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Three Paintings By John Allin

July 17, 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. Click here to preorder your copy

Schoolyard, 1968 (Click to enlarge this image)

I thought you might like to see these three fascinating paintings by John Allin (1934-1991) which have just come to light recently and which will be displayed at Townhouse gallery in Spitalfields in October, when East End Vernacular is published. All are dated 1968, yet there is wide divergence of styles between these pictures. The painting of an East End laundry with customers delivering their sacks of dirty washing is characteristic John Allin territory, but the paintings of the schoolyard and the park stray into a different, more painterly realm.

John Allin is celebrated for his paintings of familiar East End streets, yet he also portrayed imaginary scenes that dramatised states of being, such as the school yard which resembles a prison yard above. These emotive, less literal pictures are painted in a freer style, suggesting that there is a greater complexity and creative depth to the work of John Allin than is commonly assumed, when the appreciation of his painting is burdened with the reductive label of ‘primitive’ or ‘outsider’ art.

Recently, as part of my research for East End Vernacular, I travelled up to Walthamstow to meet John Allin’s mentor, the artist Sotirakis Charalambou, who remembered his former friend and colleague with great affection, and spoke about the particular struggles encountered by an artist from the East End half a century ago.

“In the East End at that time, there were not many of us who were doing ‘alternative’ things and so we gravitated to each other. We came together on the street. I met John and we became fast friends. He had just got out of prison but it was not for theft, as is generally believed, it was for receiving. John had begun to paint in prison and wanted to continue and I encouraged him to do that. He would paint at home and then come and paint at my place. I’d wake up in the morning and he’d be painting on the wall in my bedroom. I never taught him because I don’t believe in teaching but I encouraged him, I thought he was extremely talented and it was just a question of finding the confidence in his talent. He had a great passion for painting and wanted to paint his life and his environment, and the people in the East End, and how he felt about it all.

Eventually, he thought he should show his work to a gallery, so he went along to the Portal Gallery and they were very enthusiastic. He had several show there and, for a short time, he took a studio in Space Studios at Fish Island, Hackney Wick, where I was, and he did some good work there but he was uncomfortable. He painted the studio red because he did not like the clinical white.

Success did not affect John’s personality, he was just happy that he could buy a decent car and have a bit more money. He got better at painting and, as his processes and techniques evolved, he became more ambitious with the work and was able to realise his visions more confidently. He worked very hard, I’ve got a painting he did on a plastic tablecloth because in the beginning money was a real problem. He was like Paul Gauguin, forced to paint on sackcloth!

As his technique improved, he used better materials. As you know, he used a lot of flat colour so, at first, he would use a lot of turps almost turning the oil paint into tempera which worried me because I thought the paint might fall off. But his technique improved incredibly and he began to use the oil paint more freely.

I think he was pretty angry about the way the council and the government were treating the working class, he felt very strongly about that. He was sent to prison for receiving some shirts but the reason he got such a long sentence was because he was a cockney working class kid. They were making an example of an East End lout, as they thought.

With John, I think painting was something he discovered that he could do and he could express himself, talk through his paintings about the things he enjoyed and the things that concerned him about the social and political reality that he experienced, the injustice of it. And the value of the people in the East End that he loved and admired. It was very personal. He was a warm, loving man and he loved the people he painted. He treated everybody equally and he wanted to say, ‘Here we are!’

He was a visionary artist and the fact that was not trained academically was to his advantage. He would have been completely destroyed at art school, his vision would have been crushed. He would not finish or even start a painting unless he had a very strong feeling or vision for it. He was complete in that sense. His vision was clear.

I think what happens to people who live in less privileged circumstances, if they cannot project themselves in any other way, they try to find a vehicle by which they can express themselves independently. In the East End, schools were set up so they fed local industry and the level of education was to prepare people for that. But what happens is that, if there is no outlet, people turn inwards and they might by accident come across a book of paintings or be inspired by a teacher and think, ‘Well, I can do that.’ It was an independent means of development which was out of the critical eyes of their peers or even their family, the could disappear into a room and do it independently, and it became a vehicle to grow and make association beyond the social limitations they found themselves living within.”

Park, 1968

Laundry, 1968

Paintings copyright © Estate of John Allin

Click here to see more paintings by John Allin

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

Barnett Freedman, Artist

Elwin Hawthorn, Artist

Rose Henriques, Artist

Dan Jones,  Artist

Leon Kossoff, Artist

Jock McFadyen, Artist

Cyril Mann, Artist

Peri Parkes, Artist

Henry Silk, Artist

Albert Turpin, Artist

4 Responses leave one →
  1. July 17, 2017

    John’s paintings have an astonishing clarity and precision. The views of the park and playground somehow have a rather menacing feel to them. Glad you were able to find these paintings to include in the collection. Valerie

  2. July 17, 2017

    It is evident John painted as his heart dictated his technique improving as he went along the road of life. I liked his two rare’ish big open views shown here. Perhaps it was the confines of prison (prison yard) coming out in these open space pics. Laundry pic shows us day to day running of the laundry shop !what I do like he takes us in a side-ways glance, on to the street, there is even movement here. I know there could be volumes to talk about, nice man pics. I’m out. Poet John PS – Just purchased the ebook 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields.

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    July 17, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the in depth interview with John Allin’s mentor Sotirakis Charalambou. He was wise in his observations:

    “I never taught him because I don’t believe in teaching but I encouraged him, I thought he was extremely talented and it was just a question of finding the confidence in his talent. He had a great passion for painting and wanted to paint his life and his environment, and the people in the East End, and how he felt about it all.”

    Loved the laundry scene and the many others in your April 9, 2012 retrospective. You are doing a fine job in preserving the work and stories of these many East End artists alive in your book…

  4. Adele permalink
    July 17, 2017

    Wonderful to see some new works by one of my favorite artists. And hello to his mentor Sotirakis, a friend of many years: Mark, I knew you and John Allin were friends, but never realized you were his mentor too. Very best regards, Adele

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