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 08/04/2018
Displayed on my studio wall is a poster announcing my first exhibition in 15 years, at the Town House, Spitalfields in 2016, titled ‘Lost Time’. Its image, a painting of ‘Turners Road’ depicts the corner of a condemned street and to me, it is indeed a reminder of a past gone forever, swept away by the unrelenting tide of development and progression. It is 1988 and there are reminders everywhere of the East End’s recent sub-cultures: from graffiti claiming ‘George Davis is innocent’ scrawled on the wall further along the street, to the more anarchist minded, ‘G. Fawkes is innocent’. Behind the orange and blue curtains of the bomb shattered glass windows on the left lives a middle-aged male recluse. He wears
an American detective-like mackintosh whatever the weather and every day, he obsessively works on the engine of a rusty old van parked on the wasteland next to the sewer chimney behind. Even in those days, there was no hope of the vehicle ever becoming roadworthy and, each year, his mackintosh becomes a little grubbiier as more bits of the engine are cast aside onto the grass.
I moved to the East End in 1983 at a time when local people were keen to move out of the bomb damaged, crumbling terraces. They wanted to relocate either out of the area completely or into more modern compact dwellings that were being built at the time. Many of the houses which remained were snapped-up by artists on short-term tenancies, and the house I lived in was one of these. Directly opposite was a five-storey block of flats built in the fifties, called Flansham House and I was particularly friendly with a couple who lived on the ground floor, Albert and June Brown. Albert was disabled having lost a leg following an accident in the docks and, of a fine day, he would sit on the front step with his Pekingese dog Flossie plus a canary. The canary puzzled me; in fact I only discovered recently, it was usual for Dockers to have caged birds as pets. June worked as a cook at a play centre in Stepney Way and had been born in nearby Belgrave Street. She had been evacuated to Windsor at the start of the war and talked fondly about seeing the two princesses in the park there frequently. Also, her daughter thinks she must have been one of the children featured in the Jubilee Party movie, mentioned last week in connection with the Ben Hur cinema.
Both June and Albert liked a drink or two, though they were rarely seen outside the home together, not unusual then. Albert was frequently to be found in the Prince Alfred at the end of the street, which like many pubs in this locality had enjoyed a certain notoriety, sadly diminished by the time I arrived. I always remember with a smile, Albert telling me that the landlord was a foreigner, born in Bethnal Green! They were outgoing, friendly and generous people, sharing whatever they had with friends and neighbours. The Prince Alfred closed a couple of years ago and is now, you will not be surprised to hear, luxury flats.
In those days there were no entrance codes or security gates and I had free access to the stairwell of Flansham House, which meant that I could walk up to the roof and survey the surrounding area and I enjoyed being able to see into the distance over this stretch of East London. I have always had a fascination for viewing the familiar from an odd angle and I recall, that as a teenager I would draw my room from the top of a stepladder. Perhaps in retrospect I should, like my friend Peri Parkes, have painted more vistas but Turner’s Road is the only one from this period. Jock McFadyen, who lived in Turners Road, also painted the corner from close up, at a later date.
In the painting you can see Mile End Park destined to cut a swathe through my home in Clemence Street, a demolition programme that was halted abruptly by the incoming Docklands Development Corporation and the subsequent shift in focus to the Canary Wharf area. A lone crane rears its head into the sky, a portent of the future. In the foreground one can just make out a pallet yard- a small firm eking a living on a patch of bombed out ground at the end of Clemence Street. There was a narrow gap through the wall at the end of my garden that I used to sometimes squeeze through to pick wild flowers growing in the frame of a burnt out warehouse shed that housed some of the pallets.
The final painting was displayed in the shop window of Russell and Chappell in Monmouth Street who had provided the stretched linen canvas for me to work on and in return, stipulated the condition that they could exhibit the finished work for a few months. ‘Turners Road’ conjures up for me a lost time when the east end was a community of locals, artists and immigrants all rubbing along together. Luxury flats and corporate bodies were yet to emerge, corner shops and cafes struggled to make ends meet during the day, Leslie’s Grocers and Rene’s Cafe spring to mind. In the evening one could always find someone to talk to and exchange ideas in the Prince Alfred, the Albion, the Queen’s Head or the Five Bells.