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David Buckman

From Bow to Biennale

Artists of the East London Group

author of "Artists in Britain since 1945

David Buckman has worked as a journalist and author for well over 40 years. After studying history and teaching he worked on several publications before turning freelance in the mid-1970s. He wrote for numerous titles, as diverse as "Asian Business", "The Banker" and "Daily Gulf Times" to "Antique Collector" "Petroleum Economist" and "Girl About Town". Work for an American industrial magazine with a London bureau led him to travel in North Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. He has made many radio and television broadcasts.

While working in London's West End, surrounded by galleries and auction houses, he developed an interest in British art from the late nineteenth century, which prompted early monographs on the painters J B Manson and Leonid Pasternak. In 1998, he produced the first edition of his dictionary "Artists in Britain since 1945" and decided to concentrate on this subject, producing a range of titles. The second edition of the dictionary, covering some 14,000 artists, appeared in 2006. He has written numerous art obituaries for "The Independent" and "The Guardian".

 He became interested in the East London Group of artists, and decided to try to write the definitive account of it. In interview he explains how he arrived at writing his definitive account of this overlooked, but significant group of British artists.

DB: It is very hard to get books published, however worthy. Often, the worthier they are, the harder it is, as most commercial publishers are mainly just profit oriented. Many publishers producing art books only want popular names that will sell easily and some want substantial money up-front before assenting. 

In the case of my dictionary "Artists in Britain since 1945", I believed in it so much and it was such a big job to set it up that I did a 50/50 deal with the publisher to establish a new company to launch it. After I had spent nine years part time researching and writing it, an Arts Council representative told me that he considered it superfluous. Needless to say, it filled a knowledge gap and several thousand copies sold out within a few years. The publisher later bought me out when he wanted to develop the company further in a direction that did not interest me. It was an amicable parting.

However, I retain the copyright and what would generally be considered a generous a royalty, reflecting the huge task involved in producing it single-handed. Usually, the publisher bears the cost of publishing, although the writer is responsible for all his costs in researching and writing it. The author is then offered a royalty, usually based on a sliding scale according to the number of copies sold. The royalty may be quite small, say 8pc, so if a title sells 1,000 copies at £20 a copy, which might take several years, obviously there is not much money in writing books!

PJW: When did you start the book? 

DB: I first came across the East London Group (ELG) many years ago, through an article published in "The Studio" in the early 1930s, when researching something else at the Westminster Central Library art library, but then had no group contact.

When I was researching my "Dictionary of Artists" I found Phyllis Bray, the wife for a few years of John Cooper, who founded the ELG, whose daughter held a book of press clippings about the group. I also made contact with the artist Walter Steggles, a leading member of the group, who had an excellent memory, with whom I corresponded and whom I interviewed extensively. This led to other group contacts and I slowly - as other work permitted - gathered memories before they were irretrievably lost.

As there were 35 members in the group, it took years of intermittent research to piece the story together, with many red herrings along the way. The final writing and research took the best part of three years full time.

PJW: Why did you embark on it?

DB: Because John Cooper, who founded it at the Bow and Bromley Evening Institute in the mid-1920s, was a charismatic teacher, now almost forgotten, who by 1936 had two of his pupils showing in the 1936 Venice Biennale alongside some of the most notable artists in Britain. These two, like many of his students, were young men who had left school after only an elementary school education.

The East London Group (ELG) was one of the most important London exhibiting groups of the inter-war period, totally neglected by art historians. It was far more successful than other groups which have since been endlessly chronicled and which often had no popular following. 

As archival research developed, it became clear that the group had often achieved dozens of reviews for its annual exhibitions; that its shows were opened by notabilities such as Lady Cynthia Mosley and Osbert Sitwell; dozens of famous people had supported it, attended its private views and bought its works; and that it had gained extensive exposure abroad, with much adulatory coverage in the American press.

The Northumberland-based Ashington Group, made up of miners who painted in their spare time, has in recent years been the subject of a successful stage play and much consequent media coverage, an excellent book having been written about it years before. Cooper's East London Group (ELG), which was set up about a decade before the Ashington Group, was much more ambitious in its intentions. It achieved infinitely more press coverage; and its artists, in Britain alone, achieved a show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, one at the Tate Gallery, several provincial shows and eight at the prestigious Lefevre Galleries in the West End, as well as individual artist exhibitions there and elsewhere.

PJW: How are the artists connected to the East End of London?

DB: John Cooper began teaching at the Bow and Bromley Evening Institute in Coborn Road, E3, in the mid-1920s, having previously taught at the Bethnal Green Men's Institute. He took with him several Bethnal Green students who were to become prominent members of the East London Art Club which eventually spawned the East London Group.

Cooper had studied just after the World War 1 at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, under Professor Henry Tonks. Several other artists connected with the group had been Slade-trained such as Walter Sickert, William Coldstream and Hamilton Dicker, Brynhild Parker and Cooper's future wife, Phyllis Bray. Sickert's connection with the group was brief, but, as a major British painter, his connection gave the group prestige and his students long remembered the colourful talks he gave to them.

Most of the group members were from East London and of working class origin, often with nothing but elementary education. They were sometimes really poor, one artist having to walk his canvases to the West End when they started showing there, because he could not afford the fares. These East-Enders included Elwin Hawthorne, who became an errand boy after leaving school at 14; Lilian Leahy(eventually Elwin's wife), who did jobs like window dressing and decorating china; Elwin's uncle Henry Silk, a basket-maker; Grace Oscroft, whose family ran a cycle shop; and Cecil Osborne and the brothers Harold and Walter Steggles, who all did clerical work; and Albert Turpin, future mayor of Bethnal Green, who became a window cleaner.

Some of these artists showed outstanding talent under Cooper's enlightening fuition. In 1936, two of them, Elwin Hawthorne and Walter Steggles, had work included in the Venice Biennale in Italy, alongside Britain's distinguished artists, including Duncan Grant, Barbara Hepworth, John Skeaping and Philip Wilson Steer.

PJW: How would you describe your approach when working on such extensive research and writing projects?

DB: You learn as you go along. You must be methodical, flexible and willing to pursue red herrings that often cost you endless time that nevertheless must be pursued. The original book of press clippings sometimes had the source and date removed, which cost endless research time at places like the British Museum Colindale Newspaper Library. This has been the most complex research and writing task I have ever tackled. The National Art Library, Tate Library and Archive, British Library, London Metropolitan Archives, Imperial War Museum and other London and provincial libraries were a few of the sources visited and consulted. As well as being the story of the group's progress, the book prompted research into such offshoots as Cooper's revival of mosaic teaching at the Central School and Phyllis Bray's New People's Palace murals.

PJW: What new findings do you anticipate it will unearth?

DB: I was unsure when I began the research, uncertain as to how much of group painters' pictures would survive the years. Encouragingly, many have along with a great deal of documentary material and the owners have been endlessly co-operative.

PJW: Do you anticipate following your publiction that there will be an increase in the desire to acquire such works and re-appraisal of auction prices?

Undoubtedly. This has been shown in auction prices for East London Group (ELG) artists' works in the past few years. The market for what are called Modern British pictures has burgeoned in recent years and dealers are desperate for new caches of work by previously unknown artists of real quality.

PJW: What does your book proclaim in art historical and aesthetic terms relating to the East London Group?

DB: That an important group can remain unknown for decades even to informed people in academic circles and the art trade. An authoritative and well-researched book on one of the more famous members of the group claimed that it had ceased exhibiting early in the 1930s. In fact, it was then about to sign a five-year contract that led to increasing exposure and success until the Second World War which, in effect, prompted the dispersal of its members.

PJW: What pictorially will be revealed about this group, individuals and its works by showing these works in book and exhibition?

DB: That they were a most interesting and neglected realist school whose pictures of East London between the wars - and, in the case of one artist, Albert Turpin, beyond the Second World War - constitute an invaluable record of disappeared London.

PJW: What are the new findings that you intend to reveal?

DB: The history of an important group previously untold.

Interview: 9 November 2011

© Pippa Jane Wielgos

Book publisher: Francis Boutle Publishers, 272 Alexander Road, London, N22 7BG.

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