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The East London Group & Photography

May 11, 2014
by David Buckman

Following the opening of the major retrospective at the Nunnery in Bow last week, David Buckman – whose book From Bow to Biennale recovered the lost history of The East London Group – considers the use of photography by members of the Group.

Pavilion in Grove Hall Park, Bow, by Harold Steggles

Working photograph by Harold Steggles

Brymay Wharf by Walter Steggles

Working photograph by Walter Steggles

I am often asked about the role of photography in the work of the East London Group, particularly in the paintings of Elwin Hawthorne and Harold and Walter Steggles.  They were core members of the band of working class men and women that John Cooper taught at evening classes in Bow in the twenties and thirties who came together to form the Group.

Walter Steggles assured me that sketching was “better than a camera.  I only did one picture from a photograph and that was dead” and his sister Muriel – who late in life drove him around looking for subjects – insisted that when her brother asked her to stop the car to sketch a cloud formation, he was “better than a camera.”

Nevertheless, Walter and Harold Steggles were both keen photographers, taking it up shortly before their joint show at Lefevre Gallery in 1938.  In the thirties, they also took up motoring – as their family photographs confirm – and they travelled around Britain and to the south of France on painting trips with Harold behind the wheel.

When the house where Walter lived was cleared, ten different cameras were found. According to Alan Waltham, who married Walter’s niece Janeta, there were two or three Praktica cameras, a couple by Kodak and Olympus, and several others.

“Most, if not all, were 35mm, but at some point Wally must have owned cameras that took 120-format film, judging some of the contact prints we have,” Alan explained to me.  “Most of the early pictures are in black and white but he switched to colour film early on after the war. We found endless copies of potential landscapes that he must have photographed in later life but, sadly, many of the early photos have little or no annotation.”

The role of photography in picture-making is clearly evident in the work of Elwin Hawthorne, the artist who – along with Walter Steggles – achieved star status when they had paintings in the British Pavilion at the 1936 Venice Biennale.  Elwin’s son said, having studied a number of squared-up photographs he holds, “my father did use photography as an aid to his work quite regularly….  My mother had disposed of my father’s camera before I developed an interest in photography at the age of thirteen.  It was more than an amateur box camera – I remember it had a Dallmeyer lens, but it was not really a high-quality professional camera.”

The absence of people is a common feature of Hawthorne’s paintings, sometimes infused with melancholic even surreal qualities.  Elwin junior feels that his father “might have gone out early in the morning, when conditions were misty, as a way of removing fine detail from the scenes he photographed, though I cannot confirm this.” Lilian, Hawthorne’s widow, who also showed with the Cooper group as Lilian Leahy, told me that Elwin “always carried a camera.  Once he almost left it behind in a restaurant at Rottingdean, until I reminded him.”

Walter Sickert lectured Cooper’s Bow students, where Hawthorne heard him speak, and the squaring-up of drawings for transfer to canvas was a common practice, one that Hawthorne would have been accustomed to while working as studio assistant to Sickert from 1928-31.  Sickert studied for a time at the Slade School of Fine Art, notable for its tradition of fine draughtsmanship, which John Cooper also attended – taught by that master-draughtsman Henry Tonks – and he believed that drawing was the basis of every picture, urging students to carry a notebook wherever they went.

However, from around 1923, according to Sickert’s biographer Robert Emmons, the ageing artist gradually abandoned drawing and “came to rely more and more for his data on old prints and photographs.” Sickert acquired a huge collection of illustrations, some of which formed the basis of his English Echoes exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1931.  The twenty-two exhibits dismayed some of his admirers, familiar with his earlier, more conventionally conceived works.  In a letter to The Times in 1929, in justification of his new practice, Sickert pointed out that Canaletto had based his work on tracings made with the camera lucida, Turner’s studio had been “crammed with negatives,” Millet had used photographs and Degas had taken them. While writing that photographs should be used with caution, he also noted that they could serve as valuable documents of record. Emmons comments “Sickert knew well enough what he wanted and was not likely to be squeamish as to how he got it.”

The invention of Photography in the nineteenth century posed a problem for some artists and their patrons. If the artist’s role had been to depict reality, how could this be better accomplished with pencil, pen or brush than with the camera?  Yet this concern ignored such the possibility of individual inspiration and interpretation, and subsequent numerous art movements, such as Cubism, Pointillism and Surrealism, bear witness to this.

John Cooper and his students might appear to have been unaffected by continental developments in their own pictures, yet they were aware of them. This is evident from the Cubist-influenced mosaic that he and students completed at the Wharrie Cabmen’s Shelter, on Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead, in April 1935, where you can still admire it today while you drink your tea.

The accompanying pairs of photographs and pictures indicate how East London Group members employed the camera, astutely reorganising and simplifying untidy photographic reality into unforgettable images that become theirs and theirs alone.

The Mitford Castle, 1931 by Elwin Hawthorne

Working photograph by Elwin Hawthorne

Black & white photograph of a colour painting of The Bridge House, Tredegar Rd by Harold Steggles

Working photograph by Harold Steggles

Bow Backwater by Walter Steggles

Working photography by Walter Steggles

Black and white photograph of a coloured painting of ‘Bridge in Bow’ by Harold Steggles

Working photograph by Harold Steggles

Canonbury Grove by Elwin Hawthorne

Working photograph by Elwin Hawthorne

FROM BOW TO BIENNALE – The East London Group of Artists c. 1928-1936 – runs at the Nunnery, 181 Bow Rd, E3 2SJ until 13th July

You can read more about the East London Group

From Bow To Biennale

Elwin Hawthorne, Artist

Albert Turpin, Artist & Mayor of Bethnal Green

Phyllis Bray, Artist

Henry Silk, Artist & Basketmaker

From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group by David Buckman can be ordered direct from the publisher Francis Boutle and copies are on sale in bookshops including Brick Lane Bookshop, Broadway Books, Newham Bookshop, Stoke Newington Bookshop, London Review Bookshop, Town House, Daunt Books, Foyles, Hatchards and Tate Bookshop.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    May 11, 2014

    Shows the murk air & the dirt that was so prevalent, even during my early childhood ( I was born in 1946) – all swept away by the clean Air Acts & the improvements n industrial/workplace safety.

  2. May 11, 2014

    Interesting article, my grandfather Cecil Osborne was also a prominent member of the East London Group and we found many glass plate negatives he had taken, and many b/w prints made by himself. His early painting work featured unusual viewpoints and perspectives – candid elements that perhaps reflect the interest in photography.

  3. Vicky permalink
    May 11, 2014

    I thoroughly enjoyed the show which is beautifully hung in a lovely gallery, with a bonus of delightful small garden alongside and park behind. There are some corking pictures amongst them, a sell out show if they were for sale.

  4. May 11, 2014

    Fascinating, thanks

  5. May 11, 2014

    Very interesting to see the photos with the paintings. Valerie

  6. May 11, 2014

    A special and interesting briefing in Art History.

    Love & Peace

  7. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 11, 2014

    Interesting, we, as students, were taught photography and painting as two distinct and separate subjects, and I still subscribe to this view, but I guess that photography can be used to effect in urban landscapes, although I doubt if the same applies to rural scenes. Clouds, in my view, should always be sketched. But, individual artists should always be encouraged to break the rules as I am pleased to see this group of artists did. My father’s cousin, Ernest Greenwood, a Kent artist, broke all the rules of watercolour painting and produced the most beautiful luminous paintings which were regularly exhibited at the Bankside Gallery.

  8. Norman Cumming permalink
    October 23, 2014

    Sorry to come at you from out of the blue, but I’ve just completely accidentally come across your address.
    Having retired from a career in graphic design I am disposing of a Halco Copiscanner projector, and wondered if it might be of interest to anybody within your group.
    The machine, taking up roughly the space of a small upright fridge/freezer when the hood is raised, offers the facility to trace images from original drawings, photographs etc., onto thin paper, enlarged or reduced up to about four-and-a-half times linear.
    I’d prefer it to go to somebody who would use it, rather than the local tip, so it’s available for free to anybody willing to collect it from Dollis Hill, London NW2.
    If anyone is interested, send me an email or telephone 020 8452 5669 and I’ll supply full details.
    If not, please just ignore this and accept my apologies for bothering you.
    Norman Cumming

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