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Albert Turpin, Painter

February 9, 2024
by the gentle author

Last chance to book for the VALENTINE’S CARD WORKSHOP tomorrow Saturday 10th February 2:30pm – 4:30pm at Townhouse, Spitalfields.

Introduced by Rupert Thomas, Director of Dennis Severs’ House, with an illustrated lecture on nineteenth-century Vinegar Valentines by The Gentle Author and a tutorial on the making of cards by floral designer and art director, Amy Merrick. 

Ticket price covers all materials including blank cards, replica Victorian paper cut-outs and a range of other decorative elements, as well as complimentary tea, coffee and freshly baked cake.



Salmon & Ball, Bethnal Green, c.1948

When the Daily Herald asked Albert Turpin (1900–64) about his motives, he declared his wish “to show others the beauty in the East End and to record the old streets before they go.” Born in Columbia Rd into a family that struggled to feed themselves on his father’s salary, working as variously a tea-cooper, feather sorter and casual docker, Albert walked into Shoreditch Town Hall and enlisted at fifteen, giving his age as nineteen years old.

In the Royal Marines, he won success as a heavyweight boxing champion yet found time to explore his sensitive side too. “Out came my paint box and canvas and, making myself comfortable on the boat deck … I painted away to my heart’s content,” he told the Hackney Gazette in later years.

After the war, Albert married Sally Fellows in 1922, whom he met at the Hackney Empire. He took up window cleaning with the aim of finishing all his windows by lunchtime so he could spend the afternoon painting. He attended classes at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Institute and at the Bow & Bromley Commercial Institute, and showed his paintings at the Bethnal Green Museum.

During the General Strike of 1926, while on the way to such a class, Albert heard a speech by working class activist, Bill Gee. In his autobiography, Albert wrote that Bill Gee “did not teach me anything I did not already know, but what he did do was to make me forget all about my art class and join up with the organised workers right there.” Signing up for the Labour Party, Albert began his long political career by drawing cartoons for local newspapers.

He exhibited ten canvases in the East London Art Club exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in December 1928. One of these depicted a man eating food scavenged from a bin, entitled Man Must Eat until Albert changed the title to The Dust Bin to avoid offending public sensibilities. This show was so successful that Charles Aitken, Director of the Tate, transferred some pictures to his gallery, including several by Albert – from which the wealthy collector Joseph Duveen bought The Dust Bin. Subsequently, when the Lefevre Galleries in St James launched its annual exhibitions of the East London Group in November 1929, Albert showed three pictures and in following years he contributed regularly to their shows.

During the thirties, Albert became a member of the Bethnal Green Borough Council and an active anti-fascist protester, drawing the wrath of the blackshirts. They issued a poster in 1936 announcing, ‘Turpin responsible for East End disturbances.’ He also joined the Ex-Servicemen’s National Movement for Peace, Freedom & Democracy and supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, writing “On many occasions, I was arrested for offences ranging from rioting and assaulting the police, to chalking anti-war slogans on walls at nights. To me, these incidents were like medals to a good soldier.”

When war came again, Albert joined the London Fire Brigade and became an official Fire Brigade War Artist. Awarded a certificate by the Society for the Protection of Life for saving a child from a blaze in Bethnal Green, Albert was unanimously elected Mayor in 1945. The Evening News reported that he “won’t be wearing the mayorial robes because he thinks it is waste of taxpayers’ money.” As a compromise he “wore a gold chain of office, which competed for glitter with his brightly polished firemen’s buttons.” Always possessing a strong moral sense, Albert disapproved of gambling and loathed drinking, refusing to wash pub windows when he resumed his window cleaning duties after the war.

For the rest of his life he continued to paint the East End and in 1960, he wrote to the East London Advertiser pleading for the importance of preserving people’s memories. ‘Don’t they mean anything to anybody?’ he asked.

Albert Turpin, Artist, Window Cleaner & Mayor of Bethnal Green

Columbia Market, 1952/3

The Arches, Cambridge Heath Rd

Cable St

Marian Sq, Hackney

Three Jolly Butchers, Cabbage Court, Brick Lane, c.1953

Bellevue Place, Cleveland Way

Rebuilding St Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green, c.1956

Verger’s House, Shoreditch, 1954

Shakey’s Yard in Winter, c.1952

Hackney Empire

Images copyright © Estate of Albert Turpin

Click here to buy a copy of EAST END VERNACULAR

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    February 9, 2024

    I wonder how many Mayors would refuse to wear the mayoral robe now ?
    Like Albert did.
    I wonder how many MP’s or Councillors would refuse to put a penny on the rates like the Poplar Councillor did ?

  2. Andy permalink
    February 9, 2024

    The Poplar Councillor was George Lansbury and he was the grandfather of actress Angela Lansbury whom she respected greatly .
    He and other Councillors were put in prison in September 1921 for not putting up the rates and inflicting more suffering on poor people .
    G-d bless them .
    Imagine our government or Council doing this ????!!!!

  3. Mark permalink
    February 9, 2024

    You can smell the life affirming Socialism.

  4. Cherub permalink
    February 9, 2024

    I really like the muted tones and colours in these paintings. Vernacular art really has a special quality of its own.

  5. Jan permalink
    February 9, 2024

    Fascinating article. These institutes offering adult education seem to have all but vanished. Here’s an interesting addition.

  6. Kasey Grier permalink
    February 9, 2024

    What a remarkable life! I only wish Mr. Turpin had lived longer — I would love to know what he thought of the Thatcher era.

  7. Saba permalink
    February 9, 2024

    I love the beautiful use of color. The tones of the opaque skies invade the rest of the canvas or are contrasted to red/yellow tones. Just beautiful!

  8. anarchowalker permalink
    February 10, 2024

    A life well-lived. A principled man, and a very good artist. Albert would have been dismayed at the dawn of Thatcherism.
    I would have loved to have met him.

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