When David Buckman’s From Bow to Biennale, Artists of the East London Group was published in 2012 it was the result of nine years of research and shone a light on an unknown group of East End painters who briefly flourished for a decade across the twenties and thirties. They were amateurs, night school pupils of a messianic teacher called John Cooper. Their fame resounded briefly internationally, but then was forgotten. Buckman, a journalist by training and technique, ferreted out the story, curiously reminiscent of the Pitman Painters of Ashington that William Feaver wrote about in 2008 and which became a successful Lee Hall play. Buckman had unearthed a goldmine.
And it was an exploding goldmine because that first edition detonated a burst of new information. Buckman had thought all the participants in the story to be dead, but they were not. Aimee Valdez, known as Birdie, was 101 when he found her, with a vivid memory of Cooper and his work. Eunice Veitch died in 1952 when her son was six, and he had no idea his mother had been a painter until this book was first published. Lost panels made for St Pancras Town Hall by Cecil Osborne were found. One of Cooper’s best pupils was the navvy-cum-pipe inspector Archibald Hattemore who disappeared at the group’s height: his grandson came forward with the story – he had got a new job which left him no time for classes and he ceased to show, but continued to paint at his Hackney home. There was the basket-maker Henry Silk whose great-niece unveiled a newspaper interview in which he told the reporter:
If I tell my customers that Lady Cunard has bought one of my paintings, and that one had been over to Ohio for a permanent collection, and that I had been mentioned over the wireless as an artist – do you think they would believe me? They would think I was just spinning a yarn.
When the East London Group had its first exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in December 1928 the influential magazine Studio described it as ‘little short of sensational’. The amateurs had become accomplished painters, among them the brothers Harold and Walter Steggles (respectively a solicitors’ clerk and a shipping clerk), Albert Turpin (window cleaner), Reginald Tomlinson (school inspector), Elwin Hawthorne (house decorator) and the navvy Hattemore; some even got advertising commissions.
The group’s origins had been in the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute Art Club whose librarian, A.K. Sabin, pompously wrote that the club was ‘the first serious attempt to interest the worker of the district in the executive side of art’. The institute’s first annual exhibition was in 1924 at the Bethnal Green Museum, all the exhibitors being self-taught. ‘My Bethnal Green gang produced good and various paintings’ said their teacher, William Finch. But by 1927 they had switched allegiance to the Bow and Bromley Evening Institute and a recent Slade graduate teaching there, John Cooper, who saw enough potential in them to launch them onto the West End gallery circuit, making a deal with the Lefevre Gallery. ‘Life in those days could be very new and exciting,’ recalled one of the group, Cecil Osborne, ‘and all art very wonderful, opening new vistas to be explored’.
Born in Yorkshire in 1894, Cooper had served in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and with his ex-serviceman’s grant went to the Slade where he was taught by Henry Tonks. Graduating in 1922 he underpinned his income as a painter by teaching evening classes. He created a network of powerful supporters among former fellow students, subjects and collectors, such as Henry Moore, J. B. Priestley, Thomas Beecham, Arnold Bennett, Aldous Huxley, Ramsay Macdonald and Osbert Sitwell.
For that first exhibition in 1928 ‘about 30 members drawn from Hackney, Whitechapel, East Ham, Poplar, Mile End and so on’ showed, according to the Evening News. The groups had grown from nine to thirty-five, and many of them wanted to do no more than paint images for greetings cards. Cooper steered them into more challenging areas. ‘It was his inspiration to get the members to stop painting film stars and to paint what was all about them, say, a dingy bedroom, and look at it in a new way’, said Nancy Sharp, a Slade student recruited to help by Cooper along with her fellow student and future husband William Coldstream.
As early as 1924, Cooper had been surprised by the painter-like qualities of some of the students. ‘They boldly tackled scenes from their everyday life, seeing beauty in most unlikely subjects and reproducing it with surprising success’, he told the Evening News. Teaching help came from his Slade friends, and Rodrigo Moynihan was another of his assistants; Sickert gave the group informal lectures, telling them that expensive excursions to find landscapes to paint were unnecessary. ‘There is no need to go to Bognor,’ he said. ‘You can go into the Tube’.
The Tate responded to the 1928 Whitechapel show, buying two pictures from it and, in the following year, putting on its own exhibition of 24 pictures from the group, showing ‘what British artisans can do in their spare time’, as the gallery’s press release put it.
And so the amateur East London Art Club metamorphosed into a professionally recognised East London Group with Mayfair art dealers taking an active interest. In 1935 there was a touring exhibition of Canada and the USA, organised through the Courtauld Institute and augmented by contributions of professional London Group artists such as Paul and John Nash, Charles Ginner and C.R.W. Nevinson. The high point, though, was the inclusion of paintings by the East London Group’s Elwin Hawthorn and Walter Steggles in the 1936 Venice Biennale.
The end of the group began when a five-year Lefevre contract ended in 1937, followed by the decision of the Bromley & Bow Institute to expel the group – because other students thought it unfair that they were allowed to use the institute’s facilities to exhibit and sell their work – and Cooper 42 left too. After some war work as an Air Ministry draughtsman, Cooper died of sclerosis of the spine in 1943, aged 48. The East London Group never exhibited together again, until the ten-week 2014 exhibition at The Nunnery, Bow (and more exhibitions are scheduled for the Nunnery and Southampton City Art Gallery in 2017).
Although several of the artists continued to work and show, as well as pursuing their day jobs, they never exhibited as the East London Group again. ‘My efforts have been directed to stimulating the students to express something which they feel about life’, Cooper had told The Millgate magazine, ‘this was some of the reason for Rembrandt’s greatness’.
David Buckman has a great story to tell and despite his fastidiousness in making sure every single fact is not missed, much like his meticulous researching, the book is an easy read, written by a reporter who has fallen for his subject.