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Grace Oscroft, Painter

March 21, 2021
by the gentle author

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Grace Oscroft is featured in EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century  which is included in the sale

Bryant & May Factory, Bow

The Oscroft family ran a cycle shop opposite the church in Bow and lived nearby. As the only daughter, Grace Oscroft (1903-72) was expected to keep house for her parents and three brothers upon leaving school at fourteen.

Two of Grace’s brothers were considered to have artistic talent and when, in her early twenties, she accompanied her younger brother John to classes at Bow & Bromley Institute, tutor John Cooper recognised her natural ability.

In later years, John Oscroft recalled that his sister Grace always had an inclination to draw but worked on pictures infrequently. Fellow artist Cecil Osborne offered a simple explanation for this, recalling that Grace would only ever “bring along a painting from time to time” and complained that her domestic duties granted her little opportunity for art work.

As a consequence, all Grace’s street scenes were of locations around Bow and she specialised in rooftop pictures that she could paint from the bedroom windows of the family home. In those days, Bow was heavily industrialised and John recalled that “the only blade of grass being in the churchyard.” Grace painted the factories and foundries that surrounded her. The most notable of these was the huge red brick Bryant & May factory that dominated Bow and it is impossible that Grace was unaware of the matchgirls’ 1888 strike which challenged the exploitative working conditions and suffering they endured from working with phosphorus

Although her brother John did not show any pictures, remarkably Grace had five paintings in the East London Art Club exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1928 and, to further this success, her picture Garden in Bow was hung at the Tate Gallery the following year. An astonishing achievement for a twenty-six year old. Yet the Evening Standard ran a patronising article featuring Grace entitled, ‘East End Shopgirl Artist’ and the Westminster Gazette reported “Miss Oscroft, who in every day life sells bicycle parts, was surprised when she heard that Sir Joseph Duveen had bought her painting for £5 5s.” In fact, John denied Grace ever served in the cycle shop in Bow.

“It was my first original effort and I am greatly pleased. Mr Cooper had advised me to try something on my own,” declared Grace with understated pride. Subsequently, she contributed paintings to the East London Group shows at the Lefevere Galleries in 1930, 1931 and 1932. As evidence of Grace’s self-assurance and articulacy as an artist, Walter Steggles remembered her earning “sixpence a week pocket money by lecturing on pictures”

In 1935, the Oscrofts took over another cycle business in New Southgate. Grace lived independently there above the shop and although the family’s house in Bow was destroyed in the blitz, fortunately no-one was at home at the time.

After her brothers married and left home, Grace committed to caring for her mother who suffered with rheumatism. After the death of her mother, she took a variety of employment to support herself, as housekeeper to a doctor, despatch clerk at the Co-operative store in Edmonton and then in a glove factory. Grace remained single throughout her life, confessing in 1954, “I only ever had one sweetheart, but he was taken from me,” referring to Elwin Hawthorne who married Lilian Leahy.

She died in St Joseph’s Hospice, Hackney in 1972 and her death certificate recorded her occupation as ‘warehouse clerk (retired),’ yet the authority and accomplishment of Grace Oscroft’s few works testify to a significant artistic talent that might have discovered fuller expression in different circumstances.

Grace Oscroft (bottom left), 1929

St Clement’s Hospital, Bow

Garden in Bow, 1929 (courtesy Hepworth Wakefield)

Iron Foundry, Bow

Old Houses, Bow

A recent photograph of the same view

Paintings copyright © Estate of Grace Oscroft

With grateful thanks to David Buckman for the use of his research

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

John Allin, Artist

Anthony Eyton, Artist

Doreen Fletcher, Artist

Barnett Freedman, Artist

Rose Henriques, Artist

Dan Jones,  Artist

Leon Kossoff, Artist

Jock McFadyen, Artist

Cyril Mann, Artist

Ronald Morgan, Artist

Peri Parkes, Artist

Henry Silk, Artist

Click here to order a copy at half price

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    March 21, 2021

    Moving paintings of great quality.
    Had she been a man, no doubt she would’ve flourished as an artist.
    The juxtaposition between Bow then and now is horrific.
    You can keep your new Londontown!

  2. Richard Smith permalink
    March 21, 2021

    I thoroughly enjoyed looking at the pictures painted by Grace Oscroft. She was certainly a talented artist with an eye for her neighbourhood. Like the other commentator I imagine that if she had been a man she would have risen to prominence. The comparison between Bow then and now is saddening I much prefer the first! Thank you GA

  3. March 21, 2021

    Fine paintings & makes me wonder what more she might have done if given deserved support & time. It makes me think again of the seemingly huge absence of East End women’s poetry in just precisely those years too : poetry never encouraged, written on scraps of paper & frail notebooks (or sung inside & never even written down) & more easily lost even than paintings. Only with the Basement Writers in 1970’s really did poets like Gladys McGee & Sally Flood find a chance to be properly listened to & respected. Their poet sisters two or three generations before almost certainly not so (I hope I’m wrong & someone will say, what about ‘…………’ & ‘………..’ !).

  4. Cherub permalink
    March 21, 2021

    These paintings have such a quality to them, you can imagine yourself walking along these lovely old streets. The photo of Bow now is quite jarring in comparison.

  5. Di Corry permalink
    March 21, 2021

    Such an amazing talent…..Grace was the ‘Cinderella’ in her household.
    She could have done so much more….
    She is one of my favourites in East End Vernacular.
    She would be horrified to see ‘Bow Neighbourhood’ now.

  6. David Wootton permalink
    March 21, 2021

    What is it with London and its lovely historic buildings. I have to view the place from afar these days but from what I witness from the internet it seems that developers will not stop until every old building is flattened. Boris did not care when he was mayor and the current one seems to be no better.

  7. March 26, 2021

    Such talent and such a poignant story of the barriers facing working class women. Grace deserves a documentary. Thank you for publicising her work.

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