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Grace Oscroft, Artist

July 22, 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

Bryant & May Factory, Bow

The Oscroft family ran a cycle shop opposite the church in Bow and lived nearby. As the only daughter, Grace Oscroft (1903-72) was expected to keep house for her parents and three brothers upon leaving school at fourteen.

Two of Grace’s brothers were considered to have artistic talent and when, in her early twenties, she accompanied her younger brother John to classes at Bow & Bromley Institute, tutor John Cooper recognised her natural ability.

In later years, John Oscroft recalled that his sister Grace always had an inclination to draw but worked on pictures infrequently. Fellow artist Cecil Osborne offered a simple explanation for this, recalling that Grace would only ever “bring along a painting from time to time” and complained that her domestic duties granted her little opportunity for creative work.

As a consequence, Grace’s street scenes were of locations around Bow and she specialised in rooftop pictures that she could paint from the bedroom windows of the family home. In those days, Bow was heavily industrialised and John recalled that ‘the only blade of grass being in the churchyard.” Grace painted the factories and foundries that surrounded her. The most notable of these was the huge red brick Bryant & May factory that dominated Bow and it is impossible that Grace was unaware of the matchgirls’ 1888 strike which challenged the exploitative working conditions and suffering they endured from working with phosphorus

Although John did not show any pictures, remarkably Grace had five paintings in the East London Art Club exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1928 and, to further this success, her picture Garden in Bow was hung at the Tate Gallery the following year. The Evening Standard ran an article featuring Grace entitled, ‘East End Shopgirl Artists’ and the Westminster Gazette reported “Miss Oscroft, who in every day life sells bicycle parts, was surprised when she heard that Sir Joseph Duveen had bought her painting for £5 5s.” – although John denied Grace ever served in the cycle shop in Bow.

“It was my first original effort and I am greatly pleased. Mr Cooper had advised me to try something on my own,” declared Grace with understated pride. Subsequently, she contributed paintings to the East London Group shows at the Lefevere Galleries in 1930, 1931 and 1932. As evidence of Grace’s self-assurance and articulacy as an artist, Walter Steggles remembered her earning “sixpence a week pocket money by lecturing on pictures”

In 1935, the Oscrofts took over another cycle business in New Southgate. Grace lived independently there above the shop and although the family’s house in Bow was destroyed in the blitz, fortunately no-one was at home at the time.

After her brothers married and left home, Grace committed to caring for her mother who suffered with rheumatism. After the death of her mother, she took a variety of employment to support herself, as housekeeper to a doctor, despatch clerk at the Co-operative store in Edmonton and then in a glove factory. Grace remained single throughout her life, confessing in 1954, “I only ever had one sweetheart, but he was taken from me,” referring to Elwin Hawthorne who married Lilian Leahy.

She died in St Joseph’s Hospice, Hackney in 1972 and her death certificate recorded her occupation as ‘warehouse clerk (retired),’ yet the authority and accomplishment of Grace Oscroft’s few works testify to a significant artistic talent that might have discovered fuller expression in different circumstances.

Grace Oscroft (bottom left), 1929

St Clement’s Hospital, Bow

Old Houses, Bow

The same view today

Paintings copyright © Estate of Grace Oscroft

With grateful thanks to David Buckman for the use of his research

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

John Allin, Artist

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

Ronald Morgan, Artist

Peri Parkes, Artist

Henry Silk, Artist

Albert Turpin, Artist

6 Responses leave one →
  1. July 22, 2017

    Grace had an exceptional talent and it is sad that she received no acknowledgement from her family. Valerie

  2. July 22, 2017

    What will be special about GA’s new art book is bringing some of the lesser-known artists in from the cold. They have been searched out with a great deal of effort and Grace’s art will fit nicely into the overall spread of artists. Poet John

  3. Sue permalink
    July 22, 2017

    Beautiful work.
    BTW are they demolishing those beautiful windows?

  4. Jim McDermott permalink
    July 22, 2017

    It’s a terrible shame that her art and life expectations were so frustrated – even curtailed – by the fact of her gender.

  5. Ros permalink
    July 22, 2017

    Another fine artist given recognition. So looking forward to the book. That last photo’s pretty depressing though.

  6. Paul Ridgway permalink
    July 23, 2017

    Is there any way that the work of these wonderful artists could be preserved in the East End for all to see?

    Could Whitechapel Gallery be so encouraged?

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