diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 14, 2014

“Do not go on a perfunctory three weeks’ holiday to Bognor with the idea of doing a little painting. There is no need to go to Bognor; you can go into the Tube."

These were Walter Sickert's words of advice to the East London Group, an unlikely collection of artists based in Bow in the 1920s and 30s. They were working class men and women - window cleaners, parkkeepers and engine drivers by day, but landscape painters by night. They had names like Harold, Phyllis, Cecil and Albert. They came together in classrooms at Bethnal Green Men’s Institute and Bow Central School under the tutelage of teacher John Cooper. They returned home to lowly conditions and painted local scenes on makeshift canvases. Nevertheless their work was exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery, even in the Tate, as the group's star burned briefly and bright. And now, eighty years on, their works are again on show in the area that made them. There is no need to go to Millbank; you can go to Bow.

The exhibition From Bow To Biennale has just opened at The Nunnery Gallery, E3, and continues until Sunday 13th July. It provides the first opportunity in three generations to see the East London Group's works on display in one place, and to gain a little insight into what ordinary life was like in the pre-war East End. Very brown, if their choice of palette is to be believed, and often very drab indeed.

For a flavour of what to expect, The Gentle Author has blogged a report or two including a copious number of paintings from the exhibition, while there are 18 proper images here on Flickr. The local match factory, a pavilion in a park, a red iron bridge crossing a minor waterway with a tall brewery chimney in the background, an empty scullery - nothing was too ordinary to escape the East London Group's eye. They ventured further afield too, for example to Hackney, Clerkenwell and even Canvey Island, but their muse always appeared to be the streets near home. And this painting by Elwin Hawthorne is very near home.

I can't tell you how good it is to be able to walk through the door of my local art gallery and be faced by thirty actual paintings for a change, rather than four modern 'artworks' deftly arranged to try to fill the space. It's also a joy to view art that depicts somewhere I actually live, rather than some distant turret or sylvan field elsewhere. The view of Bow Road you see above is unmistakable, to me at least, even though virtually everything in the painting apart from the railway bridge has long since been replaced. Another painting of Bow Bridge and its iron supports is entirely unrecognisable, thanks to the wholesale replacement of the area in the 1960s by a flyover and urban motorway. But the flair in the brushstrokes brings the canvases to life, and I can somehow imagine the different world my neighbourhood used to be.

The show continues into a second room, this not generally of landscapes but of portraits, more general art, even a stuffed flamingo. There are twenty-eight paintings in here, and again it's a real treat to find The Nunnery displaying work in depth. But that'll be because they know they've got a winner on their hands, a retrospective with character. They've even gone to the bother of putting in a shop - well, it's more of a table with some cards on, but that's far more merchandising than an exhibition here in E3 normally merits. You might also be interested in buying a copy of From Bow To Biennale, the illustrated story of the East London Group, although the book probably costs more than any of the contributors ever earned for a painting in their lifetime.

The exhibition is free, as are all at The Nunnery. And if you combine your trip with a beverage and pastry from the Carmelite Cafe in the room nextdoor, you might almost stretch out your visit to a full hour. Come on, I know you've always wanted to come to Bow, I've been going on about the place for enough years now. You could come and see the church in the middle of the road, admire the flyover, negotiate the roundabout, maybe even try a little local shopping. And while your photos of your day out might be just as mundane as the paintings the East London Group made here eighty years ago, I bet they won't have the charm of the originals.

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