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Lawrence Gowing In Mare St

July 28, 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

Mare St, 1937

“I set to work at once on the flat roof of a furniture shop facing the corner of Dalston Lane (to the right of the picture) where my father and his father before him had his drapery business, until it failed shortly before in competition with the multiple draper down the road,” wrote Lawrence Gowing (1918-91), “I had lately helped behind the cash desk, not all dependably, at the closing-down sale… The next tenants who had failed in their turn, covered the fascia, which was inscribed in gold on brown glass, R.H. Gowing & Son, The Busy Corner.”

Painted when Lawrence was just nineteen years old, this painting embodies the moment when his artistic career took off and carried him away from the East End forever. His grandfather Robert Henry Gowing had opened the drapers’ shop at 419 Mare Street (on the far right of the painting) in the nineteenth century and lived above the business, but Lawrence’s father, Horace Gowing bought a house in Stamford Hill where he brought up his family. Lawrence was sent away to a Quaker boarding school at Colwall in Herefordshire where art teacher Maurice Feild recognised his ability and encouraged the young artist to paint landscapes in the open air.

When Lawrence returned to London after failing his school certificates, his father arranged for him to become an insurance clerk but, through an introduction by Maurice Feild to William Coldstream, Kenneth Clarke, Director of the National Gallery bought one of Lawrence’s paintings and, fortunately, this was sufficient for Lawrence’s father to permit his son to pursue a career as a painter. A photograph of the time shows him as pale faced young man in a felt hat, nicely dressed in a well cut tweed jacket and trousers, wielding a paintbrush and poised behind an easel in the open air.

William Coldstream persuaded Lawrence that, “as the existence of painting depended on people wishing for it… it should represent subjects of interest to them,” and the result was this picture of Mare Street undertaken for an exhibition of views of London at the Storran Gallery in Albany Courtyard, Piccadilly in 1938. Lawrence adopted the broad perspective to which he had become accustomed in painting rural landscapes and employed the technique that Maurice Feild taught him, of cutting a rectangular frame from a cigarette packet and looking through it to establish a composition. Subsequently, when the work was shown three years later at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford as part of an exhibition of paintings by the Euston Road Group, the critic Clive Bell acclaimed it as “the surprise of a surprising exhibition.”

In later years, Lawrence revealed an ambivalence about the picture. “My own purpose was not elegant,” he wrote, ”I privately thought of the subdued but respectful manner in which I painted as in some way identifying with people deprived of the fruits of their labour, among whom I should have counted the entire population of Hackney. I think a debonair, failed draper-master was regarded as more laudable than a successful one, but I took my father no more seriously, alas, than most sons.”

Irrespective of Lawrence’s questioning of his own artistic motives in retrospect, his choice of subject matter, painting a location that was familiar to him in childhood and of major significance for his father and grandfather, memorialised his own family history. The picture counterbalances a sense of departure with a private elegy for the lives of previous generations. Yet the irony is that it was the closure of the Gowing family drapery business which granted Lawrence the opportunity to leave and seek an artistic career instead.

Mare St today

419 Mare St, formerly R.H. Gowing & Son, The Busy Corner

Lawrence Gowing’s painting reproduced courtesy of Jonathan Clarke Fine Art

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

Harry T. Harmer, 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

Harold & Walter Steggles, Artists

Albert Turpin, Artist

3 Responses leave one →
  1. July 28, 2017

    Wonderful painting, and good to see that Mare Street is still very recognisable. Valerie

  2. July 28, 2017

    I like everything about this pic the mystical appearance the spacing of the people its uncluttered. Poet John

  3. July 28, 2017

    Is this not the Sir Lawrence Gowing RA, sometime Principal of the Slade?

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