East London Group: Out of the City

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The core of the East London Group of artists were East End workers — “a warehouseman, a house decorator, three deck hands waiting for a ship, and a haddock smoker”. They met in classes at the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute and exhibited their paintings from the late 1920s to the late 1930s.

They were best known for their landscapes of the East End, painting the streets and buildings of Bethnal Green, Bow and Stratford, the canals and bridges around the Thames and some of the big workplaces such as the Bryant and May match factory.

This exhibition focuses on the large number of paintings they also made outside London. As well as landscapes from around the British Isles, many of them are of places London’s workers would visit when they had the chance, such as Epping Forest and Margate.

Essex is well represented, with paintings of places such as Canvey Island and a lively scene of the seafront at Southend by Brynhild Parker, one of the female group members.

The gallery is also showing a fascinating display of notes, catalogues and other ephemera about the artists and some original Shell Oil advertising posters with art by the group have been loaned to the exhibition.

The artists may have been part-time but they were serious about their work and the paintings are far from naive; indeed they are often very accomplished. They all worked in a realistic, observational style but some developed a style which included more heightened colour and atmosphere, particularly reflected in some of the scenes painted by Harold Steggles.

The group was not explicitly political and the impact of the Depression and the anti-fascism of the 1930s found little direct echo in their work. The paintings are nonetheless rooted in the real world of ordinary experience, away from both the pompous official art of imperial Britain and the privilege typified by the Bloomsbury Group.

The most political of them, window cleaner Albert Turpin, painted the dispossessed and the activists of the East End and was an active anti-fascist and socialist.

The art world took up the East London artists for a while in the 1930s, but they had largely been forgotten by all except enthusiasts. The current exhibition is curated by Alan Waltham whose wife is a niece of group members Harold and Walter Steggles. A book, From Bow to Biennale by David Buckman, has just been republished and a book about Albert Turpin and an exhibition of his work are also planned.

The group’s work is a record of places which were to alter radically through wartime bombing, economic change and redevelopment.

It is also the record of a group of ordinary men and women for whom bread and work were not enough and who struggled together, despite often hard lives and conditions, to find expression and joy in their art.