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Elwin Hawthorne, Painter

March 30, 2021
by the gentle author

In celebration of spring, we are having a sale with all titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop at half price. Enter ‘SPRING’ at checkout to claim your discount.


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Elwin Hawthorne’s paintings are featured in EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who Painted London’s East End Streets in the 20th Century streets which is included in the sale

Trinity Almshouses, Mile End Rd, 1935

Elwin Hawthorne (1905–54) was the nephew of the artist Henry Silk, with whom the family of six shared a small house in Rounton Road, Bow. When Elwin left school at the age of fourteen he worked as an errand boy, yet he developed an interest in painting. He worked in the bedroom he shared with his two brothers, even though his mother declared she “expected something better for him than to spend so much time on artwork.”

Evening art classes brought Elwin under the influence of John Cooper, who recognised his talent and included fourteen pictures by the young artist in the East London Art Club exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1928, which led to two paintings being hung in the Tate.

In the Daily Mail, Elwin confessed “One is under a handicap working in a cottage without any sort of studio conditions, but I have tried to interpret the sort of life I understand.” Fellow artist, Cecil Osborne was the first to suggest that the ‘Sunday morning look’ of sparsely populated streets imparted a surreal atmosphere to Elwin’s paintings, yet he was always uneasy with figures.

Elwin’s surname acquired an ‘e’ at the Whitechapel Gallery and, when he took part in the East London Group show at the Lefevre Galleries, his attempt to correct this drew short shrift from one of the directors, who insisted “For goodness sake, don’t change it now!” Previously, Elwin painted on cleaning cloths that he bought at Woolworths for sixpence but income from sales permitted him to spend money on better paints and canvas.

After meeting Walter Sickert, Elwin signed up for weekly art classes for £20 a year at the grand old man’s studio in Highbury Fields. This led to him becoming Sickert’s studio assistant, squaring up images onto canvas and even laying the colours on in some cases. Elwin’s work for Sickert mirrored his own practice of basing paintings upon photographs squared up onto canvas.

In 1930, Elwin signed a contract with the Lefevre for a monthly retainer of eight pounds. Thus, in his mid-twenties, Elwin Hawthorne with an ‘e’ became the first of the East London Group to call himself a professional artist. His debut solo show in 1934 coincided with one by Vanessa Bell with a foreword by Virginia Woolf in the catalogue. Largely, the comparison was to Elwin’s advantage, as the Sunday Referee wrote, “Mrs Woolf ’s mystical flutings on the theme of her sister’s paintings simply bewilder,” while proposing, “In Mr Elwin Hawthorne, we have an outstanding, possibly great artist in the making.”

Elwin’s apogee came when one of his paintings was hung in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1933. The outcome of this success was that Elwin was able to marry fellow artist, Lilian Leahy, and move to a comfortable suburban house in Dagenham in 1937.

The Second World War ended Elwin’s exhibiting career. He worked for Air Raid Precautions and St John’s Ambulance but, after dragging injured children from an Anderson Shelter that had been bombed and performing a leg amputation, he could no longer continue. Conscripted into the army, Elwin was quickly released as being temperamentally unsuited.

After the war, Lefevre refused to renew Elwin’s contract, suggesting he take a job instead. So he became a wages clerk at Plessey in Dagenham, leaving at seven-thirty each morning and then teaching art in schools part-time, returning home at eleven each night. Before long, Elwin began to suffer from headaches and doubt the value of his work as a painter.

In 1953, he used his painting Almshouses, Mile End Road as a shelf in the coal bunker. After his death, Lilian rescued Elwin’s painting, filling in the screw holes with wood filler and painting over the damage.

Cumberland Market, 1931 (Private collection)

Grove Park Rd W4, 1935 (Private collection)

Whipps Cross, 1933 (Gabriel Summers)

The Mitford Castle, 1931 (Private collection)

Bow Rd, 1931

Victoria Memorial Buckingham Palace, 1938 (Private collection)

Demolition of Bow Brewery, 1931 (Private collection)

The Guardian Angels, 1931 (Louise Kosman, Edinburgh

Ilfracombe, c.1931 (Private collection) – discovered rolled up in the coal bunker

Elwin Hawthorne with his painting of the Bryant & May Factory, 1929

Walter and Harold Steggles, Lilian and Elwin Hawthorne (right), c.1937 (Walter Steggles Bequest)

Click here to buy a copy of EAST END VERNACULAR at half price

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    March 30, 2021

    To my eyes, accomplished and beautiful.
    He died far too young as many did.
    A sad loss of a great talent.
    That’s the London sky as I imagine it was.

  2. March 31, 2021

    My copy of EAST END VERNACULAR arrived on Monday and it’s beautifully produced (in Italy) …I particularly like the ‘artists canvas’ textured surface of the hard-covers….I think the crossover between the blog-page extracts spot-lighting single artists and the printed ‘hard-copy’ is working surprisingly well

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