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Dorothy Rendell’s East End Portraits

November 18, 2022
by the gentle author

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Dorothy Rendell trained at St Martin’s School of Art during the Second World War and was encouraged by Henry Lamb, Carel Weight and Orovinda Pissarro at the beginning of her career. While teaching art at Harry Gosling School in Whitechapel for forty years, she undertook portraits of her favourite pupils and, subsequently, drew people in the doctor’s waiting room at the Jubilee St Practice. These dignified and tender images comprise an important social record of East Enders in the post-war years.

“When I started teaching I thought I would teach in the West End but they would not take women, so I had to move to the East End – but I don’t regret that at all because I got so wrapped up in it and there were all these places where I could go and draw,” Dorothy admitted to me.

“This little boy was one of the pupils I taught. A little horror! He’d been badly behaved – so the head teacher told me, ‘Take him and make him sit for you!’ So he had to sit still for about two or three days. I think I did a painting of him too”

“This is a nice little girl who had a terrible life. She was pretty and I liked her, so I drew her. I think I probably went to her house. It was squared up for a painting but I don’t know what happened to the painting. Children are very good to draw as long as they are not commissioned, when they are commissioned they are hellish. One mother came to me and wanted a portrait of her daughter. She looked a nice kid and I didn’t charge very much. She wore jeans, but when she turned up she was all dressed up – it was awful!”

“I used to give them their drawings. They used to beg me for them and were so persuasive that I used to hand them over, until one day a boy took my drawing and folded it up in half and put it in his pocket. I nearly screamed! They never did that in Italy, they treasure their drawings there.”

“This is Harry. Miss Parry, the head teacher, she adored this drawing. Harry was really thick and he used to look at you with that blank expression, but he was marvellously funny and he made a tremendous effort. Somebody who used to work with me said, ‘I’m going to bring Harry to Miss Parry’s funeral,’ and I said, ‘But he’ll be middle aged now.’ She found him and he came to the funeral. I couldn’t believe it. He was a lorry driver for Charringtons.”

“This was a little Afghan girl, I thought she was beautiful. She was a vain little girl who would sit for hours in the art room. Miss Parry thought it was better for pupils to sit with me than to sit and do nothing, so she would send the badly behaved ones to the art room and I would draw them. They liked being drawn, they were flattered by it.”

“I never had any absentees from my art classes, they were always very keen. As my head teacher used to say, ‘They’ll always go to art with you!’ They enjoyed doing it. There were always a certain number who could not draw, who found it very difficult. I would get them started making patterns but they would think they could not do that. So I would say, ‘Yes you can.’ I would get something like an electric light bulb and say, ‘Make some patterns from what you can see with that.’ – repeating and so forth. And they would come up with some marvellous things. Then they got keen. You have to think up strange things to get children really interested.”

“This little girl, I got to know her mother and father, and she went on to grammar school. The children of immigrants always did much better than the English ones because their parents wanted them to work.”

“This was in the doctor’s waiting room. Quite a well known doctor round here invited me to draw there.”

Pictures courtesy of Dorothy Rendell Collection at Bishopsgate Insititute

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Dorothy Rendell, Artist

10 Responses leave one →
  1. November 18, 2022

    These are so very beautiful! Lovely to see the portraits of children, so natural. Beautiful! And so we’ll done.
    Thank you!

  2. November 18, 2022

    Dorothy Rendell has perfectly captured all the human suffering and happiness at stake with her wonderful portraits.
    The defiant children who eventually do start drawing themselves are simply delicious to watch.

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  3. Steffen permalink
    November 18, 2022

    I’m an art teacher here in Berlin doing pretty much the same. Phantastic text. I couldn’t agree more.

  4. keithb permalink
    November 18, 2022

    Nice ‘classical’ drawings.

    “You have to think up strange things to get children really interested.”

    Certainly. The current regime in schools in the UK does tend to make it harder for teachers to be flexible though.

  5. Arabella Warner permalink
    November 18, 2022

    What a wonderful piece – and what incredible work she has done. Has there ever been an exhibition of her work?

  6. David Antscherl permalink
    November 18, 2022

    Absolutely delightful and sensitive studies! And obviously Ms. Rendell is an excellent teacher as well as artist. Thank you for this morning’s treat.

  7. Jennifer Taylor permalink
    November 18, 2022

    Absolutely wonderful!

  8. Edith Douglas permalink
    November 18, 2022

    I think these drawings are marvellous. Thanks for posting them.

  9. David Hall permalink
    November 19, 2022

    This is the second piece about Dorothy Rendell that Ive come across on your excellent blog and its wonderful….I cant get enough of this lady, her Art ,her reminiscences…her life . Extraordinary talent and a life well lived . Dorothy richly deserves a retrospective ,it would be a fantastic show ,her work is really special ,very close to her sitters but also the London landscapes are wonderful.
    Thanks for introducing me to her work.

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    November 22, 2022

    Wonderful wonderful drawings. Oh if only I had a quarter of that talent

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