MICHAEL ROSEN and EMMA-LOUISE WILLIAMS explain why they’ve mounted a show of work by Albert Turpin and the East End Group
WHILE spending a good deal of his leisure time painting and drawing, Albert Turpin (1900-1964) was also a window-cleaner, fireman, anti-fascist activist, Labour councillor and eventually mayor of Bethnal Green.
Now, in an intimate gallery in London’s East End, a wide selection of the work of this working-class socialist is on display.
The exhibition The Working Artist: The East London Group at the Nunnery Gallery in Bow includes drawings from his sketch book, news cuttings from his scrapbook and reactions from the British Union of Fascists and fellow painters such as Harold and Walter Steggles, Elwin Hawthorne and Brynhild Parker, members of the group he worked with.
These working men and women got together in the 1920s at evening classes under the guidance of one John Cooper (1894-1943), producing paintings that would go on to be exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery and the National Gallery at Millbank, now the Tate.
Though the group didn’t continue after the second world war, Turpin worked on. He drew the people he lived and worked with and, painting the streets of the East End, charted the changes around him — demolitions, prefabs and new builds.
We were excited to be asked to curate this exhibition as we’ve been interested in this group’s work for several years. There is something moving and uplifting to witness non-professional artists devoting hours of their free time to intense creative activity of any kind. But there is something special over and beyond this — for much of the time they chose to observe and reproduce the cityscape of their locality, the East End.
After all, at the time the area was often cast as a “Babylon” or an “abyss,” seen as a prime example of how degenerate the working class had become. Or it was viewed as evidence of something worse — how England was being undermined by Irish, Chinese or Jewish immigrants.
For the East London Group, and Turpin in particular, to return over and over again to painting this very place without condemnation or contempt is remarkable.
Instead, they delighted in showing the patterns of houses, factories, bridges and streets.
As Turpin put it: “People who have to live all their lives in a jumble of mean huddles, apologies for houses, and who try to brighten the gloomy atmosphere with flowers, are obviously fighters.”
Specially for this exhibition, Turpin’s daughter Joan has kindly allowed us to see his sketch books and make selections to put on show. Here we can see how he sat among his family, “grabbing” them sitting, working or dozing.
As he sat in the council chamber, he must have quietly whipped out his sketchbook and drawn his fellow Councillors.
There is something gloriously relentless about all this — a deliberate, persistent and attentive response to the world he lived and worked in. Meanwhile his paintings of the buildings and streets come over as yellowed by a setting sun, refusing to be reduced to the cliche of grey, grey and more grey.
The effect is not of the place being prettified. Turpin’s attention is caught by the alleyways, the backs of terraces and the back yards, where the outside loos were jammed in next to the washhouse.
Often he seems to be leading us to look round, through and beyond the foreground buildings to houses in the next street, as if he is saying that the scene he is showing doesn’t end at the edge of the painting. The East End is an intertwined, endlessly various mix.
The newspaper cuttings remind us that Turpin was actively involved in the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, when the East End came together to resist the invasion of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists.
In a later painting, he captured the Salmon and Ball pub, where the organising committee met to plan the action that won the day. Then, turning through 180 degrees, he painted the steps to Bethnal Green Station where a dreadful wartime accident took the lives of 173 people.
The history is not revealed in the painting itself. Turpin has quietly and confidently memorialised these moments in working-class history.
n The exhibition runs at the Nunnery Gallery, 183 Bow Road, London E3 2SJ, until December 17. Free. Opening times: bowarts.org