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At Embassy Electrical Supplies

August 4, 2021
by the gentle author

Mehmet Murat

It comes as no surprise to learn that at Embassy Electrical Supplies in Clerkenwell, you can buy lightbulbs, fuses and cables, but rather more unexpected to discover that, while you are picking up your electrical hardware, you can also purchase olive oil, strings of chili peppers and pomegranate molasses courtesy of the Murat family groves in Cyprus and Turkey.

At certain fashionable restaurants nearby, “Electrical Shop Olives” are a popular feature on the menu, sending customers scurrying along to the Murats’ premises next morning to purchase their own personal supply of these fabled delicacies that have won acclaim in the global media and acquired a legendary allure among culinary enthusiasts.

How did such a thing come about, that a Clerkenwell electrical shop should be celebrated for olive oil? Mehmet Murat is the qualified electrician and gastronomic mastermind behind this singular endeavour. I found him sitting behind his desk at the rear of the shop, serving customers from his desk and fulfilling their demands whether electrical or culinary, or both, with equal largesse.

“I am an electrician by trade,” he assured me, just in case the fragrance of wild sage or seductive mixed aromas of his Mediterranean produce stacked upon the shelves might encourage me to think otherwise.

“I arrived in this country from Cyprus in 1955. My father came a few years earlier, and he got a job and a flat before he sent for us. In Cyprus, he was a barber and, according to our custom, that meant he was also a dentist. But he got a job as an agent travelling around Cyprus buying donkeys for Dr Kucuk, the leader of the Turkish Cypriots at that time – the donkeys were exported and sold to the British Army in Egypt. What he did with the money he earned was to buy plots of land around the village of Louroujina, where I was born, and plant olive saplings. He and my mother took care of them for the first year and after that they took care of themselves. Once they came to the UK, they asked relatives to watch over the groves. They used to send us a couple of containers of olive oil for our own use each year and sold the rest to the co-operative who sold it to Italians who repackaged it and sold it as Italian oil.

I trained as an electrician when I left school and I started off working for C.J. Bartley & Co in Old St. I left there and became self-employed, wiring Wimpy Bars, Golden Egg Restaurants and Mecca Bingo Halls. I was on call twenty-four hours and did electrical work for Faye Dunaway, the King of Jordan’s sister and Bill Oddie, among others. Then I bought this shop in 1979 and opened up in 1982 selling electrical supplies.

In 2002, when my father died, I decided I was going to bring all the olive oil over from Louroujina and bottle it all myself, which I still do. But when we started getting write-ups and it was chosen as the best olive oil by New York Magazine, I realised we had good olive oil.  We produce it as we would for our own table. There is no other secret, except I bottle it myself – bottling plants will reheat and dilute it.

If you were to come to the village where I was born. you could ask any shopkeeper to put aside oil for your family use from his crop. I don’t see any difference, selling it here in my electrical shop in Clerkenwell. It makes sense because if I were to open up a shop selling just oil, I’d be losing money. The electrical business is still my bread and butter income, but many of the workshops that were my customers have moved out and the Congestion Charge took away more than half my business.

Now I have bought a forty-five acre farm in Turkey. It produces a thousand tons of lemons in a good year, plus pomegranate molasses, sweet paprika, candied walnuts and chili flakes. We go out and forage wild sage, wild oregano, wild St John’s wort and wild caper shoots. My wife is there at the moment with her brother who looks after the farm, and her other brother looks after the groves in Cyprus.”

Then Mehmet poured a little of his precious pale golden olive oil from a green glass bottle into a beaker and handed it to me, with instructions. The name of his farm, Murat Du Carta, was on the label beneath a picture of his mother and father. He explained I was to sip the oil, and then hold it in my mouth as it warmed to experience the full flavour, before swallowing it. The deliciously pure oil was light and flowery, yet left no aftertaste on the palate. I picked up a handful of the wild sage to inhale the evocative scent of a Mediterranean meadow, and Mehmet made me up a bag containing two bottles of olive oil, truffle-infused oil, marinated olives, cured olives, chili flakes and frankincense to carry home to Spitalfields.

We left the darkness of the tiny shop, with its electrical supplies neatly arranged upon the left and its food supplies tidily stacked upon the right. A passing cyclist came in to borrow a wrench and the atmosphere was that of a friendly village store. Outside on the pavement, in the sunshine, we joined Mark Page who forages truffles for Mehmet, and Mehmet’s son Murat (known as Mo). “I do the markets and I run the shop, and I like to eat,” he confessed to me with a wink.

Carter, the electrical shop cat

From left to right, Mark Page (who forages truffles), Murat Murat (known as Mo) and Mehmet Murat.

Embassy Electrical Supplies, 76 Compton St, Clerkenwell, EC1V 0BN

At London Trimmings

August 3, 2021
by the gentle author

Moosa, Ashraf & Ebrahim Loonat

If you ever wondered where the Pearly Kings & Queens get the pearl buttons for their magnificent outfits, I can disclose that London Trimmings – the celebrated family business run by the three Loonat brothers in the Cambridge Heath Rd – is the place they favour. And with good reason, as I discovered when I went round to investigate yesterday, because this shop has a mind-boggling selection of wonderful stuff at competitive prices.

Zips and buttons and buckles and threads and tapes and ribbons and snap fasteners and elastic and eyelets and cords and braids and marking chalk and pins, and a whole lot of other coloured and sparkly things, comprise the biggest magpie’s nest on the planet. Now I shall no longer go to fancy West End stores to buy taffeta ribbon to tie up my gifts and pay several pounds for just a couple of metres – not since I discovered that here in Whitechapel you can get a whole reel for five quid and choose from every colour of the rainbow too.

With his lively dark brown eyes and personable nature, Moosa Loonat was my expert guide to this haberdashery labyrinth. He took me on a tour starting in the trade orders department which occupies one of London Trimmings’ two premises in this fine red brick nineteenth century terrace of shops, built by the brewery that once stood across the road. Translucent glass windows might discourage the casual customer, but in fact everyone is welcome in this extraordinary store which feels more like a warehouse than a shop.

Once we had trawled through the crowded aisles here and in the basement, with Moosa pulling out all imaginable kinds of zips and buckles and toggles to explain the stories behind each and every one, he assured me with a proprietorial grin, “I know where everything is, because if you pay for it you know.” I surmise that Moosa said this because while everything has its place at London Trimmings, the overall effect might be described as organised chaos of the most charismatic kind.

Yet, as we explored, Moosa told me the story of the business and I learned there was even more going on here than you can see on the crowded shelves of this extraordinary emporium.

“The shop was started by my father Yousuf Loonat and his partner Aziz Matcheswala in 1971 at the corner of Whitechapel High St and New Rd. My dad came to this country from Gujurat just after the war. He went to Bradford where all the mills were and he worked his way down to Leicester, and from Leicester to London. He told me, at first, he worked in a factory manufacturing street lights and, in Leicester, he went into the food trade and then he got into the textile trade.

At eight years old, I used to go and help count out buttons for my father. Every single holiday, he’d say, “I’ve got lots of work for you.” In 1987, when I was seventeen years old, my father and his partner split, so he gave me a choice – “Either go to university or join the family business – but if you don’t, I’ll sell it.” I took the opportunity and I’m happy that I did. That choice was offered to my brothers too and we realised that if we didn’t all club together, we would lose it. Now every brother runs a different department.

In 1985, we had a fire and lost everything – a couple of hundred thousand pounds of stock and we only had thirty thousand pounds insurance. It was an arson attack. I remember it clearly, it was a dramatic time for the family and my dad was really upset. All our suppliers helped us, they put a freeze on what we owed them until we could repay it and allowed us a new credit account. They contributed to fitting out this new shop in the Cambridge Heath Rd too, they even paid for the sign.

It was busy in the old days, everything was sold by the box then, we had four or five vans in the road and we wouldn’t even entertain student customers. Fifteen years ago, every shop in Brick Lane had a factory above it. In this immediate neighbourhood, we had a thousand customers, now we have a hundred here. We supply the leather trade, the bag trade, the garment trade, the jacket trade, the dry-cleaning and alteration trade, and the shoe repair trade. We cater to students who buy one button and to designers like Mulberry, Hussein Chayalan, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, and to High St stores like Top Man and River Island. During London Fashion Week, we had forty people in the shop all wanting to be served first.

Our main speciality is zips, you can buy one for 5p up to £20. We have two hundred different styles and each comes in several sizes. Other suppliers only stock up to No 5, but we have No 6, No 7, No 8, No 9, and No 10 -we even have No 4. We have double-ended zips, fluorescent zips, invisible zips, plastic zips, pocket zips, copper zips, aluminium zips, steel zips, nickel zips, satin zips and waterproof zips.

One customer comes from Ireland, an eighty-five year old man, he comes over every month with a suitcase, packs it up and is gone. Another customer comes regularly from Iceland, she spends two days in here to see what’s new. We had one tailor, he sent back an empty box of 1,044 pins he bought twenty-five years previously, saying “I’d like another one but this is the last I will need because I am over seventy.” Sometimes, people ring from New Zealand to buy press fasteners for the covers on on open-top vintage cars. Kanye West came in twice before we recognised who he was, he came in four or five times altogether, choosing trimmings. He spent a couple of hours each time and had a cup of tea.

I arrive at eight-thirty and I work until seven each day. I do an eleven hour shift. I could choose not to come because I’ve got the staff, but I’m a workaholic. We don’t open at weekends but I still come in on Saturdays to catch up. One day I could be serving customers at the counter, the next day unloading a container and the next out on the road to visit customers. It’s never the same. It’s not a mundane, everything the same, day-in-day-out job. We’ve had my father, me and my nephews all in here at once – three generations working in the same place. Some of the staff have been here thirty years and all the youngsters who came to work here straight from school have stayed.

We run a tight ship financially. The last to get paid will be me and my brothers. We only get our wages if the money’s there but if it’s not, we don’t take it.”

Moosa Loonat – “The last to get paid will be me and my brothers. We only get our wages if the money’s there but if it’s not, we don’t take it.”

Teresa Brace, Manager of Haberdashery – “It’s a lot tidier on my side of the shop!”

Moosa – “As you can see, we’re short of space…”

Ebrahim Loonat

Shirley Mayhew, Accounts Department – in the trimmings business since 1980.

“the biggest magpie’s nest on the planet”

London Trimmings, 26-28 Cambridge Heath Rd, London E1 5QH. 

John Minton’s East End

August 2, 2021
by the gentle author

Martin Salisbury author of The Snail that climbed the Eiffel Tower, a monograph of John Minton’s graphic work, explores Minton’s fascination with the East End.

Never quite accepted by the establishment during his brief, rather tragic life, artist John Minton (1917—1957) has divided opinion ever since. Brilliant illustrator, inspirational teacher, prodigious habitué of Soho and Fitzrovia drinking establishments, Minton was bound to enter the folklore of post-war London. Somehow, he embodied the mood of elegiac romanticism that pervaded the arts through the forties and into the early fifties before fizzling out to be replaced by a more forward-looking, assertive art in the form of American abstract expressionism and British ‘kitchen-sink’ realism.

His life, riddled as it was with contradictions, began on Christmas Day 1917 in a wooden house near Cambridge, of an architectural style that some have termed ‘Gingerbread,’ and ended just under forty years later in Chelsea. He had apparently taken his own life. More than a hundred years after his birth, Minton is finally receiving the recognition enjoyed by other mid-century greats, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and John Piper.

Arguably, John Minton was at his best as a graphic and commercial artist, perhaps best known for his sublime illustrations for publisher John Lehmann to Elizabeth David’s highly influential food writing and Alan Ross; Corsica travel journal, Time Was Away, a lavish anti-austerity production. Yet Minton’s urban romanticism found its way into many commercial commissions too. Wartime drawings of bombed-out buildings in Poplar still exhibited the samr overwrought theatricality that was a feature of his work while under the spell of friend and fellow artist, Michael Ayrton.

In the immediate post-war years, as Minton’s work drew more consistently on direct observation, his visual vocabulary matured and his frequent visits to the river resulted in a mass of drawings of the cranes and wharves of the Port of London and Bankside. Rotherhithe from Wapping was painted in 1946 and a three-colour lithograph of the same composition followed two years later, renamed Thames-side.

The flattened perspective in this pictures embraces barges in the foreground and the jumble of warehouses on the far bank in the background. Typically, this image includes a pair of male figures in intimate conversation. Minton’s sexuality was central to his work and these dockland images embody the frustration he felt as a gay man at a time when sex between men was illegal. The many hours that Minton spent haunting the riverside allowed him not only to draw but to enjoy the company of sailors and dockers. Time and again, his pictures feature solitary male figures or distant pairs, huddled together, walking at low tide or working on boats, dwarfed by the surrounding buildings and brooding clouds.

John Minton’s only commission for London Transport came from publicity officer, Harold F. Hutchison in the form of a ‘pair poster’ titled London’s River. This concept involved posters designed in adjoining pairs, with one side featuring a striking pictorial image and the other containing text. The familiar dockland images are reworked here in gouache, in similar manner to the series of paintings commissioned for Lilliput in July 1947, London River.

An unpublished rough cover design for The Leader magazine executed in 1948 features another of Minton’s favourite motifs, the elevated street view. In this instance, the foreground figure gazing from an upper window bears more than a passing resemblance to the artist himself. The composition takes us beyond the streets below to the Thames via the dome of St Paul’s. A similar view, this time of the author’s native Hackney, graces the dust jacket of Roland Camberton’s Rain on the Pavements, published in 1951 by John Lehmann. This was the second of Camberton’s two novels, both with dust jackets designed by Minton, and tells the story of David Hirsch’s early years growing up in Hackney Jewish society.

In his 2008 article Man in a MacIntosh, Iain Sinclair followed in the footsteps of a fellow Hackney writer, recognising, “Camberton, in choosing to set ‘Rain on the Pavements’ in Hackney, was composing his own obituary. Blackshirt demagogues, the spectre of Oswald Mosley’s legions, stalk Ridley Rd Market while the exiled author ransacks his memory for an affectionate and exasperated account of an orthodox community in its prewar lull.”

John Minton’s magnificent jacket design draws us into that world with effortless elegance.

Rain on the Pavements, 1951

Scamp, 1950

Wapping, 1941

Bomb-damaged buildings, Poplar, 1941

Rotherhithe from Wapping, 1946

London Bridge from Cannon Street Station, 1946

London’s River, Lilliput 1947

London’s River, Lilliput 1947

London’s River, Lilliput 1947

Illustrations from Flower of Cities, 1949

London’s River: Pool of London, London Transport, 1951

The Leader, 1948

Isle of Dogs from Greenwich, 1955

Illustrations copyright © Estate of John Minton

You may also like to read about Alfred Daniels & Terry Scales who were taught by John Minton

Alfred Daniels, Artist

Terry Scales, Artist

In William Blake’s Lambeth

August 1, 2021
by the gentle author

Glad Day in Lambeth

If you wish to visit William Blake’s Lambeth, just turn left outside Waterloo Station, walk through the market in Lower Marsh, cross Westminster Bridge Rd and follow Carlisle Lane under the railway arches. Here beneath the main line into London was once the house and garden, where William & Catherine Blake were pleased to sit naked in their apple tree.

Yet in recent years, William Blake has returned to Lambeth. Within the railway arches leading off Carlisle Lane, a large gallery of mosaics based upon his designs has been installed, evoking his fiery visions in the place where he conjured them. Ten years work by hundreds of local people have resulted in dozens of finely-wrought mosaics bringing Blake’s images into the public realm, among the warehouses and factories where they may be discovered by the passerby, just as he might have wished. Trains rumble overhead with a thunderous clamour that shakes the ancient brickwork and cars roar through these dripping arches, creating a dramatic and atmospheric environment in which to contemplate his extraordinary imagination.

On the south side of the arches is Hercules Rd, site of the William Blake Estate today, where he lived between 1790 and 1800 at 13 Hercules Buildings, a three-storey terrace house demolished in 1917. Blake passed ten productive and formative years on the south bank, that he recalled as ‘Lambeth’s vale where Jerusalem’s foundations began.’ By contrast with Westminster where he grew up, Lambeth was almost rural two hundred years ago and he enjoyed a garden with a fig tree that overlooked the grounds of the bishop’s palace. This natural element persists in the attractively secluded Archbishop’s Park on the north side of the arches in the former palace grounds.

To enter these sonorous old arches that span the urban and pastoral is to discover the resonant echo chamber of one of the greatest English poetic imaginations. When I visited I found myself alone at the heart of Lambeth yet in the presence of William Blake, and it is an experience I recommend to my readers.

‘There is a grain of sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find”

These mosaics were created by South Bank Mosaics which is now The London School of Mosaic

You may also like to take a look

The Songs of Innocence

The Songs of Experience

The Foundling Of Shoreditch

July 31, 2021
by the gentle author

Edward Waterson sent me this extraordinary story of his great-great-great-grandfather Henry Cooper, who went down in history as the man “left holding the baby”

Bishopsgate Station, photograph courtesy of National Rail Museum

This is the tale of a country doctor, a mystery woman and a baby with a fortune tucked in its nappy. It is a tale that riveted Victorian England in 1850, yet is all but forgotten today – save for its lasting contribution to the English language. Had it not been for the extraordinary events on Bishopsgate Station in Shoreditch that year, we would not have the pleasure of describing those facing an unwanted problem as being “left holding the baby.”

The doctor was Henry Cooper, a handsome thirty-six year old who ministered to the needs of his patients in the Suffolk village of Ixworth, near Bury St Edmunds.  Recently widowed and bringing up three small children on his own, he was not a man to relish disruption in his busy life.

One January morning that year, he donned his best stovepipe hat and travelled into Bury to meet his friend Captain Lloyd with whom he was journeying on the Eastern Counties Railway to London. The train left at ten minutes past eight and they soon settled into their second class carriage for the four and a half hour journey to the terminus at Shoreditch.

They passed through Colchester without incident but ten minutes later, on stopping at Mark’s Tey station, their gentlemanly calm was broken as an elegantly dressed woman stumbled into the carriage. Along with the lady came a baby girl and a small trunk. Clearly unwell and close to collapse, the child’s mother explained that she had been travelling alone in first class but, feeling ill, she had made her way to a carriage where there were other passengers. She could not have chosen better.

Cooper introduced himself and tendered his professional services. Politely declining his offer, the lady explained that her condition was solely due to being unused to travelling on the railway and that she would soon recover. Indeed, by the time the train steamed into Bishopsgate Station she had rallied considerably.

Henry again proffered help but was reassured that she had ordered a carriage and servant to wait for her at the far end of the station. It would – however – be of immense help to her if he might assist by looking after the baby while she went to check if her transport had arrived. So the surgeon gladly took the baby, while the captain stood guard over her trunk, watching their new found acquaintance run down the platform and into the square below, never to be seen again.

Henry Cooper was left holding the baby.

Bewildered by their predicament, the pair gathered up baby and trunk and took a carriage to friends in the city. By the end of the journey, it was already clear that the baby’s nappy needed changing, so the unwilling guardians opened the trunk in hope of finding a replacement. They were delighted to find not only what they were looking for but also a wardrobe of expensive children’s clothing.

Off came the nappy and out dropped two ten pound notes, the equivalent of nearly two thousand pounds today. Attached to them was a letter stating that the child came from a respectable background and that if an advertisement was placed in the newspapers, the parents would make themselves known. Cooper’s friends in London offered to act as temporary foster parents while he returned to Suffolk to attend to his patients.

In the meantime, he placed two advertisements in The Times with inconclusive results. One reply came from a friend of Cooper who was anxious to adopt the baby while another, altogether more sinister, came from a man in Devon – the baby was his and the twenty pounds too. He claimed them both on behalf of the mother and would sue if the child was not handed over.

Henry Cooper was left struggling with an uncomfortable dilemma.

On the thirteenth of February he returned to London, this time to Worship St Magistrates Court, just a stone’s throw from Bishopsgate Station. What – pleaded the unhappy recipient of the baby – did the judge advise him to do with the child?

The Magistrate, Mr Justice Hammill, said it was a very unusual application and regretted that he could be of little assistance. He could only suggest that the baby be handed over to the Officers of the Parish in whose district it had been abandoned, in the hope the parents would be discovered. Cooper knew that to take such a course would mean the workhouse for the child and in the words of The Times reporter – “it was pretty manifest from his manner that he was disinclined to adopt the suggestion thrown out by the bench.” Meanwhile, Cooper’s friend William Makepeace Thackeray composed verse in celebration of the event and such was the fame of The Foundling of Shoreditch that Punch devoted a whole page to the story, complete with a sketch of the unlikely duo.

The child escaped the workhouse and was placed in an unspecified orphanage, supported in part by her hidden legacy, only to disappear later without trace just as her mother did. Henry Cooper, the country doctor, has also long been forgotten but his legacy lives on as the archetype of the one “left holding the baby.”

Henry Cooper – “left holding the baby”

Henry Cooper and the baby portrayed in Punch, February 1850

copyright © Edward Waterson

At The Jewish Soup Kitchen

July 30, 2021
by the gentle author

Originally established in 1854 in Leman St, the Jewish Soup Kitchen opened in Brune St in 1902 and, even though it closed in 1992, the building in Spitalfields still proclaims its purpose to the world in bold ceramic lettering across the fascia. These days few remember when it was supplying groceries to fifteen hundred people weekly, which makes Photographer Stuart Freedman’s pictures especially interesting as a glimpse of one of the last vestiges of the Jewish East End.

“After I finished studying Politics at university, I decided I wanted to be a photographer but I didn’t know how to do it,” Stuart recalled, contemplating these pictures taken in 1990 at the very beginning of his career. “Although I was brought up in Dalston, my father had grown up in Stepney in the thirties and, invariably, when we used to go walking together we always ended up in Petticoat Lane, which seemed to have a talismanic quality for him. So I think I was following in his footsteps.”

“I used to wander with my camera and, one day, I was just walking around taking pictures, when I moseyed in to the Soup Kitchen and said ‘Can I take photographs?’ and they said, ‘Yes.’ “I didn’t realise what I was doing because now they seem to be the only pictures of this place in existence. You could smell that area then – the smell of damp in old men’s coats and the poverty.”

For the past twenty-five years Stuart Freedman has worked internationally as a photojournalist, yet he was surprised to come upon new soup kitchens recently while on assignment in the north of England. “The poverty is back,” he revealed to me in regret,“which makes these pictures relevant all over again.”

Groceries awaiting collection

A volunteer offers a second hand coat to an old lady

An old woman collects her grocery allowance

A volunteer distributes donated groceries

View from behind the hatch

A couple await their food parcel

An ex-boxer arrives to collect his weekly rations

An old boxer’s portrait, taken while waiting to collect his groceries

An elderly man leaves the soup kitchen with his supplies

Photographs copyright © Stuart Freedman

You can read more about the Soup Kitchen here

Harry Landis, Actor

Linda Carney, Machinist

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Ed Gray, Painter

July 29, 2021
by the gentle author

This is  Ed Gray sitting in his studio in Mile End, beside the canal and next to the Ragged School Museum. I found him in a large empty room with windows overlooking Mile End stadium and just three sketches on the wall for a street scene in the City of London which was his work in progress.

Ed’s visceral paintings capture the tumultuous street life of the capital superlatively, teeming with diverse characters and delighting in the multiple dramas of daily existence. Despite his mild manners, his is an epic, near-apocalyptic vision that glories in the endless struggle of humanity within the urban stew. Yet the overriding impression is not cynical but rather a life-affirming raucous celebration of the indefatigable vitality of Londoners.

“I paint people and I make art about scenes of daily life. But I do not see this kind of picture represented very much in the contemporary art world. In their view, this work is not cool, happening or sensational. Yet I find so much stimulus when I go out onto the street drawing. I could make dozens of paintings about any single location. London is such a mixture of different places, there are different energies in every place, so I do not want to stay in one place, I keep moving on.

I have been painting a lot for the last twenty years, doing figurative scenes, and I work hard to have exhibitions and find an audience for my paintings, and provoke conversations about the city. It feels like an underground thing. My shows are popular and I am lucky because my paintings sell, so that keeps me going.  It seems a shame that more artists do not go out and paint the people of the city.

It is a challenge because the city changes so quickly. If I am working on a painting for three months in my studio and then I go back out into the city, it is different place. The place I painted has changed and the people have changed too. Sometimes buildings I painted are not there anymore, even in a short space of time. It is an incredible challenge and hard to know where to begin.

I studied at art college in Wimbledon and then Cardiff, where I used to go down to the docks. It was before they regenerated them. I painted the docks and the buildings – landscapes without people. Then I got interested in the fish market in Cardiff and I painted the people there. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a fish merchant in Grimsby so I had an interest in those scenes. It took off from there and I became more and more interested in painting people, which I had always done as a kid but I had not found the confidence to paint people the way that I wanted. It took that experience to put me on that path.

I left college in 1995 and moved back to London, and I had a studio in a squat in the Elephant & Castle. I was trying to paint big oil paintings seven foot across, but I had no money so I could not afford to do it. I lasted a few years doing odd jobs and trying to keep that going. Eventually I thought, ‘I can’t do this!’ so I took a full time job working as a security guard at the Natural History Museum. I thought I would go into some kind of educational work, I had been working in a youth club in Battersea and I knew I had something I could pass on to the kids. I liked making art with them.

So, during my two years at the Natural History Museum, I would paint in the evenings just for myself. And I read all the books I was supposed to read at art college and secured my knowledge. Then I did my PGCE in art education at Exeter University and for a year I was teaching in Cornwall. When I came back to London, I realised I could teach and paint. So I taught part time at a school in Peckham for four years while painting the rest of the time. I had studio on the Old Kent Rd in a building which is no longer there. Over time, I accumulated a lot of paintings in the flat that I was sharing with friends and they said, ‘You need to do something with these pictures.’

By then, I had found a way that I wanted to work, which was based in going to a location, making direct observations with my sketch book for however many days it takes until I have soaked up the scene, before going back to my bedroom and making a paintings over a period of weeks. These were much smaller than the work I am doing now but it was keeping me going, it was an outlet for all the things I wanted to say about the city. In the nineties, there was a negativity about the city and city life, but I had just come back from Cornwall and I thought it was the most exciting place, with so much to paint.

I had all these paintings but I had no experience of galleries, so we took a car load of work around and the only place that would give me an exhibition was a little pop-up space in Brixton. I had my first solo show there in 2001 with ten paintings in it. It was amazing, loads of people came the private view and some could not even get into the building! It was real eye-opener to me that my painting was communicating something. All kinds of people came in from the street in Brixton, there was not a single demographic that came to see that show. It was a really exciting thing.

I applied for a residency in Bermuda and I got it, so I took a sabbatical from my teaching job. I had some money because I had sold a couple of paintings from my show. I had a studio in Bermuda and I had three exhibitions out there. It was the first time I was able to think entirely about making art and not having to pay my rent. It was an incredible time and I can hardly believe it happened. Afterwards, I travelled from Panama to Mexico City, making paintings and drawings. I was learning about making work on the hoof.

When I came back to London, I went back to the school and, after another year, I had another exhibition. A gallery in Camberwell gave me a show in 2003. I did ten paintings and they all sold, so I left my teaching job and concentrated on painting. Acme offered me a studio in Mile End next to the canal in 2006. I have always lived south of the river, first in Bermondsey and now Rotherhithe, so I am very familiar with those scenes and I have painted some of them. But separating where I live and really work is really important to me, coming across the river. The amount of life and lives you encounter here is more diverse in the East End. There is so much I could paint.

My picture of the Whitechapel Rd felt like a beginning for me of the paintings I could make about Whitechapel. I have so many scenes in mind. I wanted to start in the Whitechapel Rd because it is this long ancient road that comes out of the City of London. I used to cycle or walk that way to work and come through the market. I love markets, people are drawn to them and the characters are fantastic for painting. The history and the politics, the combination of the hospital and the market, and so many people from different lands that have come to work in London – for all of theses things, it is a meeting point.”

‘Lucky Tiger,’ Whitechapel Road, 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I often walk through Whitechapel Market on my way to the studio. From a cafe, I watched the men set up the cardboard boxes and I took out my pencil and I began to draw. There is no ‘Lucky Tiger’ in this painting because there is no luck here, no punter will win. The child senses this and she can see past the man’s arm which is covering the switch he is about to make.”

‘Adoration in the East,’ Mile End Tube, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration at the Lion’s Den,’ Milwall Football Club, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration at the Emirates,’ Arsenal Football Club, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration of Thomas A Becket,’ Old Kent Rd, 2016 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Liverpool St Station, 2007 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Liverpool St Station, 2007 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

St Mary Axe, 2012 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I have always painted the Gherkin when I can, I use it to navigate around the City while I am drawing. This painting is about the banking crisis that began in 2008. I sat by the Aviva building in windswept St Mary Axe and drew the faces of the brokers and bankers, the secretaries and the construction workers.”

‘Skittles,’ Blackfriars Bridge 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“For a few wintry mornings, I stood on Blackfriars Bridge in 2008 making sketches of the waves of flowing commuters. An icy wind whipped up the Thames, blowing through me. A boy crept unwillingly to school dragging a figure through the soot on the bridge and leaving his mark in defiance of the journey he had to make. He dropped a ‘Skittles’ wrapper and it occured to me that these Londoners are like skittles bracing themselves against the next blast that could topple them.”

Mile End Beginning, 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“This pair of Mile End paintings are about my working day and how inspiration arrives for me, they are both views from my studio window. ‘Beginning’ is about arriving at work for the day in the summer, I’m optimistic and full of ideas after walking from home in Rotherhithe through the streets of London.”

Mile End End, 2008 (Clickon  this painting to enlarge)

“I began ‘Mile End End’ as the nights became darker and the autumn set in. When I turned out the studio light at night, the glowing  green of the Mile End sports stadium seemed so intense that I had to paint it. I wore a head torch while I worked to capture the intensity of the light and I studied the movements of the night time characters – the addicts, the sportsmen, the fishermen and the lovers.”

Night on Mare St, Pig’s Ear Beer Festival 2010 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“At the Ocean Leisure Centre in Hackney, the faithful gathered for the annual Pig’s Ear Beer Festival, with beer and cider from every corner of the British Isles to be sampled. The painting is a celebration of this country.”

Billingsgate Porters 2005 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Rock of Eye,’ Threadneedleman Tailor, Walworth Rd 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I have had the pleasure of knowing George Dyer ever since I asked him to make my wedding suit several years ago. A Jamaican by birth with some Cuban added to the mix, young George flew to England aged five to be reunited with his family who had emigrated earlier. George is the go-to man for sharp tailoring in addition to philosophical discussions about our place in the cosmos, all of which he offers from a small shop in the Walworth Rd.”

York Hall Boxers 2011 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I spent an evening sketching in the crowd at York Hall thanks to the late great Dean Powell, manager and fight manager for the legendary Frank Warren. Dean is seated at the top of the ring. It was a successful night for him. I filled three sketchbooks, hypnotised by the rhythm of the dancing boxers and jabbing my pencil at the paper with the violence of their blows.”

‘Adoration of the Cockney Rebels,’ Bermondsey Carnival 2016 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Ed Gray at his studio in Mile End

Paintings copyright © Ed Gray

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie