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John Allin, Artist

June 23, 2017
by the gentle author

In the eleventh of my series of profiles of artists featured in EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October, I present John Allin’s paintings. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

Gun St, Spitalfields

John Allin (1934-1991) began painting while serving a six month prison sentence for minor theft, and achieved considerable success in the sixties and seventies with his vivid intricate pictures recalling the East End of his childhood. There is a dreamlike quality to these visions in sharp focus of an emotionalised cityscape, created at a time when the Jewish people were leaving to seek better housing in the suburbs and their culture was fading from those streets which had once been its home.

Returning from National Service in the Merchant Navy, Allin worked in the parks department planting trees, later as a swimming pool attendant and then as a long distance lorry driver – all before his conviction and imprisonment. After discovering his artistic talent, he devoted himself to painting and won attention with his first exhibition in 1969 at the Portal Gallery, specialising in primitive and outsider art. In 1974, he collaborated with Arnold Wesker on a book of reminiscence, “Say Goodbye: You may never see them again” in which he reveals an equivocation about the East End. “I saw it as a place where people lived, earned their living, grew up, moved on … they had dignity … I like painting the past with dignity…” he said in an interview with Wesker, “but what they’ve done to the East End is diabolical! They’ve scuppered it, built and built and torn down and torn out and took lots of identity away and made it into just a concrete nothing… But people go on, don’t they? Eating their eels and giving their custom where they’ve always given their custom … Funny how people can go on and take anything and everything.”

Like Joe Orton in the theatre, Allin’s reputation as an ex-con fuelled his reputation in newspapers and on television but he found there was a price to pay, as he revealed to Wesker, “You know how I started painting don’t you? In prison! Well, when I come out the kids at school give my kid a rough time … the silly bloody journalists didn’t help. ‘Jail-bird becomes painter!’ You’d’ve thought I’d done God knows what … I mean the neighbours used to say things like ‘Look at ‘im! Jail-bird and he’s on telly! Ought to be sent back inside the nick!’ I was the oddity in the district, the lazy fat bastard that paints. Give me a half a chance and I’d move mate.” In fact, Allin joined Gerry Cottle’s Circus, touring as a handyman to create another book, “John Allin’s Circus Life” in 1982.

Although he was the first British recipient of the international Prix Suisse de Peinture Naive award in 1979, the categorisation of Outsider or Primitive artist is no longer adequate to apply to John Allin. More than twenty years after his death, his charismatic paintings deserve to be recognised as sophisticated works which communicate an entire social world through an unapologetically personal and emotionally charged visual vocabulary.

Spitalfields Market, Brushfield St.

Great Synagogue, Brick Lane.

Jewish Soup Kitchen, Brune St.

Christ Church School, Brick Lane.

Heneage St and Brick Lane.

Rothschild Dwellings, Spitalfields.

Whitechapel Rd.

Christ Church Park, Commmercial St.

Wentworth St.

Fashion St with gramophone man in the foreground..

Churchill Walk.

Young Communist League rally, corner of Brick Lane and Old Montague St.

Hessel St.

Snow Scene.

Anti-Fascist Rally at Gardiners’ Corner, 1936.

Cole’s Chicken Shop, Cobb St.

Factory Workers

10 Responses leave one →
  1. June 23, 2017

    Lovely work,what I thought was strange was; all those streets and not one lamppost to be seen, one of my fondest memories of growing up in London in the 40’s is the lampposts

  2. Paul Godier permalink
    June 23, 2017

    I like your subtle tip o’the hat, misspelling Commercial, just as John does in his painting!

  3. June fox permalink
    June 23, 2017

    I had never heard of John Allin but ne is now my favourite artist! I could look at his work for hours! Are there any books of his paintings do you know?

  4. June 23, 2017

    Johns art deserves top billing we do not know how big his canvases were. They are colourful with good crowd scenes, I like good brick work (how did he do that) and the façade of Hessel St. He recorded East End life to perfection he included Jewish people all part of the Brick Lane immigrant scene that was nice. No RA nonsense here his heart was full of art, this artistic soul was on fire he gave his public perfection which will last for all time. Now his work will get full acclaim again. It has been said Johns artistic life started in prison ?did he have lessons as part of his rehabilitation not sure about that. He was only a short term man, perhaps he painted to relieve boredom and had a hypothetic Wing-Man. We do not see his early prison pics here (if any) did he have a mentor all through life. Poet John PS – its the best presentation yet by Friederike & GA

  5. June 23, 2017

    I love these paintings, you can feel the builders’ pride in their bricklaying, and then the figures bring it all to life. It all looks so fresh and new, thanks for these artist blogs.

  6. June 24, 2017

    To answer June Fox, above: Some of these images are included in Allin’s book, ‘Say Goodbye: You May Never See Them Again’, which also features reminiscences of the East End by the playwright Arnold Wesker. Published by Jonathan Cape in 1974; secondhand copies are widely available on the web.

  7. nicholas borden permalink
    June 24, 2017

    Really interesting to see and read

  8. Yvonne Cheyney permalink
    June 26, 2017

    Wonderful pictures of the area I grew up in from age 10-18 way back in the 50’s. I was visiting in June, 2017 and came across many of the areas in these wonderful paintings. Thank you so much. Bring back memories. My mother, who died in 2011 at age 103, was born in the area of Brune Street and would have loved these pictures.

  9. Leland Lewis permalink
    June 30, 2020

    I am very fond of John Allin’s painting of Whitechapel Road showing the entrance to Black Lion Yard, with Steingold’s Jewellers on the corner.
    Is this painting on display to be viewed? If so, where?
    Also are prints of it available?
    Thank you and kind regards
    Leland Lewis

  10. August 10, 2020


    I have a few John Allin prints available, both signed and unsigned proofs, from the collection of the printer.

    Stepney Streets, 1975 (paper 56 x 76 cm)
    Curly’s Cafe
    Petticoat Lane
    Heneage St
    Gardiner’s Corner
    Spitalfield’s Fruit Exchange

    Wentworth St, 1974, edition 650, paper 49 x 72 cm
    Say Goodbye, 1975, edition 500, paper 53 x 73 cm

    My email is if anyone would like further details.

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