For nearly 200 years, since the railway age expanded urban areas enormously while democratizing travel, the English countryside has been the principle focus of topographical love, social snobbery and nostalgia. How good, therefore, to see that the townscape of London’s East End, for so long despised as the epitome of the grimy city and then wrecked by post-war planners, is at last being rediscovered. During the twentieth century, those who knew the place – a few of them established artists but most were obscure Sunday painters – were working away to record the streets, shops, pubs, demolition sites and post-war pre-fabs, along with the street markets and the faces that animated their days. Most died thinking that their pictures would never reach much of an audience, but at last the wheel of time has turned in their direction. Earlier this autumn the recently established Spitalfields Life press produced a wonderful compendium of these artists’ paintings (East End Vernacular). In syncronicity, the Nunnery Gallery in Bow has put on an exhibition (running until December 17) of some of the same painters, and now, published for the first time, we have a memoir written around 1950 by the star of the Bow show, Albert Turpin, who lived all of his life in Bethnal Green.
Like nearly everyone born in the East End around 1900, Albert grew up in a family living hand-to-mouth; his father worked on the docks and his mother made cardboard boxes “to house another woman’s, pardon, lady’s perfume” – this remark sets the tone for an account, which, while full of activity and good times, is also spiky at the injustices of society, authority, Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and modern warfare. Albert did not seem to have taken to school, in spite of his love of reading: he ran away to enlist in the First World War when well under-age, and later joined the Royal Marines. In the 1920s, married and desperate for work, he became an office window cleaner, which meant that, by finishing early, he could have his afternoons for drawing and painting. The Second World War found him in the London fire service, carrying dying people from blitzed buildings and sketching his companions when he was off duty. In 1945, in the borough where he had long been a left-wing councillor and noted anti-fascist, he became Mayor. Towards the end of his life, he found renewed fervour in the Moral Re-Armament movement.
Plentifully illustrated with photographs, handbills and newspaper cuttings as well as Albert’s own paintings reproduced in colour, this book rescues a brilliant, awkward man of his time who was on the point of slipping into oblivion.
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