How is it that one of the most innovative, commercially successful, and – in its time – hugely publicized British art groups of the twentieth century became neglected? That was the case until my book From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group was published last month. During the writing of it, whenever I mentioned the Group to experts in this period, the response was usually – East London Group, just a name.
My curiosity about the East London Group was aroused many years ago when I read an illustrated feature about it in the April 1931 issue of “Studio” magazine. As a private interest in early twentieth-century art developed over time and as I earned a living as a freelance journalist in a largely unrelated field, I would occasionally return to a photocopy of that article, which acted like a maggot in my mind.
At the end of the eighties, when I was researching my dictionary “Artists in Britain since 1945” in my spare time, I decided to call at the last known address in Hampstead of the painter Phyllis Bray to check if she was still active. By then Phyllis was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease but, as we chatted, the East London Group was mentioned. She had been a member and, for several years, was married to its founder, John Cooper. She directed me to her daughter, Philippa, also an artist, who held the Red Book of press cuttings about the Group’s activities during the twenties and thirties.
Thus began – when I could afford the time – the long, painstaking research to tell the Group’s story. As a start, the book of cuttings was photocopied to ensure a second copy existed and it became a collection that expanded as more cuttings were found. One of the problems for a researcher is that people who save cuttings sometimes do not date or source them or, if they do, someone else decides to tidy them up years later by snipping off these essential details. The Red Book had been subject to this treatment at some stage and, consequently, many weeks were spent in correspondence with likely helpers and in microfilm booths at the newspaper library in Colindale, pursuing clues on the back of the cuttings or the choice of typeface employed.
It emerged that the Group had achieved enormous, largely flattering press coverage, for its exhibitions, with the “Daily Mail” covering one show three times. Writing in the “Studio” in 1929 – as the Group forayed into the West End – F. G. Stone commented how its painters had found “beauty about the streets of the district that is known to the Post Office as E.3.” Just over a year later, the distinguished critic T. W. Earp in the “New Statesman” thought these artists “furnish the best exhibition of young English contemporary painting which has been shown in London this year.” Early in 1933, American writer Helen McCloy in the “Boston Evening Transcript,” judged that “Never has there been so peculiarly English a group in modern art as these young workingmen” who had been able to convey “the very spirit of the Cockney, the happy robust soul who is England.” By end, in 1936, when the Group was holding its eighth annual show at Lefevre Galleries, the “Sunday Times” termed it “the most interesting and promising of our younger art societies.”
By then, John Cooper was middle-aged and had only a few years to live, dying in 1943. As a charismatic young painter from Yorkshire, he had inspired such raw material as errand boys, shopgirls, basket-makers and window cleaners to give up their precious spare time several days a week to attend his East End classes. After teaching in Bethnal Green, he moved to a school in Bow where he attracted several dozen students. Many of these painters, showing as the East London Art Club, had an exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in December 1928. This prompted Charles Aitken, its former director, then in charge of what is now Tate Britain, to display some of the pictures at the Millbank gallery early in 1929, and that show lead to the Lefevre Galleries series, provincial shows, participation in mixed exhibitions in Britain and abroad, plus solo shows for many of the members.
At the 1936 Venice Biennale, two East London Group members, Elwin Hawthorne and Walter Steggles, participated alongside luminaries such as Frank Brangwyn, Barbara Hepworth, Gilbert Spencer and Philip Wilson Steer. Walter was one of the six surviving East London Group members that I traced, providing unique memories that otherwise would have died with him. When a small reunion was organized at Phyllis Bray’s house, Walter told her daughter Philippa – “John Cooper should have been decorated for what he did for artists.”
Walter, like his brother Harold, was grateful for the variety of teaching provided at Bow. John Cooper had been at the Slade School of Fine Art just after World War I and decided that a number of ex-Slade friends could aid his work and a few would later exhibit with the Group too. Phyllis Bray was one, William Coldstream another, but his real coup was to get Walter Sickert to make the trip into this unfashionable part of London to impart unique and often eccentric wisdom. Here was artistic royalty, and Lilian Leahy, who eventually married Elwin Hawthorne, recalled to me how as Sickert sat expounding, dressed in plus-fours and diamond-patterned socks, shopgirls would giggle with their hands over their mouths.
The East London Group website lists the thirty-five artists I claim as members. In addition to the history of the Group, the book contains biographical essays on more than twenty of these, including such colourful characters as Murroe FitzGerald, Irish Civil War death sentence escapee, eventually managing director in London of the Acme Flooring & Paving Co – and Albert Turpin, professional window cleaner, Anti-Fascist protestor and Labour mayor of Bethnal Green, whose passion was to record the disappearing End End that he grew up in. Yet many of the other members remain ghostly figures, despite my research into their personal histories.
As well as attracting Walter Sickert, John Cooper involve dozens of celebrities in his project. Charles Aitken encouraged the influential art dealer Joseph Duveen to buy paintings. Samuel Courtauld, Lord Melchett, Lord Burnham and the writer Arnold Bennett gave early financial help. Lady Cynthia Mosley and Osbert Sitwell opened exhibitions. The Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and Labour Party stalwart George Lansbury attended exhibitions and gave moral support. As their reputation developed over the years, the Group sold to influential collectors with the Lefevre Galleries welcoming extra, non-catalogue pictures, as sales rose and, on occasion, an exhibition’s term was extended.
As I investigated, I found that John Cooper and his Group became involved in more than exhibitions of paintings. It was these multifarious non-gallery activities that consumed my time, calling for detective work. It emerged that the Group was involved in making a documentary film about their activities. Also, members also painted pictures for stage plays and contributed to Shell’s popular range of posters. Phyllis Bray created three huge murals for the New People’s Palace in Mile End Rd and John Cooper revived mosaic teaching at the Central School of Art, becoming director of Courtauld-Cooper Studios and producing exciting Modernist work.
With such a large body of diverse work to its credit and dozens of works in public collections, the Group must take its place in any history of British Art in the first half of the century. Its omission would be scholarly negligence. And the story did not end with World War II as – thanks to the enduring inspiration of John Cooper – many members continued painting, long after the East London Group expired.