Sunday, 20 July 2014

Paris to Bow: an encounter with the East London Group

Bow Bridge, Walter Steggles
Paris might now be consigned to the past, but the return to England’s own bustling metropolis didn’t mean an end to viewing art.

With only a few days left before it closed, I finally made it down to the East End for an exhibition of work by the East London Group.

The Nunnery is so much in the East End that, never mind being within the sound of Bow bells, it’s almost directly opposite Bow Church itself.

This is, indeed, the very heart of Cockneydom.

Bryant & Mays, Oscroft
It’s odd how different it feels to Hackney – given that it’s not really very far away, but the same is true of many parts of London: it’s far from being a single, homogenised entity.

The Nunnery Gallery itself is situation in a former Carmelite nunnery that dates from 1850 and is now part of the Bow Arts Trust.

There’s an element of stepping back in time about the area – and this was an exhibition that emphasised that.

The East London Group was the brainchild of Yorkshire artist John Cooper, who taught at the Bow and Bromley Evening Institute from the mid-1920s.

Hackney Empire, Turpin
It was made up of two core groups – aspiring East Enders, plus some who, like Cooper himself, had trained at the Slade.

According to art historian David Buckman, Albert Turpin, for instance, was a “professional window cleaner, Anti-Fascist protestor and Labour mayor of Bethnal Green”.

Walter Sickert was involved, addressing classes and even showing with the group for a while.

There was a great deal of acclaim for the artists at the time, with a final group exhibition taking place in West End gallery the Lefevre in 1936, although works were also displayed collectively and individually elsewhere, including at the National Gallery and at Tate Britain.

Old Ford Road, Harold Steggles
But all this has been forgotten in the decades since WWII, although the work of dedicated people, including family members and Buckman, has been starting to turn that around.

One of the particular pleasures to be gained from exploring the work of the East London Group is the chance to look back in time to a very different London – although, as touched on above, they painted pictures of buildings and places that are still recognisable today.

The exhibits included a work by Harold Steggles, for instance, showing Grove Hall Park, which is still there – right behind the Nunnery.

Farringdon Road, Osbourne
There’s the instantly-recognisable Hackney Empire by Turpin, and his Salmon and Ball, which is an equally-recognisable corner of Bethnal Green.

Indeed, these two stood out in the exhibition as being rare examples of heavily-peopled works.

In most other cases, the streets are devoid of either traffic or people, which lends a haunting quality to the paintings.

The Arches, Mare Street, Turpin
There are occasional figures – walking away from the artist, with their back to us, or simply too distant to tell us anything.

But that only seems to add to the feeling, whether intended at the time or not, of the isolating nature of the city.

Grace Oscroft’s Bryant & Mays is a case in point: the bright palette used – seen among many of the artists – seems only to emphasise the lack of people and suggest a philosophically mixed view of the world they lived in: on the one hand, with industry offering a bright future, but on the other, it replacing humanity.

It’s inevitable that seeing many of these works, set as they are in working-class areas, one is reminded of Lowry, but that absence of people and that brightness of colour are two of the most obvious differences.

The Great Ventriloquist, Cooper
Sickert in particular urged the group to realism, but Walter Steggles’s Bow Bridge uses blues that almost take it into the realms of Impressionism.

A note helpfully points out that this is where the Bow flyover now starts. Imagining Bow Road with no traffic today is not easy.

This shouldn’t be read as suggesting a uniformity of approach, though.

Cecil Osbourne’s Farringdon Road (1929) – or the rooftops above it – goes down a very different route, with muted, dark tones that give it a very broody atmosphere.

But Harold Steggles’s Old Ford Road (c1932) is another bright but almost deserted world.

Perhaps surprise at this is because we mentally tend to view their world as a smog-filled monochrome. ‘But’, they seem to be saying to us, ‘there was plenty of colour. It wasn’t just unrelentingly grim’.

Kitchen Bedroom, Turpin
Cooper’s own The Great Ventriloquist – like many of the works, undated, but we known it was shown at the Lefevre in 1930 – shows clearly enough that the group were neither averse to painting people nor incapable of it, with Turpin’s Kitchen Bedroom (c1930) is another example of this.

Indeed, it’s possible to see in these two a passing of the baton: the realism of Cooper’s painting is tempered by a certain sentimentality in the image.

With Turpin’s domestic, working-class interior, there is none.

Harry Tate: The Freeman of Bethnal Green, Turpin
The teacher was being surpassed.

But it’s those deserted yet colourful scenes, such as Water Steggles’s tiny – just 15x20cm – Canvey Island (c1933), that stick in the mind.

And The Arches, Mare Street is another Turpin piece that, while colourful, has a deserted, mysterious air.

More than one of the artists were commissioned to provide artwork for the sort of travel posters that are now iconic, and the presence of two of these in the adjoining cafĂ© was a reminder of how that lack of people was not limited to the group’s activity: you recognise it in those suggestions for motoring out to see some old church.

No people: just the bricks and mortar. 

Canvey Island, Walter Steggles
The group painted parts of London other than the East End, and they painted parts of England other than London and parts of the world other than England.

They didn’t limit themselves to the urban, while there are still lives, interiors and portraits too – Turpin’s Harry Tate: The Freeman of Bethnal Green is a fascinating example – but it’s those deserted landscapes that stay with you.

It was a case of better late than never getting to this exhibition, but it was not something that was held in isolation, but as part of an ongoing campaign to revive knowledge of an interest in these artists. 

Travel poster, Walter Steggles
In that, it has already had success, with good crowds and a decent level of media coverage.

And if you want to know more, search out Buckman’s excellent 2012 book, From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group.

Online, there’s much more about Walter Steggles at, and about the group as a whole at, while you can keep tabs with what’s going on – and see plenty of pictures – on Twitter @EastLondonGroup.

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