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Harry Harrison’s East End Portraits

February 26, 2019
by the gentle author

David – universally known as ‘Harry’ – Harrison came to Mile End in 1979 and liked it so much he has never left. An artist who became an architect, he has recently retired from his career in architecture and become an artist again.

Tom was a gentle, polite and humble soul. His patch was between Mile End Station and the Roman Road and could be found most days in that area. He told me he was fifty-three years old when I painted him in 2014.

He wore a camel coat over a sleeping bag, over a denim jacket, over a fleece, over a jumper. I last saw Tom a couple of years ago outside Mile End Station and he looked very poorly.

I would love to hear that he survives somewhere still but I fear it is unlikely. I am moved by the depth of feeling in his forlorn expression. His obviously broken nose made me wonder if he may have once been a boxer?

Andrew inhabited a similar patch to Tom and, although seen as frequently, I never saw them together or at the same time. This painting also dates from 2014 and is in Mile End Park.

Unlike Tom, there was something defiant and angry about Andrew – even when offered money he could respond abusively. Yet he did once offer my wife a swig of his White Stripe, so he was not without chivalry.

Andrew would sometimes disappear for a few weeks and re-appear with a make-over, a haircut, clean shaven and with a set of new clothes. I was told that he was once a long distance lorry driver.

I saw Angus sitting on a bench in the evening sunshine in Old Street in 2017. What attracted me, apart from his extraordinary mane and facial hair was that he had a chess set set up on the pavement in front of him.

After striking up conversation, he challenged me to a game which I accepted. I am a poor player and out of practice, and I was hoping I may have stumbled upon an out of luck chess master.

I beat him rather quickly and easily, to my great disappointment and guilt – and Angus was gracious in defeat which made it even worse.

Anyone visiting Brick Lane in recent years could not fail to notice the stylish and urbane Mick Taylor. After completing this portrait I gave it to Mandi Martin who lives by Brick Lane and was a friend of Mick’s.

Mandi volunteers at St Joseph’s Hospice. In 2017, she spent some of Mick’s last few hours talking and reminiscing with him about their shared experiences of the East End.

In 2015, I met Tim sitting on a blanket and begging outside a cash machine in Shoreditch. He seemed young, sad and vulnerable, sitting eating crisps and surrounded by plastic bags of his belongings. Tim was reluctant to talk and seemed embarrassed by his situation. I have not seen him since.

This is my portrait of Gary Arber whose former printworks in the Roman Rd is a short walk from my home. Gary’s grandparents opened the shop in 1897 and Gary ran it for sixty years after after sacrificing a career as a flying ace in the Royal Air Force in 1954.

Paintings copyright © Harry Harrison

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Gary Arber, Printer

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    February 26, 2019

    Beautiful, beautiful topic, wonderfully rendered. In pastels, no? Keep it up, just an image treasury.

  2. Dianne permalink
    February 26, 2019

    Magnificent portraits! Harry Harrison has captured not only the image of these men but their fractured souls are reflected in their eyes. I find these so emotive that I feel as if I could know the subjects. Thank you for bringing these to the attention of your readers GA.

  3. February 26, 2019

    Wonderful and expressive portraits. Valerie

  4. Delia Folkard permalink
    February 26, 2019

    Wonderful portraits and leaves me wondering about the story behind each one.

  5. Richard Smith permalink
    February 26, 2019

    Superb portraits. I enjoyed looking at them very much.

  6. February 26, 2019

    These really are beautiful portraits: they have a warm humanity to them that shines out. Thanks so much for sharing them with your readers! I hope the artist carries on with his excellent work.

  7. Jane Gadd permalink
    February 26, 2019

    Such beautiful portraits, real understanding of these men’s souls – the eyes say it all. What humanity .

  8. February 26, 2019

    Thank you both for your work in bringing these portraits to us. There are so many people living on the streets now there is a need to bring their stories to us. People are becoming too used to seeing the homeless and those who have hit the bottle for reasons we shall never know. I often have a chat to some young guys begging outside our local Aldi and now they have disappeared and have been replaced by others . Their stories were shocking in as much as the reasons they were sleeping rough seemed so trivial to me. But life has a way of making triviality serious

  9. Janice P permalink
    February 26, 2019

    What fantastic style. Where may we see more? Are there portraits of women?

  10. Gayle Thorsen permalink
    February 26, 2019

    Thanks to Harry Harrison for so empathetically immortalizing these men living on the edge. Their humanity shines through.

  11. Judy permalink
    February 26, 2019

    Brilliant portraits! He caught their souls!

  12. February 26, 2019

    Just to clarify what I mean by trivial one of the guys told me he was working the markets and had a fight with his boss and part of the market stall fell on him by accident and the boss sued him for £2000 and won and he didnt have the money to pay and found himself on the street. So £2000 is enough reason to destroy a mans life ?

  13. Sonia Murray permalink
    February 26, 2019

    Harry’s empathy shines through his portraits. There is a poignant contrast between Gary’s quiet determination and the broken faces of the helpless men one feels so sorry for. I’d love to see more of his work.

  14. Gary Arber permalink
    February 26, 2019

    I am honoured to have been the subject of one of Harrys portraits, It is fantastic he has me in such a fine detail. – Thank you Harry.

  15. February 26, 2019

    I can only echo what others have already said: wonderful humane portraits.

  16. February 26, 2019

    Absolutely beautiful portraits capturing both the man and the moment with such honesty…….where did their journeys begin and what happened in their lives that led them to roam the streets of the East End?

  17. linda trueblood lambert permalink
    February 26, 2019

    These portraits are so beautiful and reach into the heart. Are they pastels? or waterecolor (my vote). Living in America, I doubt the opportunity to view them in the near future. Are there any plans to publish? Thank you so much for including his work.

  18. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 27, 2019

    Brilliant pictures – they should be in the National Portrait Gallery! I’d be interested to know how big they are.

  19. Harry Harrison permalink
    April 18, 2019

    I’ve only just got round to seeing all these wonderful messages following a visit from the Gentle Author today.
    To answer a couple of the questions, the portraits are in oils and the canvases are 900x600mm, about half life size.
    If Gary Arber reads this, hello Gary, I hope you’re enjoying your retirement and the birds in your garden which you described to me as like a nature reserve.

  20. Christine Thomas permalink
    April 19, 2019

    Re. Jill Wilson comment: My thoughts exactly on seeing these portraits – for not only quality of artwork but as reflecting realistic aspect, however regretable, of our national
    life in 21st century Britain.

  21. April 19, 2019

    I’ve just seen the excellent Don McCullin who also displayed many homeless people in the East End. But this approach is rather different and interestingly displays people who are still homeless / neglected etc but now in the C21st and even 50 years after McCullin’s work. These interesting paintings make the situation even more depressing than the homelessness even half a century ago!
    Why don’t you publish these alongside the also engaging buildings around Clerkenwell??

  22. Adele permalink
    April 19, 2019

    Wonderful portraiture. Could look at these again and again.

  23. April 19, 2019

    Mr. Harrison is an amazing artist. Truly gifted. I looked at his previous ‘lunchtime sketches,’ and was so impressed with his quick pencil drawings, how incredibly skilled his lines were. I thought he must have studied drawing buildings (by himself or took classes). And then read he was an architect! Of course!

    And then I saw these paintings of homeless men. Painted with skill and such empathy. How he is able to touch our emotions, as described by all those who replied before me.

    I think this artist deserves to have an exhibit of his work in a national museum / gallery. And also deserves world wide acclaim!
    Kudos to you, Harry Harrison.

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