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Harry T. Harmer, Painter

March 23, 2021
by the gentle author

Spring begins in the northern hemisphere this week. In celebration, we are having a SPRING SALE with all titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop at half price. Enter ‘SPRING’ at checkout to claim your discount.


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Harry T. Harmer’s paintings are featured EAST END VERNACULAR, ARTISTS WHO PAINTED LONDON’S EAST END STREETS IN THE 20Th CENTURY which is included in the sale

St Botolph’s Without Aldgate, 1963

The facts of the life of Harry T. Harmer (1927-2013) are scarce yet his distinctive paintings speak eloquently of his personal vision. Born in Kennington, Harry was afflicted with epilepsy and married his wife Ruby when they were both in their adolescence. Ruby offered Harry emotional support in the face of a father who did not recognise his disorder and the couple enjoyed a marriage that lasted through eight decades.

Disqualified from military service, Harry worked in the parks department and, possessing a strong sense of justice, he fought for the rights of fellow workers through many years as a union representative. In the mid-fifties, Harry discovered an ability to draw and paint, travelling around Kennington and north of the river to the East End, making sketches of places that embodied the living city he knew intimately.

Harry had his first exhibition in 1963 and continued to paint and show his works for the rest of his life. Although sometimes described as a naive artist, it is obvious that the sensibility behind Harry’s painting is far from unsophisticated. His compelling pictures are concerned with more than straightforward representation of places, offering instead emotional landscapes of the lives of working people rendered in his own individual style.

Ruby keeps Harry’s treasured copy of the drawings of L. S. Lowry in two volumes as a token of his major artistic influence. Yet Harry forged a visual language of his own, placing his curious bird-like figures strategically within a delicately painted streetscape that appears on the point of dissolving.

For most of their married life, Harry and Ruby Harmer occupied a council flat in a dignified Victorian terrace in Kennington, where Ruby lives today tending to an appealingly unkempt garden and a posse of neighbourhood cats. In the back room overlooking the garden where Harry did his paintings, his small formica topped work table still stands by the window where now a box of his ashes sits beside a bunch of fresh flowers that Ruby changes each week. The popularity of Harry’s works means that Ruby is the devoted custodian of just a few of her husband’s paintings, and a suitcase of his pencil sketches, press cuttings and exhibition catalogues.

Wellclose Sq, 1962

St Katharine’s Way, 1962

Cable St, 1962

Harry T. Harmer, 2009

Paintings copyright © Ruby Harmer

Published courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

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

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

6 Responses leave one →
  1. March 23, 2021

    Great book, nice drawings

  2. March 23, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, oh, I just love that first painting St Botolph’s Without Aldgate, 1963 that you have featured before on this site. It reminds me of my own church going days as a child, particularly during Lent.

    So glad to know that he enjoyed his wife Ruby’s support through life despite his illness. Great story.

  3. March 23, 2021

    Very nice. I am pleased to note that Mr Harry T. Harmer was a friend of flat caps (so am I)! Most of his painted men wear one.

    Love & Peace

  4. Pamela Traves permalink
    March 24, 2021

    Thank You for the Lovely Pictures by Harry T. Harmer. I Like them Very Much.????????

  5. March 26, 2021

    The Lowry influence is clear but these paintings have an identity of their own.
    I am wondering if that is Harry himself in the last of the paintings here?
    I am also touched by Harry and Ruby’s long marriage.

  6. Harry Harmer permalink
    October 2, 2021

    As Harry’s son, I have to say how nice the comments here are. He would have enjoyed them with the shy laugh we knew so well. Bailey: We always thought Harry had put himself as a child and what he would become as an old man in his paintings, so you’re probably right.

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