angelina Ballerina, the tutu-wearing mouse. Helen learnt the stories of her Italian great-grandfather from her father who had been told them by Gaetano Meo himself in his final years.

Tessa and Helen have collaborated to do restoration work on the gravestone as it approaches its centenary. While Tessa restored the mosaic, re-gilding and replacing fallen tesserae, Helen repainted lost detail on the glass panels known as ‘opus sectile.’ The Madonna & Child was originally designed by Gaetano Meo as a tribute to his wife Agnes Morton when she was died in 1921, but it now serves as a memorial to their family since he and Little Bertie were also interred here.

Although Hampstead Cemetery is less renowned than Highgate, I recommend a visit to this attractively unexpected enclave of peace in North London. While you are admiring Gaeatano Meo’s gravestone mosaic and contemplating the strangeness of the pre-Raphaelites you are likely to encounter a robin that presides in this vicinity – just as I did when I made my pilgrimage.

Gaetano Meo featured as a model in Edward Burne-Jones’ Love Among the Ruins, 1870-3 (reproduced courtesy of Tate Gallery)

Gaetano Meo featured as the model for Dante in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Dante’s Dream, 1869-71 (reproduced courtesy of Walker Art Gallery)

Gaetano featured as the model for Dante in Henry Holiday’s Dante & Beatrice, 1882-4 (reproduced courtesy of Walker Art Gallery)

Gaetano Meo featured as the model for Anchises in Venus & Anchises by Sir William Blake Richmond, 1890 (reproduced courtesy of Walker Art Gallery)

Gaetano Meo is believed to the model on the right in Simeon Solomon’s The Sleepers and the One who Watcheth, 1870 (reproduced courtesy of Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery)

Gaetano Meo’s The Madonna & Child mosaic created as tribute to his wife Agnes on her death in 1921

Gaetano Meo in Venice in his later years

Gaetano Meo’s robin at Hampstead Cemetery

Edward Burne Jones’ exhibition including Love Among The Ruins runs at Tate Britain until 24th February 2019

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Snowfall at Bow Cemetery

Even More Doreen Fletcher Paintings

December 11, 2018
by the gentle author

Today, we publish yet more of Doreen Fletcher’s pictures with her commentaries, telling the stories, and revealing the vision behind her painting.

Doreen Fletcher & I will be in conversation, showing slides of her paintings, at the Wanstead Tap on Tuesday 18th December. Click here for tickets

Also, please make an entry in your 2019 diary to join us at the Private View of Doreen Fletcher’s RETROSPECTIVE at Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts, on 24th January from 6pm. The exhibition runs until March 24th 2019.

Bartlett Park, Poplar, 1990

“The isolation of the building and the smoke that frequently drifted up from the chimney inspired me to paint this. It was a place I passed whenever I took a shortcut to Chrisp Street Market. Months of experiment were required to find the right shade of white for the plume of smoke. I exhibited the painting under the misnomer ‘Suzannah Street’. But twenty years later, when I met Steve who became my husband, he said, ‘Oh that’s Bartlett Park, named after the head of St Saviour’s where my dad went to school.’”

Pubali Cafe, Limehouse, 1996 (coloured pencil)

“When I first moved to the East End, I was intrigued by this cafe. It was always open but no-one seemed to go inside. A small thin man stood motionless behind the counter or sat eating a plate of curry at a table. I succumbed to temptation and entered with my partner. We ordered coffee and it was the worst I ever tasted. This was a foggy Saturday in January 1985 with the sun trying to break through. There was a lull in the traffic and I heard a rumbling boom like thunder. A bomb planted by the IRA had exploded at Tower Bridge and the sound carried down Commercial Road. I never returned to the cafe.”

Doreen has produced a limited edition print of the Pubali Cafe available here

Popcorn Stand at the Wakes, Mile End Park, 1994

“At the age of six, my parents too me on holiday to Rhyl which had a pleasure beach that became especially atmospheric and magical at dusk. Thus began my life long attraction to funfairs and I have been drawn to them ever since.

When I moved to Mile End in 1983, I was delighted to discover the funfair came regularly to the park, just where the new football pitch and stadium are these days. I did quite a few coloured pencil drawings of it over the years even though I cannot stand the taste of popcorn.”

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Hot Dogs, Mile End Park, 1993 (coloured pencil)

“I was attracted to draw the hot dog stall because to me it embodied the excitement of eating ‘on the hoof’ while wandering around dropping money into the bottomless pit of amusement at Mile End Fun Fair. For a moment my life was elevated by the expectation of something big about to happen, even if afterwards I would return home with feelings of deflation.

This fun fair always came to Mile End Park at Easter, Whitsun and August Bank Holiday. I never went on any rides but was tempted to play fruit machines. I also loved a game of pinball and became very good at it for a while.”

Leslie’s, Turners Rd, Stepney, 1983 (pencil)

I went to Leslie’s Grocers in 1983 when I arrived in the East End. It became my local shop while I was living in damp back room with peeling wallpaper on the third floor of 29 Turners Rd. A bachelor named Ray ran it following the death of his mother.

I remembered was dismayed to discover Ray sold such a limited range of goods – only powdered coffee or bottled camp coffee, white sliced bread and margarine but not butter. Ray moaned a lot to me about the lack of customers yet there was little to entice anyone into the shop.

Eventually Ray gave up. His heart was not in retail. Instead he moved into a one bedroom, ground floor flat near Chrisp Street on account of his gammy leg and his shop transformed into the headquarters of the local squatters’ association. Meanwhile, I was relieved to move into an ACME housing association house round the corner and travelled further afield to buy proper coffee.

I depicted Leslie’s Grocers in a painting as well as in this drawing. The painting was sold long ago and I have no photograph of it, nor can I recollect who the purchaser was. But perhaps my drawing better summarises the atmosphere of the shop.”

Canary Wharf at Twilight, 1992

“This is an exceptional subject for me. I do not usually paint new buildings because their absence of character holds no interest for me. Yet as I observed Canary Wharf rising, I felt compelled to record the transformation in my familiar environment. On Friday 9th February 1996, this painting was on display in the window of a gallery nearby when the IRA detonated a truck bomb at South Quays. Two people were killed, many injured and my painting was lucky to survive. The blast shattered the window and shards of glass scarred the surface, causing the paint to flake off in places yet not piercing the canvas.”

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CLICK HERE TO ORDER A SIGNED COPY OF DOREEN FLETCHER’S BOOK FOR £20

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Yet More Doreen Fletcher Paintings

December 10, 2018
by the gentle author

Today, we publish yet more of Doreen Fletcher’s paintings with her commentaries, revealing the stories behind the pictures.

One day in August, we gathered more than eighty of Doreen Fletcher’s paintings together to photograph them for her book. We photographed those in Doreen’s possession and Doreen’s husband Steve drove round London to borrow those in private collections.

The wonder of seeing all these paintings assembled was to discover the breadth of Doreen’s achievement for the first time and recognise that they added up to a complete vision. All these pictures will be brought back together for Doreen’s retrospective in January and you will be able to see them with your own eyes.

Doreen Fletcher & I will be in conversation, showing slides of her paintings, at the Wanstead Tap on Tuesday 18th December. Click here for tickets

Also, please make an entry in your 2019 diary to join us at the Private View of Doreen Fletcher’s RETROSPECTIVE at Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts, on 24th January from 6pm. The exhibition runs until March 24th 2019.

Whit Sunday, Commercial Rd, 1989

“This is a painting that I thought I had lost forever. I had only a few blurred images of it and felt a pang of regret from time to time that I had not kept better records. I could not even remember when and where it was sold or what size it was. All I had was a date 1989 and a title ‘Whit Sunday, Commercial Road’.

Then, out of the blue, I was contacted by a man in Bristol who was in possession of a painting dated 1989 but unsigned. He inherited it from his parents who had bought it in the late eighties and he often wondered who painted it. Remarkably, he traced me by examining similar images on the internet.

Francis Walters, the famous East End funeral director with the horse-drawn carriages, has long since departed to Leytonstone where it now forms part of the Co-op. In 1989, East End Videos, was a state of the art enterprise renting out video cassettes of films that had been released a year or two earlier.

In retrospect, this painting appears an optimistic view of what was in reality, a dusty, dirty and polluted road in the days before the underpass linking the Highway to the docklands was built.”

Stepney Snooker Club by Day, 1986

Stepney Snooker Club by Night, 1986

“I was first drawn to the Stepney Snooker Club in 1985, when I noticed a mosaic floor at the entrance with the mysterious name ‘Ben Hur.’ This intrigued me since observed a certain contrast between the old mosaic and the newly plastered facade. Yet I never actually saw anyone go in or out of the snooker club when I passed it eack week on my way to an evening’s life-modelling at Smithy Street Adult Education Institute.

I discovered the snooker club was been the former location of the Palacedium Cinema, which was taken over in 1917 by a man named Ben Hur, a projectionist. This cinema is not to be confused with the Palaseum Cinema nearby. In 1962, the Ben Hur became a bingo hall and in 1985 the ‘Stepney Snooker & Social Club.’

I do not know what draws a painter to react to certain moments, a scene or event. In my mind, I can still recall one chilly night on my way home when I spotted a lone figure on the doorstep of the Club, smoking a cigarette, and I sensed an opportunity. I set my mind on creating two paintings that would contrast the ambience of the place during the day and at night.

The daytime painting is now in the collection of Tower Hamlets Local History Archive. Unfortunately, I do not know where the nighttime painting is but would love to find out. It is unlikely to be dated or signed since I thought it arrogant to sign paintings in those days.”

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The Palaseum Cinema, 1985

“The Palaseum Cinema attracted my attention at first because of its façade, which in common with the Moorish appearance of the Star of the East was so much at variance with the others that lined Commercial Rd from Limehouse to Aldgate. In the main, the architecture is solid, Victorian and worthy, lacking in extraneous detail: Limehouse Library and Poplar Town Hall being typical.

The Palaseum and the Star of the East were places of entertainment and pleasure, and when the Palaseum was completed in 1912, it had a more distinctly exotic look. There was once a small dome on either side of the facade, as well as the large central globe you can see in the painting.

It originally opened its doors as Fienman’s Yiddish Theatre, but started screening films almost immediately. The buiding was renamed the Palaseum Cinema in 1913 and reincarnated as a Bollywood Picture House in 1965.

When I knew it, the Palaseum looked drab and forlorn with a shabby appearance during daylight hours. Yet it continued to attract my attention even though I did not see any people at all, entering or leaving. In retrospect, I should have gone inside, observed the decor and watched a film.”

Limehouse Library, 1988

“Limehouse Library was opened in 1901, endowed by John Passmore Edwards, the philanthropist. I painted it in 1988, the year after the completion of a mural of Limehouse Reach at the library and when Harold Wilson unveiled the statue of Clement Attlee outside. Yet despite the interest, the place already had an atmosphere  of a bygone age. Today it stands boarded up, awaiting rebirth.”

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CLICK HERE TO ORDER A SIGNED COPY OF DOREEN FLETCHER’S BOOK FOR £20

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More Doreen Fletcher Paintings

December 9, 2018
by the gentle author

Artist Doreen Fletcher tells the stories behind more of her East End paintings today.

Doreen Fletcher & I will be in conversation, showing her paintings, at the Wanstead Tap on Tuesday 18th December. Click here for tickets

Also, please make an entry in your 2019 diary to join us at the Private View of Doreen Fletcher’s RETROSPECTIVE at Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts, on 24th January from 6pm. The exhibition runs until March 24th 2019.

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Mile End Church with Canal, 1986

“The spring of 1985 was very cold in London, but it was even colder in Amsterdam where I was visiting. Fortunately, the museums were warm and welcoming, havens from the outside weather, and the works in the Rijksmuseum entranced me.

Yet the experience that remains most vivid in my memory is my trip to the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, a short journey from Amsterdam. There, I was transfixed by works from the Dutch Golden Age of Painting, particularly the View of Delft by Vermeer. Dating from around 1600, it is one of the first known cityscapes. I find it difficult to imagine how Vermeer managed to paint such intense focussed works, given that his wife gave birth to fifteen children of which ten survived. He painted very slowly and meticulously and, although respected in his hometown, he was quickly forgotten after his death.

Once back in London I started a new series of works focussing on similar subject material in my vicinity and Mile End Park with Canal forms one of this series. The painting was sold in an exhibition the following year and I did not set eyes on it again for thirty-three years until it was photographed for my book this year.”

Twilight in St Anne’s Churchyard, Limehouse, 1998

“St Anne’s churchyard featured in my life throughout the eighties and nineties. I often took the path that led from the bus stop in the Commercial Road through the main gates and across the yard to the Five Bells. It was here that I met with other artists and friends, following a day’s painting or modelling for life-classes at art colleges.

The Five Bells was run by a colourful Scottish family headed by the patriarchal Jim and among the artists who drank there where Jock McFadyen and Peri Parkes, who were both regulars. The biker fraternity, all rather formidable in their black leathers, were also frequent visitors. This all made for a lively mix along with assorted local residents.

We engaged in lively debate after ‘lock out’ when Jim would only serve whisky and I must confess that on more than a few occasions I had to be dragged away from heated discussions with other artists, as we voiced the concerns we had been wrapped up in during the day’s painting. In those days I could become very passionate as my working practice progressed.

It was usually dark when I negotiated my way back home and I might be somewhat inebriated. So I recall very well the uneven path past the statue of Jesus on the First World War memorial. I would cross Commercial Rd and take a short cut home through the backs of the flats parallel to Salmon Lane.”

Grand Union Canal in Wintertime, Stepney, 1986

Grand Union Canal in Summertime, Stepney,  1986

“When I lived in Bow, I loved wandering up and down the tow path past the red chimney, watching the fishermen and observing the change of the trees through the seasons.

The light of the East End offers a clarity and definition of colour that is very evident along the canal, where the water reflects back the light from the sky. So I was constantly drawn to this subject.

In these two paintings I wanted to explore the contrast between the heady atmosphere of summer and the stark clarity of the same stretch of water in winter.”

The Condemned House, Poplar, 1985

“In 1983, I lived just around the corner from this house. At the time, the whole area was scheduled for demolition to make way for parkland, encouraged by the County of London Plan adopted by the Greater London Council. The ambition was to ‘refresh’ London’s housing stock of poorly-maintained terraces and improve sanitary conditions. This is now questionable, given that so much of the character of the place had to be destroyed. The house where I lived survived but The Condemned House became one of the last victims of the bulldozers in 1988. For five years, the street lamp outside was lit continuously day and night but, since the residents had been evicted, no-one complained to the council.”

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After the Hurricane, Shadwell, 1987

“Like many others, I watched the weather man on October 15th 1987, reassuring us that reports of an impending hurricane were a false alarm. After a few glasses of wine with friends, I slept soundly until awakened by a phone call cancelling that morning’s art school modelling session. When I asked why, I was advised to take a look out of the window.

Fifty million trees were destroyed that night in England and France. A week or so later, I wandering down the canal, through the park, along Narrow St and onto the Highway. By now it was growing dark and a pinkish glow spread across the sky as the sun dropped below the horizon. As I walked through King Edward Seventh Park, this fallen tree came into view.

When I returned during the day to make studies, half the tree had already gone and the rest was neatly sawn into huge logs waiting to be taken away. So I had to rely on my initial quick sketches scribbled in the dark.”

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CLICK HERE TO ORDER A SIGNED COPY OF DOREEN FLETCHER’S BOOK FOR £20

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Last Orders At The Old Gun

December 8, 2018
by the gentle author

As a new pub named The Gun prepares to open next week in the Spitalfields Fruit & Wool Exchange development, I look back to the last night of the former establishment.

In 1946, a demobbed soldier walked into The Gun in Brushfield St and ordered a pint. Admitting that he had no money, he asked if he could leave his medals as security and come back the next day to pay for his beer. But he never returned, even though his medals were kept safely at The Gun, mounted in a frame on the wall, awaiting the day when he might walk through the door again.

Now it is too late for the soldier to return because The Gun was demolished three years ago as part of the redevelopment of the London Fruit & Wool Exchange. Yet the military theme of this anecdote is especially pertinent, since it appears likely that The Gun originated as a tavern serving the soldiers of the Artillery Ground in the sixteenth century.

My friend, the much-missed photographer Colin O’Brien, & I joined the regulars for a lively yet poignant celebration on the last night, drinking the bar dry in commemorating the passing of a beloved Spitalfields institution. No-one could deny The Gun went off with a bang.

“We are the last Jewish publicans in the East End,” Karen Pollack, who ran The Gun with her son Marc, informed me proudly, “yet I had never been in a pub until I married David, Marc’s father, in 1978.” Karen explained that David Pollack’s grandparents took over The Bell in 1938, when it was one of eight pubs on Petticoat Lane, and in 1978, David’s father George Pollack also acquired the lease of The Gun, which was run by David & Karen from 1981 onwards.

“David grew up above The Bell and he always wanted to keep his own pub,” Karen recalled fondly, “It was fantastic, everyone knew everyone. We opened at six in the morning and got all the porters from the market in here, and the directors of the Truman Brewery used to dine upstairs in the Bombardier Restaurant – there was no other place to eat in Spitalfields at that time.”

“People still come back and ask me for brandy and milk sometimes,” she confided, “that’s what people from the market drank.”

On that night, the beautiful 1928 interior of The Gun with its original glass ceiling, oak panelling, Delft tiles, prints of the Cries of London and views of Spitalfields by Geoffrey Fletcher, was crowded with old friends enjoying the intimate community atmosphere for one last time, many sharing affectionate memories of publican, David Pollack, who died just a few years ago. “We’ve had some good times here,” Karen confessed to me in quiet understatement, casting her eyes around at the happy crowd.

“I was always known as David Pollack’s son, I came into the pub in 2008 and it was second nature to me, “Marc revealed later, which led me me to ask him what this fourth generation East End publican planned to do with the rest of his life. “I’m going to open another pub and call it The Gun,” he assured me without hesitation. And I have no doubt Marc took the medals with him to keep them safe just in case that errant soldier comes back for them one day.

Fourth generation East End publican Marc Pollack, pictured here with his staff, stands on the left

David Pollack, publican, Michael Aitken of Truman’s Brewery & George Pollack, publican in 1984

Karen Pollack shows customers the old photographs

Karen Pollack and bar staff

Emma, Marc and Karen Pollack

Medals awaiting the return of their owner

The Gun in 1950

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

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At The London Fruit & Wool Exchange