“Were they Frenchmen and, preferably, dead,” the works of the East London Group artists would “already command high prices”. This was the verdict of one contemporary critic on the group’s 1930 show at the Alex, Reid and Lefevre Gallery.
These East London artists – working class men whose only artistic training had been evening classes in Bow under an ambitious Yorkshireman, John Cooper – enjoyed a string of successful exhibitions at the Lefevre before the Second World War. They had previously exhibited at the Whitechapel, of which one critic wrote, “the excellence, good taste and originality of the work… would easily hold its own by comparison with many seen in our West-end galleries.” By 1936 two of the group reached the summit of exhibitions: the Venice Biennale.
Despite the enthusiasm of contemporaries and the quality of their output, today this group is barely remembered. They suffered the double blow of war and the demise of their leader and teacher Cooper, who died of encephalomyelitis in 1943. Cohesive continuation proved impossible, although individual members carried on painting.
But a hefty new book, and accompanying exhibition of several of their extant works, may do something to reverse this trend. From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group, written by David Buckman, has been extensively researched, (the credits run to several pages) and was done so in the nick of time. Buckman began work in the late eighties, and managed to meet and interview several artists involved with the group, most of whom died in the mid-nineties. The result is something both academic and entertaining; much of the work is focussed on establishing the facts, but it is brought to life by the opinions and memories of those the author managed to track down.
From Bow to Biennale is lavishly illustrated, too. Much of the East London Group’s output was rooted in the everyday experiences of the artists. Particularly stunning is Bow Road (1931) by Elwin Hawthorne (or, Elwin Hawthorn; the “e” was a mistake introduced in a catalogue of the first Lefevre show). The scene is, at first glance, quite tedious: a few people stand around on a grey street, one of whom seems to wait for a bus. Yet Hawthorne introduces a sense of mystery. The shadows are long, and the outermost branches of the trees appear as thin as spiders’ webs. One cannot help wonder why there are so few people on what appears to be a main road, and why everything is so desolate. And this was painted well before the notion of nuclear holocaust was conceivable.
But their output was not restricted to scenes of East London. There are pictures of Brighton and Ilfracombe. Nor did they just paint. Their lithographs were used for Shell adverts, and Cooper produced a number of mosaics. The artists were of humble backgrounds, but their work was far from parochial.
The exhibition at the Abbott and Holder gallery celebrates the publication of the book. Buckman talked of how difficult it had been even to assemble the paintings that they had, and of how, given the productivity of the group, there must be tens of works by the East London Group lying forgotten in attics and under beds – so it might be worth getting round to that spring clean.
From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group, by David Blackman, is published by Francis Boutle. The accompanying exhibition takes place until 6th April at Abbott and Holder, 30 Museum Street, London WC1A 1LH.