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Harry Harrison’s East Enders

February 21, 2023
by the gentle author

David – universally known as ‘Harry’ – Harrison or ‘Harry the Pencil’ (1947-2023) came to Mile End in 1979, and liked it so much he never left. An artist who became an architect, he died at the age of seventy-six last Wednesday 15th February. Here are some of his portraits.

‘Tom was a gentle, polite and humble soul. His patch was between Mile End Station and the Roman Road and could be found most days in that area. He told me he was fifty-three years old when I painted him in 2014.

He wore a camel coat over a sleeping bag, over a denim jacket, over a fleece, over a jumper. I last saw Tom a couple of years ago outside Mile End Station and he looked very poorly.

I would love to hear that he survives somewhere still but I fear it is unlikely. I am moved by the depth of feeling in his forlorn expression. His obviously broken nose made me wonder if he may have once been a boxer?’

‘Andrew inhabited a similar patch to Tom and, although seen as frequently, I never saw them together or at the same time. This painting also dates from 2014 and is in Mile End Park.

Unlike Tom, there was something defiant and angry about Andrew – even when offered money he could respond abusively. Yet he did once offer my wife a swig of his White Stripe, so he was not without chivalry.

Andrew would sometimes disappear for a few weeks and re-appear with a make-over, a haircut, clean shaven and with a set of new clothes. I was told that he was once a long distance lorry driver.’

‘I saw Angus sitting on a bench in the evening sunshine in Old Street in 2017. What attracted me, apart from his extraordinary mane and facial hair was that he had a chess set set up on the pavement in front of him.

After striking up conversation, he challenged me to a game which I accepted. I am a poor player and out of practice, and I was hoping I may have stumbled upon an out of luck chess master.

I beat him rather quickly and easily, to my great disappointment and guilt – and Angus was gracious in defeat which made it even worse.’

‘Anyone visiting Brick Lane in recent years could not fail to notice the stylish and urbane Mick Taylor. After completing this portrait I gave it to Mandi Martin who lives by Brick Lane and was a friend of Mick’s.

Mandi volunteers at St Joseph’s Hospice. In 2017, she spent some of Mick’s last few hours talking and reminiscing with him about their shared experiences of the East End.’

‘In 2015, I met Tim sitting on a blanket and begging outside a cash machine in Shoreditch. He seemed young, sad and vulnerable, sitting eating crisps and surrounded by plastic bags of his belongings. Tim was reluctant to talk and seemed embarrassed by his situation. I have not seen him since.’

‘This is my portrait of Gary Arber whose former printworks in the Roman Rd is a short walk from my home. Gary’s grandparents opened the shop in 1897 and Gary ran it for sixty years after after sacrificing a career as a flying ace in the Royal Air Force in 1954.’

Paintings copyright © Estate of Harry Harrison

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Gary Arber, Printer

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Kate Amis permalink
    February 21, 2023

    Stunning portraits . Drawn with compassion and warmth.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 21, 2023

    What stunning portraits!

    I’d love to know what Harry’s technique was. Did he take photos and work from them, or did he work from sketches, notes and and/or memory? The details are so telling – like the shoe laces not being done up properly, the layers and layers of clothes, and trousers which look like they might fall down at any moment… all very moving, and brilliantly captured by a superbly talented artist.

    Any chance of Spitalfields Life publishing a book of Harry’s fantastic work?

  3. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 21, 2023

    These images greatly moved me. What a talented artist Harry the Pencil was. He has captured the very essence of each individual. I’m not a religious person, but I constantly hope that there is a ‘better place’ somewhere out there.

  4. Annie S permalink
    February 21, 2023

    What a talented artist Harry was!
    The portraits are so sensitive and respectful to these men – Harry’s work is worthy of an exhibition.

  5. Peter Harrison permalink
    February 21, 2023

    Taken together with his pencil drawings, these show he was a very talented artist. Thank you for bringing his work into the light.

  6. Bru permalink
    February 21, 2023

    What a talent! Gone too soon.

  7. Richard Smith permalink
    February 21, 2023

    I think these paintings are wonderful. They are a moving and compassionate testimony to these gentlemen. I would have liked to have met Harry, I think he must have been an interesting man to talk to. Thank you for bringing his work to our attention GA,

  8. Christine Saunders permalink
    February 21, 2023

    What a wonderful artist David was. His portraits are photo-realistic and his architectural sketches are so technical. Quite a talent to have two different styles and probably more. RIP David

  9. R.F Charriere permalink
    February 21, 2023

    Absolutely wonderful portraits and compassionate comments and observations of fellowship with those less fortunate. Kindest thoughts and regards to you all.

  10. Nisha permalink
    February 24, 2023

    what beautiful portraits, the best ones capture some essence of their subjects and these absolutely did that. Godspeed, Mr Harrison, and I do hope the sitters – those of them still in this world – are all right, or as close to it as possible.

    I’m not sure, but I may have seen Tim outside the beigel shop in 2015, the young man I saw had very similar piercing blue eyes and a sign offering to let whoever wanted, punch him in exchange for £5 – I felt so awful about the sign, I gave him some money without requiring the punch.

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