How many of us, rushing through the capital during those strange first weeks of another strange year, noticed the “cool and frail London light” on the buildings? This quality, wrote art critic RH Wilenski in 1930, strikes every visiting French painter as unique and alluring. “Many have asked me which English artists have made these aspects of London the focus of their work.”
The story of the East London Group, the working-class painters who did just that during the miserable interwar years of the 20th century, is told in an exhibition that is now enjoying a long run thanks to the accord she struck with so many visitors.
The warehouses, pubs, pollarded winter trees, canals and railway junctions depicted in their work are thrilling and familiar to any Londoner, native or adopted – they capture that “certain melancholy in light and colour” which has impressed Wilenski. But the success of these workers, who left school at 14 and received no training until they attended local adult education institutes, is also intriguing.
We are bombarded with Gradgrindian observations that there is too much learning going on – and not all of it is helpful. In fact, the number of adult learners in England has fallen by more than a third since 2010 to an all-time high. The government wants to rebuild adult education after funding was cut in half and an estimated 4 million ‘lost learners’ were excluded over the decade. But the stimulus package is limited in scope, funding and ambition, as noted by policy experts including the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which tracks technical and vocational education. It focuses on skills and professional qualifications.
The part-time painters of 100 years ago embodied another, more romantic view of the value of education for the individual and society, thanks to the dynamism and vision of their tutor from the school of evening John Cooper.
During evening classes at adult education institutes, he encouraged his students to ignore the usual methods of learning to paint and instead depict the scenes around them in the poorer parts of London. Exhibit notes for the precursor exhibit, at Bethnal Green in 1924, list the students as “a storekeeper, a home decorator, three deckhands waiting for a ship, and a smoker of haddock”, and describe the course as “a modest educational experience”.
As the painters grew in number and sophistication, it became a formal group. The new Whitechapel Gallery and then the commercial galleries of the West End organized exhibitions in which personalities from society took part. Other artists, some of more traditional training, became teachers and fellow travelers. National collections and private collectors purchased works. In 1936 two members, Elwin Hawthorne and Walter Steggles, had pictures in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
“They find pictorial values and know how to invest with interest the more prosaic, less characteristic and less attractive scenes of the slums, factory districts and east London”, said a contemporary critic.
The group disintegrated after World War II and only around 170 of the approximately 730 paintings on display have been found, according to Alan Waltham, curator of the current exhibition. These missing images could still appear.
It would be nice to think that some of the ‘lost learners’ who missed out on adult education during the decade of austerity might also surface in new courses. As one middle-aged learner quoted by Social Market Foundation researchers put it: “Education is not just for people who are going to get a career boost from it. The SMF notes the many indirect benefits of so-called “hobby” or leisure courses, ranging from better physical and mental health and better parenting, to confidence and progression to higher education.
“I shudder to think of the future prospects of any of them,” Cooper said of the armies of artists sent from the colleges in the interwar period. He felt that their training did not match the employment they could expect during the Depression.
His fear has many echoes a century later, but the blossoming of talent in the East London Group, fueled by affordable evening schools, shows that the ‘return on investment’ in education can be seen in a different light. , even if he is as frail and melancholic as this one. exhibited in this collection of beautiful paintings.
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