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Harry T. Harmer, Artist

July 24, 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

St Botolph’s Without Aldgate, 1963

The facts of the life of Harry T. Harmer (1927-2013) are scarce yet his distinctive paintings speak eloquently of his personal vision. Born in Kennington, Harry was afflicted with epilepsy and married his wife Ruby when they were both in their adolescence. Ruby offered Harry emotional support in the face of a father who did not recognise his disorder and the couple enjoyed a marriage that lasted through eight decades.

Disqualified from military service, Harry worked in the parks department and, possessing a strong sense of justice, he fought for the rights of fellow workers through many years as a union representative. In the mid-fifties, Harry discovered an ability to draw and paint, travelling around Kennington and north of the river to the East End, making sketches of places that embodied the living city he knew intimately.

Harry had his first exhibition in 1963 and continued to paint and show his works for the rest of his life. Although sometimes described as a naive artist, it is obvious that the sensibility behind Harry’s painting is far from unsophisticated. His compelling pictures are concerned with more than straightforward representation of places, offering instead emotional landscapes of the lives of working people rendered in his own individual style.

Ruby keeps Harry’s treasured copy of the drawings of L. S. Lowry in two volumes as a token of his major artistic influence. Yet Harry forged a visual language of his own, placing his curious bird-like figures strategically within a delicately painted streetscape that appears on the point of dissolving.

For most of their married life, Harry and Ruby Harmer occupied a council flat in a dignified Victorian terrace in Kennington, where Ruby lives today tending to an appealingly unkempt garden and a posse of neighbourhood cats. In the back room overlooking the garden where Harry did his paintings, his small formica topped work table still stands by the window where now a box of his ashes sits beside a bunch of fresh flowers that Ruby changes each week. The popularity of Harry’s works means that Ruby is the devoted custodian of just a few of her husband’s paintings, and a suitcase of his pencil sketches, press cuttings and exhibition catalogues.

Wellclose Sq, 1962

St Katharine’s Way, 1962

Cable St, 1962

Harry T. Harmer, 2009

Paintings copyright © Ruby Harmer

Published courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

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

Grace Oscroft, Artist

Peri Parkes, Artist

Henry Silk, Artist

Albert Turpin, Artist

7 Responses leave one →
  1. July 24, 2017

    Well done Harry; you have signed and dated your pics that’s as it should be, that’s what I say. That’s important for the art historian who needs that info. I also say that can bring added value sometimes to a pic. What you get from East Ender Harry is just a basic pic no flourishes with nicely spaced people. This artist was a working class chap who enjoyed his art with his own painting mind set. I think it was Ruby who made him into an art champion and Harry deservers his place in the forthcoming art book. What’s important about this book, one will see a multitude of styles and techniques, for many it will be a breath-taking experience I am sure. Poet John

  2. Helen Breen permalink
    July 24, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the delightful selection of Harry Harmer’s works. Whimsical, yet most include an older man with a cane, maybe channeling his own disability. His illness was not that well understood in his day so I am glad that Harry had such a supportive wife who obviously contributed to his artistic success.

  3. July 24, 2017

    Stating the obvious, this forthcoming book will mean so much more to all of us who have read these various postings about the life stories of the artists. So many discoveries! – Both the artwork, and the personal histories. This book is going to be a rare and savory banquet.
    Many thanks to the GA for recognizing this remarkable group of artists — So glad that Harry
    is included in the mix. He had a singular ability to chronicle his surroundings, and I loved the direct emotional power of his paintings.

  4. pauline taylor permalink
    July 24, 2017

    Harry was obviously a brave man, and you can see just how much pleasure he derived from painting, and to me that is just as it should be. Congratulations to Ruby for being such a devoted and caring wife.

  5. John Bailey permalink
    September 10, 2017

    Great character and art work. Looks like a Lowery of the south.

  6. Harry permalink
    March 19, 2018

    Thanks for the perceptive description of my late father’s life and painting. I regret to say that Ruby died on 28 February 2018.

  7. March 19, 2021

    my self and my cousin own three of harry’s paintings on side plates, one featuring the salvation army playing in walcot square just around the corner from where he lived. they feature his signature of a small boy in a red jumper and brown shorts., when ever you meet him be it in the street or at the salvation army or about, always a hello and how are you were exchanged. a lovely couple.

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