On a beautiful Sunday afternoon during our most recent trip to London, we traveled the tube from our hotel in Westminster to the Liverpool Street Station in London’s East End. We walked up Bishopsgate from the station to Brushfield Street, and then to the Spitalfields Market, filled with booths of art, clothes, food, and more. After lunch, we walked down Commercial Street to Christ Church and then over to Brick Lane, following the street south to Whitechapel and the Whitechapel Gallery. It was a beautiful day to see a part of London we had never previously visited.
The inspiration for this visit was a blog, one I’d been visiting for some time called Spitalfields Life. Who actually writes the blog posts is something of an online mystery – the writer is known as “The Gentle Author” and lives somewhere on Brick Lane, writing wonderful blog posts about London’s East End – its people, its history, its streets, and its contribution to life in London. And the writer publishes books.
The latest is East End Vernacular: Artists Who Painted London’s East End Streets in the 20th Century, and what a beautiful book it is.
“Vernacular” refers to the commercial, work-a-day, working class associations of the East End. This is a region of London that included factories, warehouses, working class residences, and the slums of Whitechapel. The people who lived here worked in the factories and on the docks, markets and small commercial establishments. And while artists before the 20th century had drawn and painted scenes there (including James McNeill Whistler), it was the indigenous artists of the 20th century who found the region’s spirit and soul.
The names won’t necessarily be familiar to American or even British ears. Nathaniel Kornbluth. Pearl Binder. Brothers Harold and Walter Steggles. Grace Oscroft. Cyril Mann. Roland Collins. Dorothy Bishop. Geoffrey Fletcher. Peri Parkes. Leon Kosoff. And quite a few more. Most if not all of them were born and grew up in the East End. Some worked in their fathers’ shops. Many held full-time jobs, squeezing in what they could paint from a bedroom window.
The artists were often self-taught or came under the guidance of local arts organizations. Often the “big boys” in London art would take notice, and many of the works would find their way to the Tate, the Royal Academy, and various exhibitions. The Whitechapel Gallery often played a critical role in bringing these artists to wider public attention.
Like any good curator, The Gentle Author has been selective, choosing some outstanding works. What the included paintings share is simplicity in form and color (some are reminiscent of the works of Edward Hopper) and common themes of streets, buildings, and scenes that are often still familiar (I recognized a few from my brief afternoon journey) even though the artists often knew that the area was changing and wanted to capture it before it disappeared.
The Gentle Author has published of numerous books by others about London’s East End, including A Hoxton Childhood, Brick Lane, Travellers’ Children in London Fields, East End, and The Boss of Bethnal Green, among others. Others include Spitalfields Life, The Gentle Author’s London Album, and Cries of London (links to all of the books can be found on the Spitalfields Life web site).
You can scroll through posts at Spitalfields Life and see examples of many of these artists. But to see them together as a published collection like East End Vernacular is something rather marvelous.
Top painting: Old Houses in Bow by Grace Oscroft (1934).