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Ed Gray, Painter

July 29, 2021
by the gentle author

This is  Ed Gray sitting in his studio in Mile End, beside the canal and next to the Ragged School Museum. I found him in a large empty room with windows overlooking Mile End stadium and just three sketches on the wall for a street scene in the City of London which was his work in progress.

Ed’s visceral paintings capture the tumultuous street life of the capital superlatively, teeming with diverse characters and delighting in the multiple dramas of daily existence. Despite his mild manners, his is an epic, near-apocalyptic vision that glories in the endless struggle of humanity within the urban stew. Yet the overriding impression is not cynical but rather a life-affirming raucous celebration of the indefatigable vitality of Londoners.

“I paint people and I make art about scenes of daily life. But I do not see this kind of picture represented very much in the contemporary art world. In their view, this work is not cool, happening or sensational. Yet I find so much stimulus when I go out onto the street drawing. I could make dozens of paintings about any single location. London is such a mixture of different places, there are different energies in every place, so I do not want to stay in one place, I keep moving on.

I have been painting a lot for the last twenty years, doing figurative scenes, and I work hard to have exhibitions and find an audience for my paintings, and provoke conversations about the city. It feels like an underground thing. My shows are popular and I am lucky because my paintings sell, so that keeps me going.  It seems a shame that more artists do not go out and paint the people of the city.

It is a challenge because the city changes so quickly. If I am working on a painting for three months in my studio and then I go back out into the city, it is different place. The place I painted has changed and the people have changed too. Sometimes buildings I painted are not there anymore, even in a short space of time. It is an incredible challenge and hard to know where to begin.

I studied at art college in Wimbledon and then Cardiff, where I used to go down to the docks. It was before they regenerated them. I painted the docks and the buildings – landscapes without people. Then I got interested in the fish market in Cardiff and I painted the people there. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a fish merchant in Grimsby so I had an interest in those scenes. It took off from there and I became more and more interested in painting people, which I had always done as a kid but I had not found the confidence to paint people the way that I wanted. It took that experience to put me on that path.

I left college in 1995 and moved back to London, and I had a studio in a squat in the Elephant & Castle. I was trying to paint big oil paintings seven foot across, but I had no money so I could not afford to do it. I lasted a few years doing odd jobs and trying to keep that going. Eventually I thought, ‘I can’t do this!’ so I took a full time job working as a security guard at the Natural History Museum. I thought I would go into some kind of educational work, I had been working in a youth club in Battersea and I knew I had something I could pass on to the kids. I liked making art with them.

So, during my two years at the Natural History Museum, I would paint in the evenings just for myself. And I read all the books I was supposed to read at art college and secured my knowledge. Then I did my PGCE in art education at Exeter University and for a year I was teaching in Cornwall. When I came back to London, I realised I could teach and paint. So I taught part time at a school in Peckham for four years while painting the rest of the time. I had studio on the Old Kent Rd in a building which is no longer there. Over time, I accumulated a lot of paintings in the flat that I was sharing with friends and they said, ‘You need to do something with these pictures.’

By then, I had found a way that I wanted to work, which was based in going to a location, making direct observations with my sketch book for however many days it takes until I have soaked up the scene, before going back to my bedroom and making a paintings over a period of weeks. These were much smaller than the work I am doing now but it was keeping me going, it was an outlet for all the things I wanted to say about the city. In the nineties, there was a negativity about the city and city life, but I had just come back from Cornwall and I thought it was the most exciting place, with so much to paint.

I had all these paintings but I had no experience of galleries, so we took a car load of work around and the only place that would give me an exhibition was a little pop-up space in Brixton. I had my first solo show there in 2001 with ten paintings in it. It was amazing, loads of people came the private view and some could not even get into the building! It was real eye-opener to me that my painting was communicating something. All kinds of people came in from the street in Brixton, there was not a single demographic that came to see that show. It was a really exciting thing.

I applied for a residency in Bermuda and I got it, so I took a sabbatical from my teaching job. I had some money because I had sold a couple of paintings from my show. I had a studio in Bermuda and I had three exhibitions out there. It was the first time I was able to think entirely about making art and not having to pay my rent. It was an incredible time and I can hardly believe it happened. Afterwards, I travelled from Panama to Mexico City, making paintings and drawings. I was learning about making work on the hoof.

When I came back to London, I went back to the school and, after another year, I had another exhibition. A gallery in Camberwell gave me a show in 2003. I did ten paintings and they all sold, so I left my teaching job and concentrated on painting. Acme offered me a studio in Mile End next to the canal in 2006. I have always lived south of the river, first in Bermondsey and now Rotherhithe, so I am very familiar with those scenes and I have painted some of them. But separating where I live and really work is really important to me, coming across the river. The amount of life and lives you encounter here is more diverse in the East End. There is so much I could paint.

My picture of the Whitechapel Rd felt like a beginning for me of the paintings I could make about Whitechapel. I have so many scenes in mind. I wanted to start in the Whitechapel Rd because it is this long ancient road that comes out of the City of London. I used to cycle or walk that way to work and come through the market. I love markets, people are drawn to them and the characters are fantastic for painting. The history and the politics, the combination of the hospital and the market, and so many people from different lands that have come to work in London – for all of theses things, it is a meeting point.”

‘Lucky Tiger,’ Whitechapel Road, 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I often walk through Whitechapel Market on my way to the studio. From a cafe, I watched the men set up the cardboard boxes and I took out my pencil and I began to draw. There is no ‘Lucky Tiger’ in this painting because there is no luck here, no punter will win. The child senses this and she can see past the man’s arm which is covering the switch he is about to make.”

‘Adoration in the East,’ Mile End Tube, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration at the Lion’s Den,’ Milwall Football Club, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration at the Emirates,’ Arsenal Football Club, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration of Thomas A Becket,’ Old Kent Rd, 2016 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Liverpool St Station, 2007 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Liverpool St Station, 2007 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

St Mary Axe, 2012 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I have always painted the Gherkin when I can, I use it to navigate around the City while I am drawing. This painting is about the banking crisis that began in 2008. I sat by the Aviva building in windswept St Mary Axe and drew the faces of the brokers and bankers, the secretaries and the construction workers.”

‘Skittles,’ Blackfriars Bridge 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“For a few wintry mornings, I stood on Blackfriars Bridge in 2008 making sketches of the waves of flowing commuters. An icy wind whipped up the Thames, blowing through me. A boy crept unwillingly to school dragging a figure through the soot on the bridge and leaving his mark in defiance of the journey he had to make. He dropped a ‘Skittles’ wrapper and it occured to me that these Londoners are like skittles bracing themselves against the next blast that could topple them.”

Mile End Beginning, 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“This pair of Mile End paintings are about my working day and how inspiration arrives for me, they are both views from my studio window. ‘Beginning’ is about arriving at work for the day in the summer, I’m optimistic and full of ideas after walking from home in Rotherhithe through the streets of London.”

Mile End End, 2008 (Clickon  this painting to enlarge)

“I began ‘Mile End End’ as the nights became darker and the autumn set in. When I turned out the studio light at night, the glowing  green of the Mile End sports stadium seemed so intense that I had to paint it. I wore a head torch while I worked to capture the intensity of the light and I studied the movements of the night time characters – the addicts, the sportsmen, the fishermen and the lovers.”

Night on Mare St, Pig’s Ear Beer Festival 2010 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“At the Ocean Leisure Centre in Hackney, the faithful gathered for the annual Pig’s Ear Beer Festival, with beer and cider from every corner of the British Isles to be sampled. The painting is a celebration of this country.”

Billingsgate Porters 2005 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Rock of Eye,’ Threadneedleman Tailor, Walworth Rd 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I have had the pleasure of knowing George Dyer ever since I asked him to make my wedding suit several years ago. A Jamaican by birth with some Cuban added to the mix, young George flew to England aged five to be reunited with his family who had emigrated earlier. George is the go-to man for sharp tailoring in addition to philosophical discussions about our place in the cosmos, all of which he offers from a small shop in the Walworth Rd.”

York Hall Boxers 2011 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I spent an evening sketching in the crowd at York Hall thanks to the late great Dean Powell, manager and fight manager for the legendary Frank Warren. Dean is seated at the top of the ring. It was a successful night for him. I filled three sketchbooks, hypnotised by the rhythm of the dancing boxers and jabbing my pencil at the paper with the violence of their blows.”

‘Adoration of the Cockney Rebels,’ Bermondsey Carnival 2016 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Ed Gray at his studio in Mile End

Paintings copyright © Ed Gray

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Herry permalink
    July 29, 2021

    Fantastic paintings. A Lowry for the East End. Though I think he’s better than Lowry as his paintings are so full of interesting detail. I particularly love St Mary Axe having worked there for many years. I’ll find out where I can get a print.

  2. July 29, 2021

    Wonderful pictures with gorgeous details: the Pope in Ireland, selfie mania, lunch in the car — the daily drama, the daily apocalypse in the big city. You can also experience it in London. Perhaps especially there!

    Love & Peace

  3. Ann permalink
    July 29, 2021

    Brilliant paintings thank you for the opportunity of seeing them.

  4. Peter Hart permalink
    July 29, 2021

    Great paintings. Beautiful colours. Thank.

  5. Richard Smith permalink
    July 29, 2021

    An original and talented artist. I like his work very much.

  6. July 29, 2021

    “The man who is tired of London is tired of life”. Well. Perhaps a new phrase is needed?
    “The artist who is ALIVE to his surroundings, will accomplish great things. Plus, enrich his
    fellow citizens to the fascinations of a grand metropolis.”

    These paintings remind me of why I love cities. Magnificent!

  7. July 29, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thank you for featuring Ed Gray’s story and wonderful paintings. It’s obvious to see why his works are selling so well.

    I particularly enjoyed “Liverpool St. Station, 2007” especially the raincoat on the central figure. Also, ‘Rock of Eye,’ Threadneedleman Tailor – so many details in the tailor shop with the men
    working enthusiastically – business must be good.

    Continued success to Ed…

  8. mary permalink
    July 29, 2021

    I love Ed’s paintings, they are so full of life and colour and perfectly depict the East End. I think his use of “fish eye” perspective in some of them works very well. I spent ages pouring over the small fascinating details and particularly liked the Dolly Parton quote on the Service Information board at Mile End, “If you do not like the road you are walking on, pave another one”.
    Ed seems almost apologetic about his painting style and subjects, but I believe he should carry on with what he is doing as his work is wonderful.
    Thank you G.A for introducing us to Ed.

  9. Ann V permalink
    July 29, 2021

    What a talented artist Ed is! He is capturing Social History in the making. Thank you for sharing these images.

  10. July 29, 2021

    Vibrant, wonderful art. The everyday drama and wry honesty of Hogarth, I think. Thanks so much for this GA and thanks Ed, look forward to seeing much more.

  11. Kelly Holman permalink
    July 29, 2021

    What wonderful vibrant work, it’s such a pleasure to view it. Thank you.

  12. July 29, 2021

    Thank you Gentle Author and all these kind people for their wonderful comments. It’s a great encouragement to me to keep making this work to celebrate the city of London and the idea of the city as a place of layered stories, chance, coincidence and all the overlapping rhthyms of life within.

  13. Guillaume permalink
    July 29, 2021

    Thanks for all this!

    Quite a painter, Ed Gray! And, to my outsider eyes, so quintessentially English, so in line with tradition, but with a twist: In a tradition of Stanley Spencer, yet urban and of a different spiritual intensity. These evident pulsations and pulluations of modern street life are substantiations of the larger, spiritual life that underlies all. Eric Ravilious, who underlies so much of modern English sensibility.

    Please don’t imagine I find Gray’s work to be derivative. NOT AT ALL. It’s the marching forward of a native impulse, found in Thomas Berwick and Samuel Palmer and probably receding into the misty pasts of your history.

  14. July 29, 2021

    Such an amazing body of work!
    Absolutely vibrant colours and images.
    Thank you GA for sharing and introducing us to Ed’s images of London.

  15. July 29, 2021

    Thank you for sharing this amazing artist – such brilliant work.

  16. Cherub permalink
    July 30, 2021

    I love these, especially the one of Mile End station. It captures the hustle and bustle of entering and leaving, just as I remember it when I was at Queen Mary College in the early to mid 90s.

    Blackfriars Bridge – I worked at a gallery on Bankside for a while in the late 90s and how I hated walking over the bridge when it was really windy. I used to stay close to the edge of the pavement as I was always convinced I’d be blown into the Thames!

  17. Carolyn Hooper permalink
    August 1, 2021

    What magnificent work!! I love the way Ed captures his city with its crowds and buildings behind. Let’s face it, to paint crowds in most large cities, it can’t be done without buildings as a backdrop. Unless you find a park which is very crowded.

    Lovely, gentle author… usual.

  18. August 1, 2021

    Absolutely wonderful pictures, and so pleased that Ed kept faith in himself.

  19. Ellie Ling permalink
    October 15, 2023

    Brilliant paintings which capture the huge variety of London lives crowded into streets and markets, with all the energy, emotions, excitement, gloom……. it’s all there. As an artist myself who spent many hours in the life room drawing people, and who still loves “people-watching”, I can really appreciate the way he’s captured all the nuances of different people’s behaviour and the way their body language tells the viewer so much about what they’re feeling. He’s very very good at it! And that comes partly from his talent and partly from the hours he’s spent out there in the streets with his sketchbooks…….His work should be remembered in years to come along with artists such as Stanley Spencer and Hogarth for bringing the streets of the London of his time to life with such a distinctive resonance.

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