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Street Scene by Barnett Freedman

July 6, 2017
by the gentle author

Today I present another extract from my new book EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October. We still need a couple more investors, so please click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

Street Scene by Barnett Freedman (Click this image to enlarge)

When I first saw Street Scene by Barnett Freedman (Reproduced courtesy of the Tate Gallery), I thought I half-recognised the location as either Whitechapel or Bethnal Green and I delighted in the painting as an evocation of the streetlife of the Jewish East End in the early twentieth century.

Surely that is The George in Bethnal Green Road in the background? In particular, the two ostentatiously dressed woman in their contrasting outfits recalled for me the custom of people to promenade along Aldgate to Whitechapel at weekends in their finery, window shopping and greeting friends, enjoying their social life in public. Indeed, Pearl Binder included a similar pair of young women togged up to the nines in one of her lithographs of Aldgate in the twenties. I also wondered if the shabby old street musician with his violin was a Russian immigrant who had arrived like Barnett Freedman’s parents at the end of the nineteenth century.

Barnett Freedman was born in Lower Chapman St, Stepney Green in 1901. A sickly child who endured extended hospital stays, he was confined to bed between the ages of nine and thirteen, yet managed to educate himself, learning to read, write, play music and draw and paint while sequestered in a hospital ward.

By the age of sixteen, Barnett was earning his living as a draughtsman to a monumental mason for a few shillings a week, while for the next five years he spent his evenings undertaking classes at St Martin’s School of Art. Before long, he moved to an architect’s office, creating attractive drawings from his employer’s rough sketches and, taking the opportunity offered by a surge in demand for the war memorials to hone his skill as a letteringh artist.

With remarkable tenacity and self-belief, Barnett applied over three successive years for a London County Council Scholarship that would enable him to study at the Royal College of Art under the direction of Sir William Rothenstein. Experiencing rejection on each occasion, Barnett summoned the courage to present his portfolio in person to Rothenstein who recognised his talent and applied to the London County Council Chief Inspector himself on behalf of the young artist. As a consequence, a stipend of £120 a year was granted, enabling Barnett to begin his studies full time in 1922.

At the Royal College of Art, Barnett’s talent flourished among fellow students including Edward Bawden, Raymond Coxon, Henry Moore, Vivian Pitchforth and John Tunnard. Yet even after graduating in 1925, he continued to struggle to support himself and in 1929, ill-health prevented him working for a year. This situation as resolved when William Rothenstein took Barnett onto the staff of the Royal College in 1930. In the same year, he married fellow illustrator, Claudia Guercio, and, during the thirties, enjoyed an increasingly  successful career as an illustrator and commercial artist.

Barnett’s lithographs for Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, published in 1931, were one of many highlights during his long association with Faber and Faber, for whom he also illustrated works by the Brontës, Walter de la Mare, Charles Dickens, Edith Sitwell, William Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy. As a commercial artist, he undertook prestigious commissions for Ealing Films, the General Post Office, Curwen Press, Shell-Mex, British Petroleum, Josiah Wedgwood and London Transport, earning popular success.

Appointed as an official War Artist, along with Edward Ardizzone and Edward Bawden, Barnett accompanied the expeditionary force in the spring of 1940 before the retreat at Dunkirk, and was awarded a CBE for this work in 1946. Yet Barnett always retained his East End accent and once, when he hailed a taxi to the Athenaeum Club, the incredulous cabbie famously retorted, “What, you?”

Street Scene was painted between 1933 and 1939, and subsequently he reworked the image as a lithograph for Lyons Corner House. Barnett’s son Vince, who was born in 1934, recalled his father working on the picture in the first floor studio of the family home in a back street of Gloucester Rd, West London. Vince revealed to me that the building on the right of the painting was based their house, 11 Canning Place. “The fiddler was to be found at the Gloucester Road end of Canning Place just about every day, and was a figure of some threat to me at the age of four!” he recalled, “The small person on the right, with his nanny Miss Wiggle, is a reference to me!”

No wonder that I was unable to place the location of this painting precisely in the East End because it is not a literal scene at all but a composite of Bethnal Green and Gloucester Road. I often wonder if the East End itself is actually a place or a culture, and this painting proposes an answer to my quandary. Barnett Freedman employed diverse topographic elements create a portrait of a society he knew intimately, constructing an entirely subjective portrayal of his environment and personal heritage. Look in the left top corner of the painting and you will see the artist raising his hat to you, ambling happily along the pavement and eternally at home in his own East End  universe. Vincent Freedman summed up his father’s achievement in these words, “A huge optimism and compassion shows itself to me in all his work and life. Humanity was his central driving force.”

The Old George in Bethnal Green

Barnett Freedman’s house at 11 Canning Place, Gloucester Rd

Barnett Freedman in Hyde Park

Take a look at some of the other artists featured in East End Vernacular

Pearl Binder, Artist

Roland Collins, Artist

Anthony Eyton, Artist

Doreen Fletcher, Artist

Elwin Hawthorn, Artist

Rose Henriques, Artist

Dan Jones,  Artist

Jock McFadyen, Artist

Cyril Mann, Artist

Peri Parkes, Artist

Henry Silk, Artist

Albert Turpin, Artist

Click here to preorder a copy of EAST END VERNACULAR for £25

3 Responses leave one →
  1. July 6, 2017

    What a wonderful painting, thanks for explaining all the fun details. Valerie

  2. July 6, 2017

    What a fascinating story about a wonderful painting, crammed with details of bustling human activity. I wonder if the Tate ever has it on show.

  3. Clare Ungerson permalink
    July 6, 2017

    There’s an excellent exhibition at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne on at the moment, entitled ‘Ravilious and Co: the pattern of friendship’ which includes work by Barnett Freedman (but not, as far as I remember, this painting). The exhibition is mainly on Eric Ravilious, but includes work by many of his artist friends, including Freedman. Thank you, Gentle Author, for reminding us about him.

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