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James Mackinnon, Artist

February 24, 2023
by the gentle author

Twilight at London Fields, 2012

James Mackinnon’s streetscapes of the East End in general and London Fields in particular have captivated me for years. The seductive sense of atmosphere and magical sense of possibility in these pictures is matched by the breathtaking accomplishment of their painterly execution to powerful effect.

Remarkably, James is a third generation artist, with his uncle Blake and grandfather Hugh before him – which perhaps accounts for the classical nature of his technique even if his sensibility is undeniably contemporary.

We sat outside Christ Church, Spitalfields, one day and chatted about the enduring allure of the East End for artists. I was sorry learn that James had been forced to leave due to a combination of the rising rents and lack of recognition for his work.

Like several others I met while researching my book East End Vernacular, he is an artist who is genuinely deserving of appreciation by a much wider audience. It is very disappointing that the rewards for such a prodigiously talented painter as James Mackinnon are so little that he can no longer afford to be in the East End, and the East End is lesser for it.

“I grew up in South London in Lee Green and I used to go to the Isle of Dogs through the foot tunnel under the Thames and I was mystified by the area north of the river. Sometimes I would bunk off school with a sketchbook and go wandering there. It seemed a mysterious land, so I thought ‘What’s further up from the Isle of Dogs?’ I was a kid and I had been taken up to the West End, but I had never been to the East End and I sensed there was something extraordinary over that way.

I had always loved drawing and I got a scholarship in art to Dulwich College when I was eleven. The art department was wonderful and I got massive support, so I used be in the art block most of the time.

Later on, having left home and gone through college, there was a big recession and it was tough, all the students were scrabbling around for work, I had an epiphany. I was sat next to the Thames and I realised I just wanted to look at buildings and paint them. Since I was a child, buildings and their atmosphere, the feeling of buildings always had this resonance that I could not put my finger on.

As a kid, I was painting with poster paint and drawing with felt tips, and I was obsessed with the Post Office Tower. There was an art deco Odeon in Deptford that was derelict for years and it was demolished at the end of the eighties, and that had a huge effect on me. I sat in the back of my dad’s car and we drove past on the way up to London, and I would see this building and almost have a heart attack, I had such strong feelings about it. My God this thing is extraordinary, I am in love with it! It was falling to bits, it had pigeons sitting in the roof and it had wonderful art deco streamlining but it had this atmosphere, an elegance and a sadness. Even with the Post Office Tower, I felt it had this presence as though it were a person. That comes to the fore when you paint and you feel the place. You are not just concentrating on the architecture, it’s an emotional thing.

So with painting and drawing skills, I wanted to explore the landscape and often the hinterland. There is something compelling about going to a place you do not really know about – the mysterious world of places. The atmosphere of places is borne out of people and their residue, it’s about people living in a place.

By exploring, I was slowly drawn to where my heart was guiding me. In the early nineties, I moved to the East End because it was affordable and I had always wanted to explore there. And I was there until around 2013. I lived in Hackney and had a great time there, and made some great friends.

I was struggling as an artist, there was a lot of signing on the dole, but it was an act of faith, I knew it was what I had to do. I had always painted buildings.

I lived near London Fields and there is this little terrace of Georgian houses with a railway line and overhead electric wires, and there are some tower blocks in the distance, and you have all this grass. That was at the bottom of my road, it was such an interesting juxtaposition. A lot of East London landscapes have that, you might get a church sitting next to a railway line, next to tower block, next to the canal and a bit of old railing and some graffiti. That funny mixture. So I would just go and paint what I wanted. I painted what I was drawn to. For a long time, I was obsessed with Stratford. No-one had done anything to it at that time and I would go round the back streets and I roamed the hinterlands. I walked through to Plaistow and it is all part of a certain landscape that you find in the East End. To make a picture, you have got to find something that moves you and it can be something at the bottom of your road that resonates for you and makes the right composition for a painting. It’s hard to explain.

I had a go at having a studio but I was always a struggling artist so, when it came to rent day, it got tricky. It’s lovely having a studio but I could not afford it. I tried living in my studio for a bit to save money on the rent but the landlord found out and there was a cat and mouse game.

By the time I left, I think I had found myself. There is something in the painting that says it is me rather than anyone else and that has evolved from having done it for twenty years. I just about managed to survive. I realised I have got the tenacity and self belief. This is what I love. You find your path after a lot of struggle but it only comes by doing it. You realise that a great painting can come from something very ordinary, you can go for a walk and there might be something round the corner that knocks you out. There was a lot of that in the East End and I am still obsessed by it though it is changing hugely. Some of the landscapes have changed and some of the shops have gone. I miss Hackney in many ways but I do not miss struggling and rents going up. The area has changed.

So now I have moved to Hastings. I had a little boy and it became untenable to carry on living in the East End. I had no choice.”

Homage to James Pryde, 2009 (The Mole Man’s House)

Broadway Market

Shops in Morning Lane, 2014

Hackney Canal near Mare St, 2012

Canal, Rosemary Works 2014

Savoy Cafe, Hackney, 2012

James Tower, London Fields, 2012

Alphabeat, 2007

Paintings copyright © James Mackinnon

11 Responses leave one →
  1. February 24, 2023

    Gorgeous work! I particularly love James Tower, it’s magical. Please keep painting.

  2. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 24, 2023

    Wonderful images, and showing such talent. Oh how we suffer for our art though! Hackney’s loss was Hastings gain no doubt

  3. Milo permalink
    February 24, 2023

    If i had any money i would buy every single one of this chaps paintings. They are wonderful.

  4. Paul Loften permalink
    February 24, 2023

    Indeed James Mackinnon has captured the colours and feel of Hackney in his work . I knew some of these scenes from the top of a bus on my way to Parmiters School in Bethnal Green in the 60’s . Particularly Morning Lane and London Fields
    There are so few recognised artists who grew up in the area . However I once did come across an artist listed in the Royal Academy who went to Parmiters. Sadly I have forgotten his name it was so long ago .
    The Post Office Tower would seem to be odd subject for an artists obsession ! I would see it every day from seventh floor of the tower block where I lived in Stoke Newington so I can understand why . It dominated the landscape .I also had the good fortune to be there on the occasion of its official opening. My father worked at Fleet Building and gave me and three school friends the tickets to attend the ceremony . The revolving restaurant was an amazing feature but the shock of the prices on the menu displayed on the window left us schoolboys far dizzier than the restaurant ever could. .Although we never actually saw it revolve as I don’t believe it was working on that day.

  5. Christine Swan permalink
    February 24, 2023

    Such a talented artist and wonderful paintings. One of my dear friends has also just left London also due to huge rent, meagre income and limited work as an actor. In similarity with James, he is enormously talented and it is heartbreaking to see London lose another of its residents. I am another who left because it was cheaper to live elsewhere but earn pretty much the same but I totally understand the strong emotional connection. I have “London” written through me like a stick of rock.

  6. February 24, 2023

    What wonderful paintings! I hope James finds similar inspiration in Hastings.

  7. February 24, 2023

    James, your paintings have captured so many familiar scenes for me.
    My late brother was an artist and shared the same problems as you renting a small studio in Hackney.
    I hope you have settled in Hastings and are still painting? When I visit there I will look out for your wonderful work in the galleries.

  8. Lorraine Whebell permalink
    February 24, 2023

    A talented artist ? a man who is passionate
    about his work after reading the above.
    Good luck for the future.

  9. February 24, 2023

    Thank you for this post. I so appreciated discovering the artwork of James Mackinnon, and
    resonated to his words. “You find your path after a lot of struggle but it only comes by doing it.”

    For people in the arts, this deceptively-simple, astute phrase captures our journey.

    When all is said and done, when the rent goes unpaid, when there is a magnificent day in the studio, when nothing flows, when we feel isolated, when we feel destined — it all comes down to doing the work. Period.

    Thanks for giving a platform to this gifted, intrepid artist James Mackinnon. Amazing work.

  10. February 24, 2023

    I was pleasantly surprised to see this article ‘pop up’ earlier this morning. I will let the gentle author know of any future exhibitions. Luckily I am planning to paint in London a lot more this year. The architect Ben Derbyshire PPRIBA FRSA HonAIA has just written a book called ‘Home Truths’ which includes my painting ‘Tower London Fields’on the very handsome book cover. It can be seen at RIBA books.
    Recently,I updated the contact details on my website,so I am a bit easier to get hold of these days! A limited edition of the aforementioned painting is available if anyone is interested.Thanks for the very encouraging comments.

  11. Sue permalink
    February 24, 2023

    Wonderful paintings.

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