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Lawrence Gowing’s Departure From Mare St

January 30, 2021
by the gentle author

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, 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

Click here to order a copy of East End Vernacular

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Boudica Redd permalink
    January 30, 2021

    A great story I used to visit Hackney regularly

  2. Annie S permalink
    January 30, 2021

    I have a Hackney Society postcard of the painting of Mare St!
    On the back it says Lawrence Gowing by courtesy of Shrewsbury College of Arts and Technology so presumably it is held by them now?
    Very interesting to hear the story behind his work.

  3. Molly Porter permalink
    January 30, 2021

    This is a nice feature, and I really like the work of the painter shown. This end of Mare Street is better known to local residents as Narroway, and actually today is now an attractively brick-paved pedestrianised walk & cycle way, so it’s much nicer than when it was a heavily used bus route. It’s fascinating to see that it was once a tram route. (What appears as a Pawnbrokers on the corner of Dalston Lane where the Drapers shop was is now a general low-cost household goods shop, I think – must check when I next go along there.)

    As the Gentle Author has sometimes shown, at the bottom of Narroway is St Augustine’s Tower, in the attractive grounds of St John of Hackney parish church, from the roof of which (pre and post pandemic) wonderful views of this part of central Hackney can be enjoyed when it’s open to the public.

  4. penelope gardner permalink
    January 30, 2021

    I heard him lecture at my art school during the 60’s. He had a spectacular stammer that rendered him virtually incoherant. He lectured in the dark and we were all transfixed by the steady sound of saliva splattering onto the floor.

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