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 15/04/2018
Renes Cafe was situated at the opposite end of Turner’s Road which was last week’s featured painting and formed part of the triangle of Locksley Street, Clemence Street and Turner’s Road. When I first saw the cafe in 1983 it reminded me of the greasy spoon cafes in the Potteries where I grew up; on the other hand the faded blue and white paintwork incongruously recalled seaside cafes lining the promenade at northern seaside towns such as Blackpool and Rhyl. The watery ‘white light’ of the East End along with the tall austerity of the building, built at the end of the 19th century, compounded this reaction.
It opened early for the council workers and bin men, about to start their day’s work. When I passed it on my way to work as a
life-model early in the morning, the windows were steamed up and it exuded an aroma of bacon and cigarette smoke wafting through the frosty morning air. Sounds of raucous laughter would emanate from within and, to my eternal regret, I never ate a ‘full English breakfast’ there as it seemed the epitome of a male preserve. By the time I came home the cafe was closed, as you see in the painting, shutting up shop shortly after lunch, a chalk blackboard announcing Steak & Kidney Pudding or Liver & Bacon followed by Spotted Dick or Apple Pie and Custard as the speciality of the day. Vegetarians were very rare in those days.
Six months after my arrival in the area the cafe closed. It remained closed for some time before bulldozers came along and it fell victim to the encroaching tide of development as did the nearby Lino shop (which I also painted). When I went walkabout a couple of years ago with Fiona Atkins from the Town House and photographer Alex Pink, we had a great deal of trouble identifying the spot where this tall, rather elegant building had once stood, engulfed by the confusion and noise of the nearby go-kart track and skateboarding park.
Rene’s Cafe formed part of a series of paintings I executed on social venues in the East End, such as Terminus Restaurant, The Prince Alfred and the Albion public houses, but I think this painting was perhaps the most elegiac and Hopperesque of the series. It was conceived after the cafe had closed and before it had been demolished so I wanted to convey a sense that it was ‘not long this world’. It was the kind of atmosphere that pervaded the entire area at the time and I knew that I wanted the closed frontage to evoke this feeling, together with the emptiness of the streets. The layout of the composition with the cafe just nudging into the picture leads to the opening out of a deserted vista, right down to Locksley Street and into Brickfield Gardens, both still standing.
The painting was shown in the Lost Time exhibition at the Town House two years ago, when amazingly a friend recollected that she had seen the cafe in an image prior to my show. She eventually tracked it down to a book created by an American photographer Cheryl Aaron, who was active in the Bow area during the eighties. She had photographed Rene’s for a publication entitled ‘Cafe’. When I was eventually shown the image I remember seeing a photograph of a smiling, middle-aged female proprietor (Rene perhaps) with permed blond hair, standing proudly behind the counter of the cafe she ran so successfully, and I remember thinking, how different from many of the impersonal franchises that surround us today.