Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The East London Group of Artists, Bow Arts

'From Bow to Biennale' is how this exhibition of the East London Group of Artists (from around 1928 - 1936) is being sold. If that sounds a bit 'today Wanstead, tomorrow the world!' then you might like to look up and around as you approach The Nunnery, the exhibition space. As one might expect, there's the usual scrum of Victorian and post-war housing but there's also a new spume of modern, higher rise flats tumbling up against the ring road. In the distance is the ArcelorMittal Orbital. This is a part of London that is at once utterly domestic but also aspires towards further vistas. The East London Group were exhibited not only alongside notable artists from this country, including Nash and Sutherland but also beside work by the Impressionists; their style seems very much at home here in 2014.

My sense of the art on show was that a really wide net of influence had been brought onto the canvases and boards. The artists were schooled and some professional, with Walter Sickert a flamboyant (and capricious) tutor. A limited palette ('rose tinted'?!) Mornington Crescent scene is a prettily mist/smog veiled contribution of his to this exhibition. As the succinct exhibition notes make clear, the expedient time of day is responsible for many of the scenes being set early in the morning, contributing to the sense of impressionist haze. Walter Steggles is the prinicipal exponent of this, with Bow Bridge on the publicity flyer (above): a carefully controlled palette and confident impasto gives as much a sense of mass as the sharp shadow in the morning light. Elwin Hawthorne's paintings are of similar scenes (Demolition of Bow Brewery) but have a sharper focus to their lines. The control of the colour recalls the suburban pastorales of Edward Hopper as, unfortunately, does the slightly clunky figures in the foreground.

For these artists, the figurative was the landscape not the passing population. Hawthorne's watercolour The Distillery recalls the industrialised South Downs of Paul Nash, the blocks of machinery absorbing personality from composition, colour and wash. This is even true of the vibrant, gaudy Hackney Empire by Albert Turpin. Though stuffed with people queuing in the rain for the show the frame is dominated by the theatres towers, picked out of the indigo clouds and reflected in the wet pavement.

There are a sequence of portraits but I was drawn to the domestic still lifes. Henry Silks' meticulous reporting of a bedroom scene The Chair By The Bed does greater justice to the mundane inventory of objects at hand than living with them day to day would merit. I also liked Archibald Hattenmore's Interior, whose Vuillard-like clash of patterns conceal the cheekily positioned central light in the composition, hanging directly in front of the portrait's own face.

If you go to see the show (it's free) then do make sure that you go on into the café. This is not only because of the good quality coffee on offer but also for the selection of 'You Can Be Sure Of Shell' campaign advertising posters to be seen. The oil company commissioned a selection of the artists from the group to produce landscapes that would encourage the motorist to venture out into the countryside, off the beaten - or rail - track. The posters are original and are good reproductions of the art produced for their purpose.

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