East London Group of painters, who lived and painted in the East End of London in the 20s and 30s, is now on show at the Nunnery Gallery at Bow Arts, Bow Road. They started as a class taught by artists John Cooper and Walter Sickert.
The group painted the industrial landscape around them, the interiors they lived in, the English coastal towns where they holidayed. Like Victorian painters of boats and windmills, they saw the beauty in buildings and structures that were purely functional – what we now call "eyesores" or "blots on the landscape". They'd have loved mobile phone masts and satellite dishes. They are, thankfully, completely unsentimental. There is a total lack of "spin".
In Henry Silk's The Bedroom a bamboo table stands in an empty fireplace. In another picture a woman cooks - on a table stuck up against an iron bedstead and an Edwardian washstand. Nobody could afford to decorate their houses, so decor and furniture are 30 years out of date. Archibald Hattemore's Interior shows a mantelpiece like the one Alice climbed onto to get Through the Looking-glass. It has the same big mirror and Victorian black slate clock. Directly, we can only see the fireplace, with its green velvet drapery and matching vases. In the looking-glass room the face of a reproduction Gainsborough little girl is surreally obscured by a hanging ceiling light.
Many of the pictures are tiny. Canvey Island by Walter Steggles is exquisite, made up of blocks of colour defined by the grid of a beach hut and the geometric lines of a bridge. Walter and his brother Harry also liked squares empty of all but a few people. There is a feeling of early morning.
Walter's The Bridge is a bare, misty scene, criss-crossed by tramlines and a strange delicate metal structure in the centre. In his pictures the distance quickly becomes dimmer and lighter, like the far blue mountains of a Renaissance fresco.
Albert Turpin's style was rougher, less contemplative. The dark ground of his canvas shows through the vivid paint, and is used to "draw" linear features like lamp standards, cables, scaffolding and fences. See his Canal Scene, Victoria Park, or St James the Less, Bethnal Green. A dry brush dragged across becomes light on railings or leaves. Black accents define branches and windows.
Like the best English painters, they loved their patch, and showed it as it was: gritty, smoggy, poor, working, aged, mysterious. The show is on until July 13. There's also a book by David Buckman: