Academic stuff didn’t interest me very much when I started secondary school in the mid 1960s. I was a kid more interested in sport and art. To further encourage the latter, I had an inspirational art teacher right through my school-days. He was someone I never got to thank properly but who, with the retrospection of having passed “three-score years” I can see was a real influence on me.
Harvey Sklair was a bit of a local legend, and I’m glad he’s properly remembered online. He was a very good artist, a point possibly lost on a class full of eleven/twelve year-olds, but what stuck with me was that he didn’t just stick a brush in our hands and point at the paints, he talked to us about why art mattered. He also emphasised that great art was all around us, and that you didn’t need a knighthood or a wealthy family to be regarded as a memorable painter. He said “If a bunch of dockers from Glasgow, or lads from Bermondsey can become an art movement, so can you!”.
At the time, we had my mother’s youngest brother living with us. My Uncle Colin was a bit of a painter, specialising in simple oils of local views. He called himself a “self-taught primitive”. I wish I’d still got even one of his canvases, because they had a big effect on me (as did the intoxicating smell of turpentine and varnish, I think!). I asked him who his favourite artist was. He said “John Cooper”. I’d never heard of him. Nor had the art books at Beckenham Library.
Fast forward a good few years, into the days of the internet. I stumbled upon brief mention of John Cooper on the web, while looking for a book about (unrelated) W Heaton Cooper, my favourite mountain painter. The John Cooper piece, which I can’t now find, was the first reference I’d heard to “The East London Group” as such, and I wondered whether it was these to whom Harvey Sklair had been referring, back in my schooldays.
It took social media, and specifically Twitter, to rekindle some of these thoughts, when the East London Group Twitter account (@EastLondonGroup) began sharing the paintings of members of the Group online and telling their fascinating story.
Well, today, I’ve been to Southend to see a superb exhibition cleverly titled “Out Of The City”, in which Alan Waltham and others have finally brought together a large and representative collection of landscapes and other views by members of the East London Group. Most are from the 1930s. That these paintings represent a genre of work hugely, but subtly influenced by Monet, Pissaro, Cezanne, etc (amongst many others, I am sure) becomes immediately clear in the exhibition.
Doubtless influenced by free access to art in places like the National Gallery and Tate Gallery, here was a loose collection of mostly poor working class East Enders picking up crumbs of inspiration from wherever they saw it, and turning it into a feast. I can only think it is their origins and lack of “establishment” connections that explain why the work of the East London Group is not so very much better known. That’s despite the fact that East London Group work featured at places like the Venice Biennale in the late 1930s. The Southend exhibition also includes a catalogue of a show in which East Londoners Walter Steggles and Elwin Hawthorne exhibited alongside work by Degas, Cezanne, Gaugin and Renoir!
Walking in to the Beecroft Gallery in Southend, after seeing so many East London Group paintings on social media in the last few years, I felt like I was entering a room full of old friends. Seeing paintings “in the flesh” for the first time can be a very mixed experience. Some don’t immediately “do it”, and others just leap off the canvas at you. For me, “Essex Landscape, Early Morning” (1938) by the aforementioned Walter Steggles stopped me dead. Pure Cezanne/Monet-style expressionism.
And being a kid brought up on Broadstairs and Margate beach holidays in the early 1960s, Cecil Osborne’s “Punch & Judy: Margate Sands” (1935) tugged many strings of memory.
I was also agog at the frames! I can only imagine the artists searched out and ‘rescued” these 18th and 19th century gems from junk shops and scrap-heaps. They are brilliant, if occasionally rather incongruous surrounds to some of the paintings. Take the faded gilt, rococo wrap to Harold Steggles’ Chesil Bank from Portland (1938) as just one example!
I am happy to say that the East London Group Exhibition at the Beecroft Gallery, Victoria Street, Southend on Sea is on until 25 June 2016. It is open from 10am to 5pm Tuesdays to Saturdays, and admission is free. You can buy prints and greetings cards there of some of the best of what is on show, and pick up a copy of the newly revised masterwork about the East London Group, David Buckman’s “From Bow to Biennale”. (That web link covers the original edition)
In keeping with my habit of titling these blogs from stuff in my music collection, this one came from Van Morrison’s “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher” album. Fitting, on several levels!
And no matter how awful the A13 can be, like today, I’ll certainly be going back to visit these “old friends” again before the show ends.