An Ex­plod­ing Gold­mine

The London Magazine - - SIMON TAIT - Si­mon Tait

From Bow to Bi­en­nale: Artists of the East Lon­don Group, David Buck­man, Fran­cis Boutle Pub­lisher 2012, 382pp. £30 (pa­per­back) When David Buck­man’s From Bow to Bi­en­nale, Artists of the East Lon­don Group was pub­lished in 2012 it was the re­sult of nine years of re­search and shone a light on an un­known group of East End painters who am­a­teurs, night school pupils of a mes­sianic teacher called John Cooper. - about in 2008 and which be­came a suc­cess­ful Lee Hall play. Buck­man had un­earthed a gold­mine.

burst of new in­for­ma­tion. Buck­man had thought all the par­tic­i­pants in the story to be dead, but they were not. Aimee Valdez, known as Birdie, was 101 when he found her, with a vivid mem­ory of Cooper and his work. Eu­nice Veitch died in 1952 when her son was six, and he had no idea his - Cooper’s best pupils was the navvy-cum-pipe in­spec­tor Archibald Hat­te­more who dis­ap­peared at the group’s height: his grand­son came for­ward with the story – he had got a new job which left him no time for classes and he ceased to show, but con­tin­ued to paint at his Hack­ney home. There was the bas­ket-maker Henry Silk whose great-niece un­veiled a news­pa­per in­ter­view in which he told the reporter:

If I tell my cus­tomers that Lady Cu­nard has bought one of my paint­ings, and that one had been over to Ohio for a per-

ma­nent col­lec­tion, and that I had been men­tioned over the wire­less as an artist – do you think they would be­lieve me? They would think I was just spin­ning a yarn.

Stu­dio de­scribed it as ‘lit­tle short of sen­sa­tional’. The am­a­teurs had be­come ac­com­plished painters, among them the broth­ers Harold and Wal­ter Steggles (re­spec­tively a so­lic­i­tors’ clerk and a ship­ping clerk), Al­bert Turpin (win­dow cleaner), Regi­nald Tom­lin­son (school in­spec­tor), El­win Hawthorne (house dec­o­ra­tor) and the navvy Hat­te­more; some even got ad­ver­tis­ing com­mis­sions.

The group’s ori­gins had been in the Beth­nal Green Men’s In­sti­tute Art Club se­ri­ous at­tempt to in­ter­est the worker of the district in the ex­ec­u­tive side of Mu­seum, all the ex­hibitors be­ing self-taught. ‘My Beth­nal Green gang pro­duced good and var­i­ous paint­ings’ said their teacher, Wil­liam Finch. But by 1927 they had switched al­le­giance to the Bow and Brom­ley Evening In­sti­tute and a re­cent Slade grad­u­ate teach­ing there, John Cooper, who saw enough po­ten­tial in them to launch them onto the West End gallery cir­cuit, mak­ing a deal with the Le­fevre Gallery. ‘Life in those days could be very new and ex­cit­ing,’ re­called one of the group, Ce­cil Os­borne, ‘and all art very won­der­ful, open­ing new vis­tas to be ex­plored’.

the First World War and with his ex-ser­vice­man’s grant went to the Slade where he was taught by Henry Tonks. Grad­u­at­ing in 1922 he un­der­pinned his in­come as a painter by teach­ing evening classes. He cre­ated a net­work of pow­er­ful sup­port­ers among for­mer fel­low stu­dents, sub­jects and col­lec - nett, Al­dous Hux­ley, Ram­say Macdon­ald and Os­bert Sitwell.

to the Evening News. many of them wanted to do no more than paint images for greet­ings cards. Cooper steered them into more chal­leng­ing ar­eas. ‘It was his in­spi­ra­tion to them, say, a dingy bed­room, and look at it in a new way’, said Nancy Sharp, a Slade stu­dent re­cruited to help by Cooper along with her fel­low stu­dent and fu­ture hus­band Wil­liam Cold­stream.

some of the stu­dents. ‘They boldly tack­led scenes from their ev­ery­day life, see­ing beauty in most un­likely sub­jects and re­pro­duc­ing it with sur­pris­ing suc­cess’, he told the Evening News. Teach­ing help came from his Slade friends, and Ro­drigo Moyni­han was another of his as­sis­tants; Sick­ert gave land­scapes to paint were un­nec­es­sary. ‘There is no need to go to Bog­nor,’

The Tate re­sponded to the 1928 Whitechapel show, buy­ing two pic­tures from it and, in the fol­low­ing year, putting on its own ex­hi­bi­tion of 24 pic­tures from the group, show­ing ‘what Bri­tish ar­ti­sans can do in their spare time’, as the gallery’s press re­lease put it.

And so the am­a­teur East Lon­don Art Club meta­mor­phosed into a pro­fes­sion­ally recog­nised East Lon­don Group with May­fair art deal­ers tak­ing an ac­tive in­ter­est. In 1935 there was a tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of Canada and the USA, or­gan­ised through the Cour­tauld In­sti­tute and aug­mented by con­tri Charles Gin­ner and C.R.W. Nevin­son. The high point, though, was the in­clu­sion of paint­ings by the East Lon­don Group’s El­win Hawthorn and Wal­ter Steggles in the 1936 Venice Bi­en­nale.

1937, fol­lowed by the de­ci­sion of the Brom­ley & Bow In­sti­tute to ex­pel the group – be­cause other stu­dents thought it un­fair that they were al­lowed to use the in­sti­tute’s fa­cil­i­ties to ex­hibit and sell their work – and Cooper

left too. Af­ter some war work as an Air Min­istry draughts­man, Cooper died of sclero­sis of the spine in 1943, aged 48. The East Lon­don Group never ex­hib­ited to­gether again, un­til the ten-week 2014 ex­hi­bi­tion at The Nun­nery, Bow (and more ex­hi­bi­tions are sched­uled for the Nun­nery and Southamp­ton City Art Gallery in 2017).

Al­though sev­eral of the artists con­tin­ued to work and show, as well as pur­su­ing their day jobs, they never ex­hib­ited as the East Lon­don Group again. ‘My ef­forts have been di­rected to stim­u­lat­ing the stu­dents to ex­press some­thing which they feel about life’, Cooper had told The Mill­gate magazine, ‘this was some of the rea­son for Rem­brandt’s great­ness’.

David Buck­man has a great story to tell and de­spite his fas­tid­i­ous­ness in mak­ing sure ev­ery sin­gle fact is not missed, much like his metic­u­lous re­search­ing, the book is an easy read, writ­ten by a reporter who has fallen for his sub­ject.

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