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John Allin, Painter

February 15, 2021
by the gentle author

All titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop are half price in our Valentine’s sale. Some are already sold out and others are running low, so – with weeks of lockdown yet to come – this is the ideal opportunity to complete your collection.

Enter the code VALENTINE at checkout to claim your discount.


Today I present the paintings of John Allin who is featured in EAST END VERNACULAR, ARTISTS WHO PAINTED LONDON’S EAST END STREETS IN THE 20TH CENTURY which is included in the sale

Gun St, Spitalfields

John Allin (1934-1991) took to painting while serving a six month prison sentence for receiving some stolen shirts and achieved considerable success in the sixties and seventies with his vivid intricate pictures recalling the East End of his childhood. There is a dreamlike quality to these visions in sharp focus of an emotionalised cityscape, created at a time when the Jewish people were leaving to seek better housing in the suburbs and their culture was fading from those streets which had once been its home.

Returning from National Service in the Merchant Navy, Allin worked in the parks department planting trees, later as a swimming pool attendant and then as a long distance lorry driver – all before his conviction and imprisonment. After discovering his artistic talent, he devoted himself to painting and won attention with his first exhibition in 1969 at the Portal Gallery, specialising in primitive and outsider art. In 1974, he collaborated with Arnold Wesker on a book of reminiscence, “Say Goodbye: You may never see them again” in which he reveals an equivocation about the East End. “I saw it as a place where people lived, earned their living, grew up, moved on … they had dignity … I like painting the past with dignity…” he said in an interview with Wesker, “but what they’ve done to the East End is diabolical! They’ve scuppered it, built and built and torn down and torn out and took lots of identity away and made it into just a concrete nothing… But people go on, don’t they? Eating their eels and giving their custom where they’ve always given their custom … Funny how people can go on and take anything and everything.”

Like Joe Orton in the theatre, Allin’s reputation as an ex-con fuelled his reputation in newspapers and on television but he found there was a price to pay, as he revealed to Wesker, “You know how I started painting don’t you? In prison! Well, when I come out the kids at school give my kid a rough time … the silly bloody journalists didn’t help. ‘Jail-bird becomes painter!’ You’d’ve thought I’d done God knows what … I mean the neighbours used to say things like ‘Look at ‘im! Jail-bird and he’s on telly! Ought to be sent back inside the nick!’ I was the oddity in the district, the lazy fat bastard that paints. Give me a half a chance and I’d move mate.” In fact, Allin joined Gerry Cottle’s Circus, touring as a handyman to create another book, “John Allin’s Circus Life” in 1982.

Although he was the first British recipient of the international Prix Suisse de Peinture Naive award in 1979, the categorisation of Outsider or Primitive artist is no longer adequate to apply to John Allin. More than twenty years after his death, his charismatic paintings deserve to be recognised as sophisticated works which communicate an entire social world through an unapologetically personal and emotionally charged visual vocabulary.

Spitalfields Market, Brushfield St.

Great Synagogue, Brick Lane.

Jewish Soup Kitchen, Brune St.

Christ Church School, Brick Lane.

Heneage St and Brick Lane.

Rothschild Dwellings, Spitalfields.

Whitechapel Rd.

Christ Church Park, Commmercial St.


Wentworth St.

Fashion St with gramophone man in the foreground..

Churchill Walk.

Young Communist League rally, corner of Brick Lane and Old Montague St.

Hessel St.

Snow Scene.

Anti-Fascist Rally at Gardiners’ Corner, 1936.

Cole’s Chicken Shop, Cobb St.

Factory Workers

Paintings copyright © Estate of John Allin

Take a look at some of the other artists featured in East End Vernacular

Pearl Binder, Artist

Roland Collins, Artist

Anthony Eyton, Artist

Doreen Fletcher, Artist

Elwin Hawthorn, Artist

Rose Henriques, Artist

Dan Jones,  Artist

Jock McFadyen, Artist

Cyril Mann, Artist

Henry Silk, Artist

Albert Turpin, Artist

Click here to order a copy of EAST END VERNACULAR for half price

10 Responses leave one →
  1. February 15, 2021

    Wonderful paintings by an artist who loved his subject.

    My copy of EAST END VERNACULAR is due to arrive shortly. I am so looking forward to that!

  2. Pauline Taylor permalink
    February 15, 2021

    I like these there is a fresh, naive quality that I find very appealing.

  3. Adele Lester permalink
    February 15, 2021

    Still my favorite ‘modern day’ painter. Long missed in the East End art world.

  4. February 15, 2021

    This artist puts so much emotion into his work — the way the buildings tilt and expand, as if they are eager to tell stories.

    “Wentworth Street” perfectly captures how we feel when we see another home/life, surrounded by a window frame. The illuminated silent tableaus are so intriguing — it’s hard to look away.

    Remarkable images.

  5. February 15, 2021

    John Allin’s work is very fine indeed.
    His feelings about what has happened in the East End echo my own.
    I love my copy of East End Vernacular…..wonderfully produced and I love the feel of the ‘artist’s canvas’ cover GA!

  6. Derek Bailey permalink
    February 15, 2021

    We lived in a two-room apartment in Umberston Street, the next street over from Hessel Street in the late 1940’s. Have fond memories of the Hessel Street market on Sunday mornings and being sent by my mother to buy fresh bagels from there. 😉

  7. Cherub permalink
    February 16, 2021

    I left London for good in 2004 and I don’t generally miss it. However, I look at these and miss Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane. I bought a painting for my husband’s 40th birthday from an artist in the market and 20 years later it’s hanging in our bedroom in Switzerland.

  8. John Grimsey permalink
    February 25, 2021

    Samuel Stores brings back memories. We knew it as ”Jacks” after the man that ran it. Our Primary School, St JosephsRC, was on the opposite side of the road, to the right. We would pour into Jacks both before and after school for sweets, picture cards and drinks. He did a roaring trade.

    I think he was there for a few years, even afer St Josephs closed in the early 1970’s.

  9. David ayres permalink
    June 12, 2021

    The East End was an amazing place in the 1960s many of the buildings that should have been listed for example old Montague Street .fortunately our building 88 Whitechapel High Street is still in tact I really enjoy John‘s work and it’s sad that we lost him at such an early age I wonder if anyone has any information on an original picture I have by John it shows in in a greengrocers shop serving a young couple with a baby In a pram and a Dalmatian dog John is holding a huge marrowThe picture is signed and dated 1972 with a slogan on the wall saying eat more fruit if anyone has any information about this picture please let me know thank you
    David Ayres

  10. Conor melody permalink
    June 8, 2023

    I have a John allin print londons burning would like to know more about it.

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