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The excitement for me as an artist lies not in exploring the unknown but in how I can effectively organise a visual arrangement that reflects the atmosphere and intensity of an environment, evoking a precise moment of the day under specific light and conditions. I hope you enjoy the work

Feature of the week  01/04/2018

Night & Day

at Stepney Snooker Club

I was first drawn to the Stepney Snooker Club in 1985, when I noticed an exotic step at its entrance, consisting of a mosaic floor declaiming the mysterious name, Ben Hur. This intrigued me as already, I had noticed a certain contrast between the faded crumbling step and the smart, newly plastered facade of the building that exuded a rather continental atmosphere. It was a quiet, somewhat genteel backwater, lined with plane trees, where several houses had wooden shutters and these were painted in various shades of pastel, unusual in those days. There was also a furniture makers’ where I purchased a pine wardrobe and two kitchen chairs that I still possess and use everyday; just along the street was a bric-a-brac shop and two pubs, one of which I think was called the Star. It all had a friendly village-like ambiance, which changed according to the time of day one approached it.

On discovering the step I decided to make some inquiries and through my research (no Google then), discovered the Snooker Club to have been the location of the Palacedium Cinema, which was opened in 1913 and taken over in 1917 by a man who went by the name of Ben Hur. He was a cinema projectionist. This cinema is not to be confused with another called the Palaseum Cinema not far away.


On in November 2017, the Gentle Author talks to the grandson of Ben Hur and shows a delightful film made by his grandparents of a street party to celebrate King George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935.  In this short film, the life and vibrancy of the local populace sparkles through the lens. For all to see, they romp unabashed along the streets, performing jolly knees-ups and sing-alongs, evidence that although they may have been poor, they were thoroughly rich in spirit.


The ‘Ben Hur’ cinema closed in 1962 when it was first transformed into a Bingo Hall and then, later in 1985 it became the ‘Stepney Snooker and Social Club’. I never actually saw anyone go in or out of that club when I passed it every week on my way to an evening’s life-modeling assignment at Smithy Street Adult Education Institute.


I really don’t know what leads a painter to react to certain moments, to a scene or event but in my mind, I still recall one chilly night on my home at about 10pm. I spotted a lone figure on the doorstep of the Snooker Club, smoking a cigarette and I immediately sensed an opportunity. Looking back I suppose it defined a certain mood but instinctively, I crossed the road and whipped out my cheap, light, film camera that I would carry with me in my bag, and quickly snapped a shot in lieu of a sketch. I had no idea what I had captured and had to wait until the roll of film had been developed but in the meantime, I set my mind on developing two paintings that would contrast the ambience of the locality.


I decided to paint the Snooker Club, depicting it both during the day and at night time. I had noticed that as the gentility fell away in the evening, the street became slightly threatening, a different feel that became more apparent in my photo and subsequent drawings. This might have been my overactive imagination I am sure, but I asked myself… what did actually go on in that place, behind those closed doors? Both paintings were exhibited in a solo show, ‘The Face of Urban Life’, at Bancroft Road Central Library in 1986, and amazingly both sold. The daytime one to the library - now called the Local History Library for Tower Hamlets. Unfortunately, I have no record of who bought the night time painting but I would love to find out. The painting is unlikely to be dated or signed as, if I remember correctly, I thought it arrogant to sign paintings in those days.


The snooker club closed in 2007 and the building was demolished to make way for yet more anonymous concrete, steel and glass buildings that now dominate parts of Stepney.


I viewed the daytime painting very recently, as a solo exhibition of my work is planned for early in 2019 and I wanted to check on its appearance to decide whether it was suitable for inclusion. It was very odd seeing that painting again, for the first time in over thirty years. Firstly, it was larger than I remember; also, the image seemed to contain a certain gravitas that I do not recall identifying during its making. Perhaps this is in part due to the accretion of patina over time and I do believe that completed paintings develop as they age. Sometimes the work becomes more cantankerous or problematic as its freshness drops away, and at other times the image becomes more harmonious or accepting, as it acquires a kind of character through the years.


I have the permission of the Local History Library to borrow the work for the show, and… should any viewer be aware of the whereabouts of the nighttime painting, please let me know.

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