A review of the East London Group of Artists exhibition, Nunnery Gallery, 181 Bow Road, London until 13 July
‘I became a speaker and lecturer. I led strikes and riots and got myself so disliked or feared by the authorities and police that I was very soon on the lists of the police as an agitator of the violent sort. On many occasions I was arrested for offences ranging from rioting and assaulting the police, to chalking anti-war slogans on walls at night. To me these incidents were as medals to a good soldier’.
This valedictory agitator’s statement, remarkable even among political artists, comes from Albert Turpin. His paintings form part of a magnificent exhibition of the East London Group of artists now showing in the Nunnery Gallery in Bow.
The East London Group were, for the most part, working men and women. They were determined to paint the streets of the East End of London and benefited from the lessons given by the artists Walter Sickert and John Cooper.
They exhibited and were well known in the 1930s but, undeservedly, less known today. This exhibition should put that to rights.
Turpin’s political commitment can be seen most dramatically in On Guard, a picture of a seated fireman reading a book against the background of a wall of sandbags. Turpin had been a firefighter from 1938 and was secretary of his FBU branch. He painted 'On Guard' during the war, around 1943. The quiet composure of the figure, the contrast between the physical danger of his job, especially in wartime, and the moment of peace in which he reads could only be captured in quite this way by an artist with Turpin’s political formation.
But many of Turpin’s other paintings, and those of his fellow artists in the Group, are not figurative. They are overwhelmingly street scenes, sometimes with a few figures in them, like Turpin’s 'Cable Street'. Perhaps he painted this after the Mosley’s Blackshirts produced a poster (in 1936, the same year as they were defeated in the anti-fascist mobilisation in the area) which declared ‘Turpin Responsible for East End Disturbances’!
The Group painted the East End’s streets, alleys, mills, factories, pubs and churches with the same fascination that other artists have for the English countryside. The streets, in their paintings, look interesting, like places you want to see…and this without prettifying the essential industrial, poor reality. This is the real accomplishment. Somehow the character of the area, the vibrancy of its community, is communicated through these representations of its buildings.
Partly this is achieved by the flat colour and the way they all seem to have of capturing light. It suggests, to me at least, a parallel with that other great painter of the built environment, the American artist Edward Hopper.
Compare, for instance, two similarly titled pieces: the Group’s Cecil Osborne’s 'Sunday Morning, Farringdon Road' and Hopper’s 'EarlySunday Morning'. Something in the use of subdued colour and strong light seems to give these paintings a close connection. Osborne’s view through the open window, a device also used by others in the Group, was also a constant motif in Hopper’s work. Although Hopper’s melancholic voyeur’s mentality often has him looking in through a window, rather than out on the world. And for some of the East London Group, unlike Hopper, the use of morning or evening light wasn’t a choice - they painted then because work took most of the daylight hours.
Much of the Group’s work is almost celebratory. Turpin’s 'Salmon and Ball' (the still standing pub at Bethnal Green tube) or his 'Hackney Empire', captured later than many of the paintings in 1958, contain real affection for the street life of the East End.
Others are starker, unpopulated industrial cityscapes: Walter Steggles’ 'Railway Fence' and 'Bow Bridge', Elwin Hawthorne’s 'Devons Road, Bow, E3' and 'Cumberland Market', and Phyllis Bray’s 'The Mill' for instance.
It wasn’t that the Group couldn’t paint landscape. Indeed their East Anglian landscape and coastal scenes became some of the 1930s iconic Shell posters, as did the work of the father of that other great London artist David Gentleman.
But it is to the streets of East London that they return again and again. The dirty old town will never be better remembered than it is here. Don’t miss this fine exhibition.
- For a twitter preview follow @EastLondonGroup
- See also David Buckman’s marvellous study of the East London Group, From Bow to Biennale (Francis Boutle, 2012) £25.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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