It is right to start with their names. John Cooper, the Yorkshire Methodist grocer’s son, invalided out of the First World War. Harold and Walter Steggles, East End brothers from a poor family. Albert Turpin, window cleaner, sailor and later mayor of Bethnal Green. Phyllis Bray, rebellious daughter of an aide to czar Nicholas II’s mother. Archibald Hattemore, boot-repair man. Lillian Leahy, window-dresser and dancer from Holborn. Grace Oscroft, ironmonger’s daughter from Bow. Henry Silk, basketmaker, also from Bow. Elwin Hawthorne, errand boy from Bow. Cecil Osbourne, working-class Poplar boy.
There are others but these are among the core artists of the East London Group (ELG) of the Twenties and Thirties, now being rediscovered by art-lovers and historians across the capital. They were working-class painters who portrayed the old pre-Luftwaffe East End, and cockney pleasure resorts on the coast and in the country, in pictures that range from kitchen-sink realism to airy, magical surrealism.
There are two small shows of their work on at the moment, one at Bow’s Nunnery Gallery and the other at Southampton City Art Gallery — well worth it if you can find time to make the trip. Author David Buckman has written From Bow to Biennale, a fine book about the group which is now being republished, while the ELG has a daily Twitter presence. They have hardly been forgotten.
But these painters have been grotesquely underrated and elbowed aside in the story of modern art. In their day they were compared to Maurice Utrillo of Paris, and New York’s Edward Hopper. After a very popular show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1928 their work was bought by the Tate, sold in fashionable West End galleries and taken around North America. Two of the group, Steggles and Hawthorne, were part of the British entry to the 1936 Venice Biennale.
Yet there was always the smelly breath of condescension from reviewers who talked about a “dustbin on canvas” and “pictures for narrow purses”. The group did indeed include labourers, warehouseman, off-duty sailors, shopkeepers, a navvy, a fish-smoker and a park keeper. They were the authentic working people of London, even if they had learned from professionals from the Slade and art superstars such as Walter Sickert.
Today some of their art has an eerie, lost-world feel about it — empty dawn streets in a London that has disappeared, sunlight on the roofs of markets and warehouses, chilly coastal scenes with obsolete lighthouses and tramp steamers. Some of the art had a stylised quality about it, and companies such as Shell bought it for their posters. The group included muralists and pioneers bringing mosaic work back to London for the first time in centuries. These were well-trained and ambitious people. They were not daring. There is no surrealist sex here, no Cubism, not even the colour experiments of the rival Scottish painters of the day. So they have been put back in their box. Is this wise?
Compare Tate Britain’s current Impressionists in London show, which has had such disappointing reviews. Great pioneer painters though they were, Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and Co were refugees or fly-by-night tourists here, never at home in this sticky, dirty, commercial metropolis. They were never “us”.
But the East London Group was. It is time, surely, to reclaim these men and women properly with a major show at the Tate or the Royal Academy. Everybody except the snobs would have a great time.
Darkness behind Spacey’s story
Like so many other London theatregoers I have been reflecting on the Kevin Spacey scandal. I interviewed him a few times and what always struck me about him was the extreme, almost atomic, crackle of psychological tension about him.
I hugely admired Spacey as an actor but in person he radiated unease — there was always a crouching wariness, even anger, in the room.
And then I read an account by his brother of their miserable childhood. I have no way of knowing whether Spacey’s father was indeed a sadistic, very violent and predatory paedophile — and nothing excuses the actor’s behaviour afterwards. But when awful things happen there is so often childhood abuse in the background.
At this time, when we are interrogating the behaviour of male predators everywhere, perhaps it’s worth asking how much evil starts with an angry, aroused man waving a belt at a cowering child? W H Auden got it right in his poem September 1, 1939:
“I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”
* I had the privilege this week of making a speech at the unveiling of the George Orwell statue. Now the great man stands, leaning forward, with a roll-up cigarette in one hand, at the side of Broadcasting House. It is, fittingly, exactly where BBC employees tend to gather for a fag. Famously, Orwell was no great enthusiast for the corporation when he left.
But nor was he for the House of Commons. We tend to think of the wartime Parliament as a chamber of giants: hard questions and roaring defiance from the likes of Churchill, Attlee, Nye Bevan and Lloyd George. But Orwell, after listening to a debate on India, thought it was all “dreary rubbish” and “these people are simply ghosts gibbering in some corner”.
As we reflect on today’s seedy politics, I find this oddly cheering.