Kim Valdez is an artist and sculptor who was the founder of Crouch End Open Studios, an annual event exhibiting fine art ‘within walking distance of the Crouch End Clock Tower’. Her mother was a contemporary and friend of members of the East London Group of artists and Valdez has been involved in rediscovering the work of these artists.
This morning M and I walked down the garden path of Valdez’ Crouch End home to see her installation ‘The Studio of the Unknown Artist 1928-2014.’
The front room of her house has been converted into the studio of Albert Turpin, a WWI marine and thereafter a window cleaner and member of the East London Group.
Valdez’ acrylic sculpture is based on a photograph of Albert Turpin.
Turpin said this: ‘Why give a man a fifteen-stone body, the temper of the story-type Irish navvy with the face of a fighting pug, and then implant a tiny seed of melancholy, a tiny seed but enough to bring tears when an old piece of music is played or a poem read.’ He was the painter of the wonderful Kitchen Bedroom, which shows his wife rinsing out his window cleaning materials.
He went on to become the Labour Mayor of Bethnal Green.
There is a lot more about these great painters in the book From Bow to Biennale by David Buckman.
I had heard of this group of painters from M, whose friend’s mother knew them well. There was talk of an exhibition. On the Bow Road. In a place called the Nunnery. And so we went. We approached from the Grove Hall Park end – a children’s playground and a pretty Memorial Park, full of lavendar and roses. And then, in a dark narrow alley, a chalk sign pointed us towards the gallery.
The East London Group Artists were a group of working men and a handful of women who were given the opportunity to paint after their experiences in the First World War. Their main tutor and driving force was John Cooper, but Walter Sickert was a visiting lecturer and Arnold Bennett a supporter.
It’s a very local set of paintings – images of Bow and Stratford, The Art Classroom (Elwin Hawthorne), The Scullery (Walter Steggles) the moving Kitchen Bedroom (Albert Turpin). There is a handy map of London indicating the site of the subjects of the paintings.
But there are also the iconoclastic smoker’s paintings – My Lady Nicotine and Pipe and Matches by Henry Silk, and bucolic images of scenes outside the smoke and grime of East London. Canvey Island (Walter Steggles) as you have never imagined it.
The whole exhibition is a powerful reminder of the acknowledgement that we cannot live by bread alone; of the skill and talent which lies dormant in all groups of people which needs to be supported, coaxed, encouraged; and the fact that in this age of ‘austerity’ (for some) and strict curriculum, that talent is not being given the chance to flourish. It is a lovely space, the exhibition is simply and clearly curated, and there are prints and cards to buy at the end, followed by a good cup of coffee in the cafe – in the sunshine if you’re lucky.
The exhibition runs until 13 July 2014. Entrance is free. It is a rare opportunity to see the work of great but little known artists and learn something of the real history of the East End.