A show at the Nunnery Gallery in Bow has been celebrating the work of the East London Group of artists with a show called ‘The Working Artist: The East London Group’ and a series of new public artworks around the Bow area.
The East London Group were active from 1924 to 1943 and would often depict scenes from around the East End. Growing in popularity the group started exhibiting from 1928 at places such as the Whitechapel Gallery, the National Gallery, Millbank and most frequently at the Lefevre Gallery on the Kings Road.
At the time, the East End itself was not seen as being desirable in any way. It was overcrowded with poor housing and sanitation, wages were low and so were prospects. It was against this background that art evening classes in Bethnal Green would later be recognised as the catalyst which allowed the group of artists now known as the East London Group to form.
The East London Group
It was a northerner who gave the spark for the group’s creativity. John Cooper, born in Bolton but raised in Yorkshire was the group’s tutor and driving force. A contemporary and friend of Walter Sickert, he would use his contacts in the art world to place the work of the group on show. He was also married for a brief time to Phyllis Bray, a talented muralist known for her work at the People’s Palace who also become part of the group and who would often teach with Cooper prior to their break-up in 1936.
The focus of the show in the Nunnery Gallery though is undoubtedly the work of Albert Turpin with two of the commissioned public works recognising his impact. Born in Bethnal Green in 1900 Turpin would have a varied career, joining the army at 15 and then the royal marines in 1918. After the war he took up window cleaning, a career which meant he could finish earlier in the day and so giving more time for painting.
In 1926 he joined the Labour Party in the middle of the General Strike having been inspired from by a speech from Bill Gee, an activist who inspired him to “forget all about my art class and join up with the organised workers right there.” He would go on to become mayor of Bethnal Green from between 1946-47 after spending the second world war in the fire service eventually becoming the official fire brigade war artist.
Other notable members of the group exhibiting in the show include William Coldstream, Elwin Hawthorne, Brynhild Parker, Harold Steggles and Walter Steggles. Each artist depicting scenes of the East End and capturing them as part of the overall series of works now recognisable as being from the group.
Public Artworks in Bow
In order to celebrate the work of the East London Group, a series of works have also been commissioning to join up with the show and they can be seen around the area. We’d been lucky enough to get a bit of a guided tour around them from local historian Gordon Joly as part of one of the events celebrating the launch.
A painted bench from Lindsey Mendick in the grounds of Bow Church which commemorates Albert Turpin is the first piece. A stalwart of the group and former mayor of Bethnal Green. It’s pastel tones are meant to represent the colour pallette often used by the group. Laying on the bench is a sketchbook, with an image of the church half completed.
Next, a banner unfurled a little bit further up the road and hanging outside the Bow Bells pub. With the words ‘Ctrl, Alt-right, Delete’ the work makes the connection between the East End’s past in terms of fighting fascism with the rise of what commentators might describe as the ‘alt right’ today. The piece by Marcus Orlandi uses a play on words with the recognisable computer command being given a new meaning. As an aside visitors to the pub should also look around the corner at the mural from Pang, a local artist, who has depicted an East End scene of her own paying homage to the pearly kings and queens of the area.
The final piece requires a bit more of a hike, a little further up in Mile End on the side of the building known as the People’s Palace, now part of Queen Mary’s University. It’s a video installation depicting two window cleaners at work. Called ‘Ode to a Window Cleaner’ by Maxima Smith again it pays homage to Turpin, who was himself once a window cleaner before becoming mayor.
The work of the East London Group is now being remembered! Capturing as it does, an East End, much of which is now changed beyond recognition following war and an extensive slum clearance programme. It is only now though, in the last few years as the East End itself has undertaken a renaissance thanks to things such as the Olympic legacy that the artists are now being re-discovered.
These are artists who were real working people, the working artists of the East End alluded to in the title of the show. It’s a body of work which captures the essence of the area and which behind each picture no doubt holds several stories.
‘The Working Artist: The East London Group’ is showing at the Nunnery Gallery from 29 September 2017 to 17 December 2017. Inspiring City visited the show on 30 September 2017 and were taken on a tour of the public artworks commissioned as part of it on the same date. Many thanks to Gordon Joly for his insight and experience in terms of bringing the work of the East London Group to life.
For further posts about East End history try have a look at these posts on the Suffragette movement in the area and the East Ends political history. We’ve also featured the Bow Bells pub before in an article looking at the churches featured in the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme.