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So Long, John Dolan

October 18, 2023
by the gentle author

We are within £2,000 of our target after raised an astonishing £33,093 to relaunch Spitalfields Life Books. The crowdfund page remains open until we reach £35,000.



Today we remember artist John Dolan who died a year ago, on 20th October 2022, aged fifty. He is survived by his dog, George.


John Dolan and his thoughtful dog, George, became an East End landmark in recent years, sitting patiently day after day in the same spot opposite the petrol station on Shoreditch High St while the world and the traffic passed by. Yet, all that time, John was watching and, after a year of looking at the same view each day, he picked up a pen and began to draw what he saw before him. Soon after, John’s drawings were published in a local magazine and it proved to be a life-changing moment.

“That’s when I knew in life what I should do,” he assured me, standing in the Howard Griffin gallery where he had his first exhibition. The show was just across the road from the spot where John used to sit and had been a sell-out success, leaving him inundated with commissions and a book deal. Yet George took it all in his stride even if John was rather startled by the attention, gratefully embracing this opportunity to forge a new identity for himself as a artist. “None of this could have happened without the support of Roa, the street artist,” John admitted to me, in relief at this twist of fate, “It’s got me away from breaking into shops to steal money.”

When you met John, you were aware of a restless man with a strong internal life and he looked at you warily, his eyes constantly darting and moving, as if he might leave or take flight at any moment. But although John may have had only one foot on the ground, George planted himself down and surveyed the world peacefully – as the natural counterpoint to his master’s nature.

“I’m from King’s Sq, Goswell Rd, and I could walk from my door to St Paul’s in five minutes when I was a kid,” John revealed, speaking with affection for the neighbourhood in which he spent his life, “From my window I could see the three towers of the Barbican and the dome of St Paul’s. At fourteen, I climbed up the to the top of St James Clerkenwell when it was covered in scaffolding.” John’s minutely detailed urban drawings were equally the result of an observant sensibility and an intimate knowledge of the streets and street life of Shoreditch.

A few years ago, a series of misadventures and spells in Pentonville Prison led to a low point when John found himself bereft. “I was spending my days in day centres and only mixing with homeless people and I couldn’t relate to my family at that time,” he confessed, “but having this exhibition has been a way of getting back to them – when they came on the opening night, they were very impressed. It’s been called ‘a successful debut show’ and you can’t get much better than that.”

“I got rehoused in a flat in Arnold Circus after I had been living in temporary accommodation on Royal Mint St and before that I was homeless,” he explained, “In the recent benefits shake-up, I had my benefit cut to £36 a week and, each time I appealed, they cut it down more until I had nothing. I’ve got arthritis in my legs and I can’t walk very far, so I came down here to Shoreditch High St and started begging to get some money. But I’m no good at it, so I put a cup in front of George like he was begging and people gave him money. Then I got bored and I started drawing the two buildings on the opposite site of the road.”

John outlined to me how he acquired George, the dog that gave him the new focus. “When I was living in Tower Hill, I used to let homeless people come and live with me and there was this couple – and one of them, Sue, she was offered the chance to buy George for the price of a can of lager by a Scottish fellow, so she gave him £20.” John recalled, speaking in almost a whisper, underscored by an emotional intensity, “He was a pretty violent guy who would go round robbing homeless people.”

“George is my first dog in a very long time, I had a dog from the age of ten until I was twenty-three – Butch. He was named after a dog that my grandfather had that was legendary. It was so painful when Butch died, I said I would never have another – but George was such a lovely dog and needed a home. When the Scottish fellow came back and told people he was going to take the dog off me and expecting money every time he saw me, I had to have serious words with him.”

John gave me a significant look that indicated he and George were never to be separated. “I went to Old St Central Foundation School and the only thing I was good at was Art,” he informed me proudly, puffing on his cigarette in excitement, “The teacher said I was so bad at Geography it was a wonder I could find my way home.”

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    October 18, 2023

    I can easily see why his drawings sold so easily. His death was a loss to all of us who love good drawing and, particularly, those who live on the East End. I only wish that he could have lived longer to continue to enjoy the fruits of his talent. RIP, John. And, I hope that George finds a good home.

  2. October 18, 2023

    Not a beautiful dog, but he just oozes character! I do hope someone will adopt him.

    Fifty is too soon to go.

  3. Helen permalink
    October 18, 2023

    Very poignant that John should find his gift, shine brightly and then leave. I’m happy for him that he did find that creativity within himself, and that his artistic legacy is left for others to enjoy and to be inspired by. I hope George goes to a loving forever home. Thank you for sharing John’s story Gentle Author

  4. October 18, 2023

    John’s drawings are superb and he has left a wonderful legacy for everyone, especially his family.
    Here’s hoping for a loving home for George.
    RIP John.

  5. Annie S permalink
    October 18, 2023

    Oh dear no, I’m so sorry to read that he’s passed away and at such a young age.
    I saw him many times sitting in Shoreditch with his dog and I went to see his exhibition at the Howard Griffin gallery across the road.
    Rest in peace John and I hope George finds a loving home.

  6. October 18, 2023

    George deserves a home and yes, fifty is much too young to die.

  7. Lorraine Whebell permalink
    October 18, 2023

    Interesting read this morning..sad he passed at a young age..but happy he found his calling eventually…Hope George finds a lovely new home ?

  8. Teresa O Clark permalink
    October 18, 2023

    Hopefully someone will update us on George if and when he finds a new home.
    He deserves a loving friend.

    Teresa Clark
    (unfortunately living in US)

  9. Lara permalink
    October 18, 2023

    Please can you let me know where George is as I am very interested in adopting him. He is so beautiful.

  10. the gentle author permalink*
    October 18, 2023

    John died a year ago, so I think George will have a new home by now

  11. Georgina Briody permalink
    October 19, 2023

    A sad but interesting story about John. George was his loyal companion, I do hope he found a loving home.

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