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 30/09/2018
I came across St. Matthias during the mid-eighties and was intrigued by what I considered its rather forlorn look. No longer used as a place of worship, it was hired out for functions and even served as an additional examination hall for Tower Hamlets College, of which more later. The entrance was accessed from the once thriving, now almost deserted Poplar High Street, but it was the view from the park side that interested me; the carefully tended flower beds and closely cropped lawn in contrast with the church that appeared sadly neglected, missing a clock face, lacking purpose or ‘raison d’être’.
Four years after completing this painting 1988, I began teaching at Tower Hamlets College, situated opposite the church on the other side of Poplar High Street. Over the next few years I had the dubious pleasure of invigilating exams in the nave of the church. Then, it had a rather bleak interior, containing rows of desks instead of pews, the pulpit functioning as a good vantage point to seek out those who might be surreptitiously smuggling in information to incorporate into answers.
The college opposite occupied a building that in former years had served as the training establishment for merchant seaman officers and St Matthias was known as the church of the merchant seamen.
More years passed and in 2008 my husband Steve saw the painting for the first time when we were moving my paintings from storage. He told me of his great grandfather on his father’s side who attended the church every Sunday taking along with him his eight grand children. They had their own pew and the grandfather would sit in the row behind. If he spotted any wandering of attention on the part of one of the children, he would raise his walking stick to tap the errant shoulder of the transgressor. Steve’s father was also an altar boy during services at the church.
Steve also recalls his aunt Queenie telling the story of running to the air raid shelter beneath the park on Sept 7th, 1940, the first day of the blitz. She remembered as she ran down Poplar High St. how she glimpsed her grandfather standing and waving his stick at the sky, shouting over and over again , ‘Stand your ground, stand your ground... they shall not pass’. When Steve asked his aunt what her response had been, she replied that she ran even faster to the shelter, ‘…the old fool!’.
Another connection linking the family to the air raid shelter is on Steve’s mother’s side. During the war Steve’s mother spent many nights sleeping in the shelter until the family was bombed out of their home in North Street by a hit in which Eileen’s mother, sister and baby brother were buried underneath rubble, however, they were miraculously located and were lucky to survive. Divine intervention perhaps? Eileen also describes how whenever the sirens began screaming, the Chinese workers around Pennyfields would run, some bare foot, down the High St to Poplar Park in order to take shelter.
Now the former air raid shelter serves as a mosque primarily for the students of Tower Hamlets College, whom both Steve and I used to teach. St Matthias Church operates as a nursery and day centre for the local community.