Exhibitions to be devoted to the East London Group

26th September 2017

Children’s author Michael Rosen and radio producer Emma-Louise Williams are curating two exhibitions in the UK that will be dedicated to a team of working class artists from the East End of London, it has been reported. 

Known as the East London Group, the selection of artists includes office clerks, a navvy, a window cleaner, a shop assistant, a printer, a basket-weaver and an errand boy. In the late 1920s and 1930s, the group shot to fame and were known as world celebrities, only to be forgotten after the second world war, claims the BBC. 

However, curators Mr Rosen and Ms Williams are determined to help the public rediscover the group, with one exhibition in Southampton and the other in Bow, East London. 

Despite coming from working class backgrounds in the early 20th century (this meant none of the artists had formal art school training), the works of art the group produced are extremely sophisticated. 

It is believed that the East London Group were encouraged to create paintings by their teacher John Cooper at evening classes in Mile End and Bow. Many of the masterpieces depict the scenes that consumed the artists such as the poverty-stricken East End. 

Dated before the Blitz and post-war redevelopment, the paintings provide viewers with an insight into what the world was like before this time. For example, the works show no traffic and rarely any people, which provides them with a bleak but surreal edge. Many of the paintings show smoggy canals, railway bridges, terraces houses and deprived back gardens. 

David Buckman, who has written a book about the group, said they received large amounts of press coverage in leading newspapers like the Times and the Daily Mail ahead of World War II.

"They were well received, and received as equals," he told the BBC. He also pointed out that two of the group were invited to exhibit paintings at the 1936 Venice Biennale alongside many of Britain's leading artists of the time.

Mr Rosen believes the artists' work is “fascinating” because of their talent and insistence on painting exactly what they saw in “unfashionable” places. 

"Why paint shabbiness? It's perverse,” he said. “But that's what makes their work interesting and really rather wonderful."

For several years in the 1930s, the group staged an exhibition every year at one of the capital’s most prestigious and commercial art galleries in Mayfair - Alex Reid & Lefevre - where many art collectors purchased the group's works while critics raved about them. 

However, following the war, many of the works of art created by the group  disappeared. While over 700 of the East London Group paintings were exhibited in the 1930s, only 113 are now known to exist. 

Some of the works have been destroyed, while others are thought to be hanging unrecognised on walls or sitting in attics across the world, ahead of being discovered. 

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