Saturday, May 30th 2015
Today’s ramble started in the general area of Whitechapel where we collected some street art. As street art becomes accepted and more and more popular, artists are more inclined to sign their work, to set up Web sites and to give interviews. Such contacts often lead to the commissioning of works. It is now quite common for shopkeepers to commission painters to decorate the shutters that protect the shop when it is closed. Such paintings are often finished with great care, unlike paintings executed in a couple of hours on a wall or the end of a building. On the other hand, I think they often lack the spontaneity and provocative nature of such works ‘in the wild’.
Paintings signed ‘Guido’ are by Guido van Helten and are usually lifelike portraits in monochrome. His style is uniform and his paintings are therefore immediately recognizable. The same care is evident in all his paintings which possess a photographic quality. Here, the painting seems to have outlived the business that commissioned it.
On a corner of Middlesex Street is a pub called The Bell. Most of its frontage is unadorned but this section hosts a changing display of paintings and some of the well known names of the street art art can be seen here. What follows is just a couple of samples.
Street art paintings are rarely given a title, though they may bear a comment of some sort. Rather that write ‘Untitled’ for such paintings, I will henceforth simply leave the title space blank. This ‘pointillist’ portrait somewhat reminiscent of the style of Georges Seurat, is signed ‘.akajimmyc.’, the pseudonym of James Cochran.
This painting, which looks rather like a poster for a film about the Second World War, is signed by Paul Don Smith. Even if it were not, the two black silhouette ‘tap men’ in the upper corners would give the game away. These are his trade mark and figure is called Banker, though the reasons for this may not be obvious.
On the end wall of the pub, a large rodent emerges from a hole in the brickwork. The painting is not signed but doesn’t need to be: this is unmistakably by Roa. His animals are to be found in many countries, singly or in groups, often scaling the sides of tall buildings.
This shutter painting causes a double take: is it an elflike head wearing a cap or is it… well, what? The floppy ears look like those of a child’s bonnet and yet the face has a cigarette dangling from its lips. The painting is unsigned (I think the scrawls at bottom left and right are intrusive graffiti) and I do not know who the artist is. Intriguing on both counts.
This painting is also a shutter painting and is by Guido (Guido van Helten) whom we saw above. What I like about these is that they make no concession to their context but remain individual works of art in their own right.
We next found ourselves in Cable Street, the scene, on October 4th 1936, of what came to be known as the Battle of Cable Street, when anti-fascist protesters and local residents combined to prevent a march by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists which was intended to pass through this area to provoke a racist response. For many, this was a uniquely important event in which the ordinary people set aside differences of race and culture to combat a common enemy and the police who were defending the fascists. Inevitably, myths were formed, and counter-myths, and there are many different assessments of the event. All we can do now, 79 years later, is to read the various accounts and make up our own minds. Personally, I have no doubt that it was an important event in the battle against extremists and one of which those who stood firm against the fascists can be justly proud.
The painting of the mural is a story in itself. The project ran into difficulties and took seven years to complete but for those who can interpret it, the mural provides an account of the event and of those who took part.
We next visited a nearby church, St George-in-the East. The church was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor as part of the plan to built 50 new churches under the 1711 Act of Parliament. From the outside, the church looks as elegant and solid as when it was built but the interior tells a different story.
In 1941, the church was bombed and the interior destroyed, remarkably leaving the the outer walls and the tower intact.
After the war, rebuilding to the original plan by Hawksmoor was not practicable and so the outer walls were restored and a new, smaller church built inside them. This work was completed in 1964.
Not so very far away in what is now called Wapping Lane but was previously known as Old Gravel Lane, stands the Anglo-Catholic Mission Church of St Peter’s, London Docks. We had wanted to see inside it for some time but had always found it closed. Today the door was open and we needed no further invitation. The church was founded in 1866 in one of the poorest areas of London.
Despite the poverty of the neighbourhood when the church was founded, the latter is impressive. Entry from the street is via a small portico with the result that the sheer size of the church comes as a surprise when you enter. Figures of the saints, including St Peter, the church’s patron, are all around, whether in the form of effigies, like St Peter above, or stained glass.
For the non-initiate, it is difficult to see that this is an Anglican church and not a Catholic one. Around the church are Stations of the Cross, quite nicely made in ceramic. I don’t know the artist or when they were made. The one shown is number 4, ‘Jesus meets his mother’.
After this visit, we took a bus to Limehouse where another church was awaiting us.
This church was St Anne’s, Limehouse. One of the reasons why we had come to see it was that it was also designed by Hawksmoor and built under the 1711 Act, and was a sister church to St George-in-the-East. Unlike the latter, it had not been damaged in the war and we hoped to get an idea of what St George’s would have looked like in its prime.
Unfortunately, we found the doors locked and could not go in to take a look. Instead, we wandered around the outside and looked at the few remaining tombs.
The largest structure remaining in the church grounds is the war memorial. This is dedicated ‘in grateful memory of the men of Limehouse who fell in the Great War 1914 – 1918’. There is a plaque showing a scene of war and on top a figure of Christ. The sculptor was Arthur Walker and the monument is Grade II listed. (In case you are wondering, my photo is straight and it is the memorial that leans!)
One of the more intriguing items in the churchyard is a pyramid, taller than a man, standing beside a tree. The only wording I could find on it is the phrase ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’. I thought at first that the pyramid might be an eccentric tombstone or a monument, but apparently not. According to the church’s own Web page, ‘A distinctive pyramid, originally planned to be put on one of the corners at the east end of the building, now stands in the churchyard and is Grade II listed.’
Looking for a bus home, we encountered our last church of the day, the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady Immaculate & St Frederick. Feeling somewhat ‘churched out’ by now, we did not look to see whether it was possible to visit it. I contented myself with photographing the rather unusual crucifix in front of the church.
Not only is the figure of Christ very modern-looking Christ but the crucifix also shows front and back views – something that it counterintuitive and certainly different from any other crucifixes I have seen. It is by sculptor Sean Henry who specializes in very realistic figures, painting them to look all the more lifelike. The crucifix departs from his usual sculptures but I note that he has done something a little similar in a work entitled Journey of Two (1996).