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Henry Silk At Abbott & Holder

January 13, 2018
by the gentle author

Join me for the opening of Henry Silk & East End Vernacular at 6pm next Thursday 18th January at Abbott & Holder in Museum St, Bloomsbury, to view a room of watercolours from the thirties by Henry Silk that have never been exhibited before. These are complemented by a room I have curated of paintings from my book East End Vernacular, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century. Below you can read my profile of Henry Silk, a favourite artist of mine.

St James’ Rd, Old Ford

The earliest knowledge we have of Henry Silk (1883-1948) as an artist is that he was already sketching while serving in the First World War, when he would draw on whatever came to hand. Born on Christmas Day 1883, Henry worked for his uncle, Abraham Silk at his workshop in the Bow Rd making fruit baskets that were in great demand by porters, costermongers and greengrocers.

“He was a kind-hearted man who always looked older than his years. He was, I think, affected by his horrendous experiences in the First World War,” recalled fellow artist Walter Steggles fondly, “He used to work for three weeks at basket-making and spend the fourth in the pub.”

Of the various artists who were to form the East London Group, Henry Silk’s work was the most personal, executed in a plain style that often resolved forms into flat areas of colour. Yet a close examination of these paintings reveals close attention paid to the relative proportions of the separate elements of the composition, which were brought to vivid life by dramatic choices of colour. The consummate nature of this distinctive poetic vision suggests it was evolved by an artist working in isolation.

In fact, Henry had already been painting for many years when he attended classes at the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute and exhibited in the Art Club’s debut show at the Bethnal Green Museum in 1924. Reporting on their 1927 exhibition, the Daily Chronicle highlighted Henry’s paintings which depicted “Zeppelins and were bought by an officer ‘for a bob.’”

Henry was a prolific artist who contributed several works to the East London Art Club show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1928, remained a significant exhibitor in all the East London Group shows over subsequent years, as well as showing paintings with the Toynbee Art Club and at Thomas Agnew & Sons. Works were purchased by Joseph Duveen and Charles Aitken, Director of the Tate Gallery. Henry’s talent was quickly recognised as far away as the United States and when the second East London Group show was held at the Lefevre Galleries in December 1930, the Daily Telegraph revealed that, in addition to home purchases, the Public Gallery of Toledo, Ohio bought his Still Life for six guineas.

The following year saw Henry’s debut solo show at Walter Bull & Sanders Ltd in Cork St, Mayfair. This small exhibition of twenty-three watercolours was characterised by luminous still lifes and interiors, reflecting Henry’s bachelor existence lodging in his sister’s family home in Rounton Rd, Bow.

The green interior of Henry’s sparsely furnished room and the view over the tracks from the rear of this dwelling, situated at the junction of three different railway lines, served as the inspiration for many of his pictures. In 1928, a writer for the Studio observed that he often saw “a perfect design from an unusual angle, and he has a Van Goghian love of chairs and all simple things.”

Suggesting that these works were entirely consistent with a modest nature, Lilian Leahy who married Henry’s nephew Elwin Hawthorne recalled he was “generous to others but mean to himself. He would use an old canvas if someone gave it to him rather than buy a new one.”

Henry continued to show his work, even after the East London Group held its final show at the Lefevre Galleries in 1936, until his death at sixty-four in 1948.

At Henry Silk’s Uncle Abraham’s basket shop in Bow

Henry Silk at his room in Rounton Rd, Bow

Thorpe Bay

Old Houses, Bow (Walter Steggles Bequest)

My Lady Nicotine

Snow (Walter Steggles Bequest)

Still Life (Walter Steggles Bequest)

Basket Makers (Courtesy of Dorian Osborne)

Boots, Polish and Brushes

The Bedroom

Bedside chair (Courtesy of Dorian Osborne)

Hat on table, 1932 (courtesy of Doncaster Museum)

Henry Silk and his sister


If you would like to attend my gallery talk on Thursday 25th January, please call 020 7637 3981 for further information.

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East End Vernacular At Abbott & Holder

5 Responses leave one →
  1. January 13, 2018

    Charming domestic paintings. Art at its best

  2. Helen Breen permalink
    January 13, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the great Henry Silk retrospective for those of us not in London this winter.

    Particularly liked “Hat on the Table” – his world with the city in the distance through the window; “Boots, Polish, and Brushes”; the variety of small still life paintings of everyday objects.

    Good luck with the show…

  3. January 13, 2018

    Lovely and inspiring work.

    The long narrow paintings are an unusual format but one he used quite often, it seems. Do you know of any particular reason for the choice?

  4. Haydn Spicer permalink
    January 14, 2018

    Is the opening on Thursday 18th at 6pm” invitation only” or can we just turn up (There are two of us). Many thanks, Haydn.

  5. the gentle author permalink*
    January 14, 2018

    All are welcome! Just come along…

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