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 13/05/2018
Benjys, Mile End
It was 2015, mid August in Southern France, deep in the heart of the Cevennes mountains and, although only 11 am, the heat was already in the low 30s centigrade. I was invigilating the first exhibition of my paintings to take place for 15 years at the local Maison du Pays. As the French take their holidays en masse at this time of year there was a steady trickle of interest and I found myself talking with several people, both tourists and locals.
I noticed a blonde, fit looking man who wandered in and he was looking intensely at the work, all of which was based on the local area for its subject matter. He struck up a conversation in halting French by asking me about the artist and I at once realised that this was no French tourist; he was in fact from London. When I replied in our native tongue he looked relieved to be able to continue in English.
We talked some more and he said he had a few days’ holiday left and would return with his wife and children to maybe purchase something. When he left I didn’t really expect him to come back but sure enough, three days later, all four of them were waiting for Steve and myself in the car park as we arrived for another hot morning’s work. Their names were Des and Katie and it transpired he was a Superintendent of Police based at Heathrow Airport.
What has all this got to do with Benjy’s you may ask? Well, having driven a hard bargain on the purchase of some etchings (he had learned a lot liaising with market traders in the line of duty) Des began telling me about his early days on the beat in the East End. He had spent some years working in Poplar, based at Bow Road and Limehouse stations, and as we exchanged information about several well known local landmarks… mainly public houses, we wandered onto the reputation of certain clubs. When I mentioned that I had painted Benjys nightclub his eyes lit up.
He remembered the place when it was run by the parents of Hannah Benjamin, hence the name, Benjys. They opened the nightclub in 1975 and unlike many other club owners, Hannah’s parents always closed at 2.00 am on the dot. Hannah informed me that they spent many happy years there until the early 21st century when it gained notoriety under different ownership and names, first as ‘Broke’, and then as the ‘Boheme’. A murder that occurred inside the club caused its licence to be revoked in 2011; then the building was in the public eye once more in February 2017 when it narrowly escaped demolition to make way for a 15 storey tower block. This was due to vigorous campaigning on the part of Mile End Old Town Residents’ Association.
I used to pass Benjys on my way home from evening modelling sessions in Central London and was drawn to the visual display of its façade lit up in neon, which I think was rather exotic for this part of London at the time. I was attracted by its glow in the twilight, its position next door to the Betting shop, the front of which lent an interesting, formal abstract quality to the composition with its position on the corner of the Burdett Road. Who knows what was going on beyond the traffic lights?
Prior to the yellow Millennium Bridge being built spanning the Mile End Road, it was the most colourful feature of this junction and formed a focal point once the Odeon cinema opposite had been shut down. The cinema was demolished only to be replaced by an anodyne 1980s post-modern structure. However there remained the Terminus Cafe that I entered a few times and which I also eventually painted. But that succumbed to being transformed to an estate agents.
Steve’s mother has different memories associated with the painting, particularly that of the Mecca Bookmakers next door. She tells us that previously there had been a popular Cafe on this spot. In the late forties when they were courting; Steve’s father and mother regularly frequented the establishment for a ‘Vienna Steak’. According to popular belief this consisted of diced horsemeat formed with vegetables and herbs into a patty or hamburger, then it was cooked in breadcrumbs. It fell out of favour with the demise of post-war rationing and the ending of austerity, not it seems, to the regret of many people as it appears to have been forgotten. However, given the recent climate… could it possibly make a return!