I’ve always been passionate about art, and a few years ago I stumbled upon a little-known group of early-20th century artists known collectively as the East London Group. I was instantly captivated and wanted to find out more about them.
The brothers Harold and Walter Steggles were perhaps the most successful of the 30 or so artists who exhibited as part of the East London Group during the 1920s and ’30s – these two ‘Brothers In Art’ form the focal point of an exhibition currently on show at the Beecroft Gallery in Southend (until 3 April 2022) – but my personal favourite is a man called Cecil Osborne. Cecil exhibited at the first Group show in 1929 and one of the paintings he exhibited then is the inspiration behind this blog post.
I won’t write too much about the Group itself here – there’s little point in duplicating the information that you’ll find on their website – but one of the key themes of the East London Group was the idea that the inspiration for art is all around us: you only had to look out of your window…
An only child, Cecil Osborne was born on 6 January 1909, the son of Arthur Cecil Osborne (a coachman) and his wife Mabel Goldstone. Appropriately for a future member of the East London Group he was born in the parish of Bromley-by-Bow in Poplar. Cecil James Osborne (he doesn’t appear to have used the middle name) was baptised at the parish church of St Michael & All Angels, Bromley-by-Bow on 21 February 1909.
Cecil was brought up by his mother (his father doesn’t seem to have been ‘on the scene’ for very long) and by 1921, the family (including Mabel’s sister, Flora), were living at 221 Farringdon Road Buildings, Clerkenwell. This was to be Cecil’s home for the next ten years or so, and it was from the window of 221 Farringdon Road Buildings that he painted his masterpiece.
Setting to one side, for a moment, the obvious artistic merits of the painting, it’s the view itself that has always fascinated me. From a historian’s point of view it’s a relatively rare example of the celebration of an ‘ordinary’ urban scene, captured, not by the camera, but by a gifted artist. It’s a view from a building which is no longer there, of a building across the road, which is also no longer there. It’s a moment captured in time…
Both buildings have a fascinating history of their own. Farringdon Road Buildings were built in 1870 as ‘model dwellings’ by the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes. The buildings comprised five, six-storey blocks set at right angles to Farringdon Road. The Osborne’s apartment was in the last of the five blocks as you headed down Farringdon Road towards the City, on the corner of Bowling Green Lane. You can just see the block on the extreme right of this photograph.
Looking out of his window across the road to the left, Cecil would have seen the imposing residential block known as Corporation Buildings. Built as model dwellings in the 1860s they were the first council houses ever built in the UK.
The building on the left in this image from 1865, also appears in Cecil’s painting, at which time it was in use as a bookbinder’s warehouse.
The apartments in Corporation Buildings were well-ahead of their time. Each had a WC, a scullery and a fireplace – unheard of in other contemporaneous working-class dwellings. Each of the blocks was entered via an ornate staircase and we can make out two of these in Cecil Osborne’s painting. Using large-scale, historical maps, we can work out fairly accurately the view that he had.
Corporation Buildings were pulled down in the 1970s to make way for the Guardian Newspaper’s new offices. Later, a multi-storey car park was built where Farringdon Road Buildings had once stood. This has now also been pulled down to make way for a new housing development.
We can’t get up high enough (until the new building goes up!) to recreate Cecil’s view but this is a shot that I took last year which roughly approximates the view. Not being 50 feet tall, it’s as close as I could get!
I’m always fascinated by the way that we can use documents and maps to find connections between images from bygone days and the world as it is today. And when your starting point is an exquisite piece of art it somehow makes the journey even more rewarding.
Further reading: From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group by David Buckman (2012) https://www.eastlondongroup.co.uk/shop/Books-c54020018
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 6 March 2022