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Category: London East End painters

From Bow to Biennale – artists of the East London Group

HOW could it be that an art movement that took London by storm in the 1920s and 30s – propelling house painters, navvies and painters to international success – could simply disappear? Surely the East London Group should be as celebrated as the Bloomsbury artists, namechecked by critics and young painters?

David Buckman's From Bow to Biennale

David Buckman's From Bow to Biennale

Yet as dramatically as it arose, the grouping was gone. The movement depended on the energy and drive of charismatic leader, John Cooper,and his tragically early death saw the end of his dream.


The roots of the movement lay in the slow and steady growth of adult education in London over the previous decades – itself building on the piecemeal establishment of universal education for the working classes over the previous century. Following the Elementary Education Act of 1870 and the Education (London) Act of 1903, young East Enders were no longer going into work illiterate and innumerate. Many had their appetite for education awakened, and it was they – working under impossibly difficult conditions, squeezing in adult learning alongside jobs and families – who would form the core the East London Group.

In 1924, the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute Art Club held its first exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum. The space had been opened as a branch of the South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert) Museum in 1872 – it’s now the Museum of Childhood. It proved a marvellous catalyst: both inspiring local artists and providing a venue for exposition of their work. The Institute librarian, AK Sabin, wrote in his introduction to the catalogue (the first of several he would pen) that the Bethnal Green group had been started “little more than a year ago by a warehouseman, a house decorator, three deck hands waiting for a ship, and a haddock smoker”. The wonder was that these East Enders, amid family commitments, working long hours

Albert Turpin painted Baroness Coutt's white elephant not long before demolition

Columbia Market, 1955, by Albert Turpin

and jostling for piecework, were able to fit in instruction two nights study a week after a hard day at work, paying for their own materials from their sparse wages. Soon, the group numbered 30 or more active members, and that first show featured 88 works by 15 members. Only one of their number would go on to join the later East London Group: George Board, who showed seven watercolours. But more important was the interest the show sparked. Among the crowds at the 1925 Bethnal Green show were the young Harold and Walter Steggles. The brothers would go on to be key members of the later East London Group.

The Steggles boys showed an eye for commerce that was foreign to the more high-minded Sabin. He refused to put prices in his catalogue, believing that “the reflection this pursuit of artistic expression makes upon the artist himself – the new background it brings

Post Office Wireless Station Rugy, by East London Group leader John Cooper, 1935

Post Office Wireless Station Rugy, by John Cooper, 1935

into his life – is the most urgent and important thing”. Harold Steggles however thought pricing more likely to put money in the pocket of the artist, and all the later East London Group catalogues would feature prices. Significantly, those shows they would garner commercial as well as critical success, being shown in West End galleries and around the world.

East London Group artists Harold and Walter Steggles

Harold and Walter Steggles in 1928

But by now there was an even more significant shift. Percy Wagstaff, in charge of the classes at Wolverley Street School, in Bethnal Green Road, had recruited the charismatic and inexhaustible (for now at least) John Cooper. Cooper had walked into Civvy Street after service in the Great War, and invested his demob pay in three years’ study at the Slade School of Fine Art, leaving in 1922. “Having no money, I had to get teaching, and taught in East London in the evenings,” he explained to collector Sir Michael Sadler years later. Cooper immediately shook up the teaching and the group had an instant triumph. In this 1927 programme notes, Sabin excitedly reported that group member Archibald Hattemore had had his picture An Interior

Walter Steggles painting of the wharf that once served the Bryant and May match factory in Fairfield Road, Bow

Brymay Wharf by Walter Steggles

bought by the National Gallery of British Arts (now Tate Britain). Hattemore’s story was tailormade for the popular press. He was the “navvy artist”, too broke to buy a canvas and so rendering his picture on calico. Apart from his few months’ study at the Institute, Archibald was entirely self-taught. With a wife and three children, and a weekly wage of only £2 and 14 shillings for his job at the Metropolitan Water Board, just getting the time and materials together to paint was a struggle. When Cooper saw the work he was stunned; other critics declared it to have “a Velasquez touch”. But for Hattemore aesthetics had to go hand in hand with commerce. When Cooper told him he wanted to show his picture more widely, Hattemore’s response was sanguine. “They tell me it is a great honour. I hope it will mean a way out for me. It will… if somebody buys the picture!” The Duveen Fund promptly did and Hattemore was on his way.

And others swiftly followed. The 1927 exhibition was covered extensively by the Daily Chronicle, with headlines including “Workmen as artists” and “Window cleaner’s work in East End show”. The window cleaner was Albert Turpin, a prolific painter who would later go on to be mayor of Bethnal Green. There was basketmaker Henry Silk and his paintings of Zeppelins. Spanish Onions was a still life by Bow engine driver EH Hawthorn, while Victoria Park park-keeper, C Warren took time off from “chivvying small boys about” to commit details of park life to canvas. There was RH James, stone deaf and who hadn’t picked up a brush until he was 58. His father, grandfather and three uncles had all been drowned at sea, and that had, unsurprisingly, put RH off a life on the ocean wave. Ironically, many of his paintings were seascapes. And BR Swinnerton had executed a “very homely little picture”, The Place I Love showing his wife and child at the hearth. He declared that he would never attempt such as scene again as “the rogues won’t keep still!”

Demolition of Bow Brewery by Elwin Hawthorne shown at Lefevre Galleries 1931

Bow Brewery by Elwin Hawthorne

The Institute had been begun in 1920 with an instruction to Sabin to “make good” within three years or it would be shut down.The classes far exceeded merely making good. Sir Percy Harris was tasked with delivering a report on progress ten years on, and described it with a new home (albeit a rather grim building) at 229 Bethnal Green Road. Bedecking the facade was a banner, made by member J Cordwell, proclaiming that it was “The house of 2000 men”. Cooper’s energy and ideas had fired an extraordinary growth in membership. “My idea is to stimulate and direct these talented men…they have an abundance of strong individuality and fine fresh pictorial ideas…I don’t fritter away this energy…in drawing common objects.” So there were the odd still lives (those onions for instance) but Cooper was increasingly forcing his students out of the classroom, to paint the East End in all its grit, grime and reality.

William Finch taught at the Institute at the time (he went on to become a famed art teacher and only died in 2003) and painted a vivid pen

Almshouses at Mile End by East London Group's Elwin Hawthorne, shown at Lefevre Gallery in 1935

Elwin Hawthorne, Almshouses at Mile End

portrait of those days. “My Bethnal Green gang produced good and varied paintings. It was a varied bunch and tough – a formerly well-known professional boxer, a cooper, a London street busker, a market trader, an injured window cleaner.” John Cooper went further. Arriving at Bow he soon concluded that he had the raw material to begin a whole new school of art. All he had to do was get the members “to stop painting film stars…and to paint what was all about them, say a dingy bedroom”. He dragged his students away from “copying bad pictures” and winnowed out the less talented or committed men. And in 1929, Cooper made a decisive shift, renaming the artists ‘The East London Group’ and signing a contract with West End gallery Alex, Reid & Lefevre to host the annual show. It meant greater exposure for his crew, and increased sales.

Over a few short years, Cooper wrought an astonishing change. From a lively evening class in Bethnal Green, by 1936 East London Group members were being exhibited at the Venice Biennale, among the most prestigious showcases on the international art scene. Alongside such luminaries as Barbara Hepworth, Sir Alfred Gilbert and Duncan Grant were Elwin Hawthorne with Una Via Di Londra and WJ Steggles, with Scena Prosso Chichester. John Cooper didn’t exhibit his own work, but he had the satisfaction of knowing that “two raw amateurs he

Core members of the East London Group of artists, including Bray, Hawthorne Cooper and Parker

Elwin Hawthorne, Phyllis Bray, John Cooper, Brynhild Parker at Lefevre Galleries 1932

had welcomed into his Bow evening classes a dozen years before were reckoned good enough to show alongside the best in British art.” Cooper’s work ethic was legendary, teaching all around London and increasingly moving into mosaic work. He encouraged his students to exhibit more widely, and in December 1935 came another milestone for the group. Cooper’s assistant and then wife, Phyllis Bray, was asked to create three large murals for the New People’s Palace in Mile End.

But even as the Group found further success there were signs of decline and dissolution. The eighth annual Lefevre show in 1936 would prove to be the last, amid fears that the grouping might be becoming stale. And amid the usual praise in the press that year were murmurings of dissent, with the Morning Post critic believing that “its members were hysterically overpraised in the beginning”. There is always a critical backlash of course, and the work of WJ Steggles, Brynhild Parker and Phyllis Bray was still garnering commercial and critical success, but there were other cracks appearing too.

The marriage of Cooper and Bray was swiftly unravelling (in part prompted by an attachment Phyllis formed to an architect during her People’s Palace work),and by September 1936, the two fiery personalities were living apart in Bow. It of course made teaching together difficult. And with the outbreak of war, Cooper’s situation declined. Teaching hours had been cut, and he was now struggling financially. Things improved with a job at the Air Ministry drawing aircraft, but the already emotionally volatile artist was rocked further when his flat

Bethnal Green's Salmon and Ball pub, by East London Group artist Albert Turpin

Bethnal Green's Salmon and Ball pub, by Albert Turpin

was bombed in an air raid. Cooper had to leave his Ministry job, citing “a long breakdown”. At least part of the reason, according to his doctors, was overwork, and he returned to his native Yorkshire to recuperate. His health declined, and John Cooper died in his sleep at Leeds Infirmary in February 1943. He was just 48 years old. The death of Cooper undermined the possibility of any revival in the East London Group after the war. The group possessed huge talents, but relied heavily on

The-Guardian Angels by Elwin Hawthorne shown at Lefevre Galleries in 1931

Guardian Angels Church, Mile End, by Elwin Hawthorne

the energy and drive of Cooper to make things happen – without him the engine was gone.

From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group by David Buckman. Published by Francis Boutle, £25

Photos of Roman Road, Bow and Bethnal Green

Spend enough time in Roman Road and you’ll see one of the Photo Friends, camera in hand and looking for another glimpse of Bow to immortalise in film … or nowadays on memory card. Don Archer, Ken Claisse, John Curtis, Jim Hardiman, Mireya Saavedra,

Emily Shepherd and Pam Tesner are the Friends. Veterans of the East End (the youngest member 50, the oldest in the mid-eighties) and most of them have lived and worked in Bethnal Green or Bow all their lives. And this month Oxford House in Bethnal Green offers the rest of us a chance to see the work they’ve been doing – a visual journal of a vanishing East End that they’ve been patiently compiling over the years.


Roman Road, Bow in the 1960s

Roman Road, Bow in the 1960s

Though it’s all come together rather well, the starting point of the collection was the sort of happy accident that often sparks off creative work. Photography tutor to the group, Sarah Ainslie, takes up the story. “When we began, one of the members had black and white photos they’d taken in the 1960s, so we used these as a basis for a project, focusing on the shops and square of Roman Road.” First the members photographed exteriors of all the shops down to Grove Road, a lively, gaudy mix of grocers, fast food emporia, estate agents and the rest … all the elements of a living high street. But shops are as much about the people who own and work in them as the products they sell. So the group interviewed the shop owners, and dug in to their family history. Visitors to the exhibition will see the exterior shots of the shops, placed together to form long collages of the street.

The run of images tell a story of a street sometimes in decline, but in a process of constant change, and with small business owners at its core, battling to keep one of the East End’s oldest and best loved ‘market streets’ in business.

The second focus of the exhibition follows in the footsteps of almost-forgotten East End painter Noel GibsonGibson, a self-taught Scottish artist, lived in the area during the 1960s and documented a slice of London that was changing so quickly that “sometimes I’d go back to capture a detail and find the street had disappeared!”. Even in some of the 1960s photographs, one sees the odd boarded-up shop. A neat run of Victorian terracing is suddenly interrupted by a block of 1970s concrete – the work of the Friends in documenting the Roman then and now perfectly reflects the constant and sometimes violent change in the architectural fabric of the Roman. Many of the buildings needed to go, many more were casually discarded by the developers.

A cache of Noel’s paintings were bought by Tower Hamlets Council a few decades bac, the plan being to hang them inmunicipal buildings. And this year, the Friends were invited by Tower Hamlets Local History and Archives to find the locations that Noel had painted in the 1960s and photograph them for their collection. You’ll see the new photos alongside copies of the paintings.

Noel Gibson painting of Hessel Street, Stepney

Noel Gibson painting of Hessel Street, Stepney

The street wasn’t always called Roman Road of course. Older members of the group could remember when it was still called Green Street. Before that it had been called Drift Street. But in the 1950s, the local council, enthusiastically grabbed hold of evidence that the old Roman Road from Colchester to London had passed nearby, and rebranded the thoroughfare. Now, just as Petticoat Lane became ‘the Lane’, Roman Road became simply ‘the Roman’ to all East Enders; it also became the place to go for clothes and shoes for those who didn’t fancy shelling out at West End prices.

The history, if questionable on some of the detail, is broadly sound. The Romans did come this way (or very nearby). The modern A12 trunk road, named in 1922, is laid along the route of the original Roman road from Camulodunum to Londinium: even if logic and tradition didn’t suggest the route, archeological digs (and roadworks) down the decades have uncovered evidence of the old Roman stonework of the road, sometimes in remarkably good order for a thoroughfare 2000 years old. The A12 takes a very un-Roman 90-degree turn as it hits the east side of Victoria Park, before heading south to the Blackwall Tunnel Approach.

For most of its history it would have continued south-west, across the Old Ford (where extensive evidence of Roman occupation was found in recent years) and along the route of ‘Green Street’ into the City. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of a late Roman settlement at Old Ford dating from the fourth and fifth centuries CE. And excavations in 2002–3 discovered a substantial ‘ribbon’ development along the line of the road, surrounded by fields. Near the river there was evidence for a cluster of wooden buildings dominated by a large open-ended barn. Large amounts of cattle bone were also discovered, suggesting butchery to supply the London market.

But it’s the Roman’s more recent history that’s charted here, and in many ways it has been a sad decline over the past half century. Street markets all over London struggle and the Roman is no exception. Market days are fewer, and stalls are sparser. Shops are occupied though, and owners seem determined to keep the Roman in business. After 2000 years it’s not ready to disappear quite yet.

* Roman Road, Today and Yesterday is at Oxford House, Derbyshire St, E2 6HG, 1 December until 2 January, with a private view on 6 December. Opening times are Monday to Friday, 9am to 10pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10.30am to 1.30pm. Thanks go Tower Hamlets and Gateway Housing’s Betty May Gray Charity for their funding of the project, and to Four Corners for funding and giving the group the space and support to work.

* There is an excellent gallery of Noel Gibson’s paintings online at the BBC website.

View Roman Road photos in a larger map

Rebecca, Abraham and Simeon Solomon – a Victorian tragedy

View The Solomons in a larger map

It’s a tragedy worthy of Victorian melodrama – a gifted trio of siblings rise from the East End, but their careers as painters are cut short in tragedy and shame. Abraham Solomon’s life would be curtailed by illness and an untimely death. Rebecca Solomon would be written out of history after her tragic demise under the wheels of a London cab. And Simeon Solomon, perhaps the greatest of them all, would be destroyed both by alcoholism and a moral stain almost unspeakable in Victorian times.

During the mid-1800s, the Solomons became stars of the London art world, alongside Millais, Rosetti, Holman Hunt and the others of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It was remarkable that a single Whitechapel family would produce not one, but three such figures … but then the Solomons were a remarkable family.

Father Meyer Solomon (who would Anglicise his name to Michael) was the scion of a Jewish clan which had arrived in Whitechapel, probably from Holland, at the end of the 1700s. Meyer made his fortune manufacturing hats, principally the fashionable ‘Leghorn’ straw boater. Wealth overcomes a multitude of prejudices and Meyer was among the first Jews to be made a freeman of the City of London. In those days, when the City livery companies wielded real power by keeping people out of the Square Mile, the honour allowed Meyer to become richer still. In turn, money allowed the ever-growing Solomon brood certain freedoms.

Meyer had married Kate Levy, herself a gifted painter of miniatures, and the couple had eight children. And at the family home, 3 Sandys Street in Bishopsgate, artistic expression and experimentation were encouraged. Abraham was the couple’s second son, born in 1823, and he was prodigiously gifted. At 13, Abraham became a pupil at Sass’s school of art in Bloomsbury, and in 1838 won the Isis silver medal at the Society of Arts for his drawing. In 1839 he was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy. That same year he won a silver medal for ‘drawing from the antique’, and in 1843 another for drawing from the life.

Abraham carved out a solid career producing those mainstays of Victorian art – biblical studies, such as his first exhibited work, ‘Rabbi expounding the Scriptures’, depictions of scenes from popular literature (including tableaux of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Fair Maid of Perth’ and Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘Vicar of Wakefield’) and of course those sentimental and moralising subjects so beloved of the Victorians – ‘Waiting for the Verdict’, ‘Scandal’, ‘Doubtful Fortune’ and many more. The titles would appear horribly prescient in the light of what was to come for the Solomons.

By now he was teaching art to little sister Rebecca, born in 1832. She also attended classes at the (now long gone) Spitalfields School of Design, and would then share Abraham’s studios at 50 Upper Charlotte Street, from at least 1851 to 1856 and at 18 Gower Street from 1857 to 1862. So talented was she that she worked with the great John Everett Millais, exhibited around Britain for nearly two decades and was called ‘one of the great women of the age’.

Now youngest sibling Simeon joined the family firm. Born in 1840, he started taking lessons in drawing and painting from Abraham in childhood and showed astonishing skills of draughtsmanship. He started attending Carey’s Art Academy in 1852, the same year big sister ‘Beckie’ first exhibited at the Royal Academy. Now Simeon went on to the Royal Academy Schools, a route barred to Rebecca because of her gender (she joined other female artists in protesting furiously and fruitlessly against the ban).

Tragedy was to strike the Solomons for the first time in 1862, when Abraham died suddenly of a heart attack in Biarritz. He was just 39. The two younger siblings now drew closer together, sharing a studio at 106 Gower Street from 1865 to 1867. As well as making her own paintings, Rebecca acted as Simeon’s agent, and organised lucrative commissions, including one for Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. Denied equal status with male painters, Beckie was showing a flair for marketing her own work, with her illustrations appearing in popular prints such as The Churchman’s Family Magazine and London Society, Art Journal and the Illustrated London News.

Simeon was now mixing with the great artists of the age, the pre-Raphaelites who were outraging the art establishment by dismissing the great painters of the day. They reserved their particular loathing for the painterly style of artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, who they dubbed ‘Sir Sloshua’, but in fact were dismissive of most of the art of the preceding 400 years, believing the rot had set in with Raphael (hence their name).

Burne-Jones, Rossetti and rest were dazzled by Simeon’s superb draughtsmanship, and he was now moving in the highest artistic and aesthetic circles, becoming a friend of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. As well as the literary subjects favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites, Simeon was (at Rebecca’s instigation) painting scenes from the Hebrew Bible, and genre paintings showing Jewish life and rituals. But in 1873 his glittering career stopped dead when he was arrested in a public urinal at Stratford Place Mews, off Oxford Street and charged with attempting to commit sodomy. Simeon was fined £100 and fled in humiliation to Paris where he was again arrested the next year, spending three months in prison.

The young star was now cast out. Lucrative commissions disappeared overnight and Simeon began to drink heavily. By 1884 he was admitted to the workhouse. He would produce work sporadically for the next 20 years, but would never again be admitted to the London art establishment.

Rebecca disappeared almost simultaneously. Though she was still painting into the 1880s (the 1881 census shows her listed as an ‘artist painter’ with a studio at 182 Great Titchfield Street) her association with Simeon seems to have destroyed her saleability as an artist. Some stories have her drifting into alcoholism alongside Simeon, but facts on her later life are hazy – not a single photograph remains of Rebecca. On 20 November 1886, tragedy struck the Solomons once more, when Beckie was run over by a hansom cab in central London. She later died of her wounds in hospital.

She swiftly vanished from history, resurfacing only in recent years. Few of her paintings are now exhibited (her copy of Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents, sold at auction in 2008 for more than £600,000 and disappeared straight into a private collection). Simeon, meanwhile, would linger on for two more decades, finally dying in 1905 from illnesses brought on by his alcoholism. He was buried at the Jewish Cemetery in Willesden.

Map of the story:


‘Wounded Dove’ by Rebecca Solomon
‘The Acolyte’ by Abraham Solomon
‘Two Girls With Their Governess’ by Abraham Solomon
‘Reverie’ by Simeon Solomon
A Leghorn hat
Two pictures of Simeon