Today I present another extract from my new book EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October. Click here to preorder your copy
Harold Steggles (1911–71) and his elder brother Walter were precocious artists who found early success as adolescents. Harold was the youngest of five children and grew up in Ilford with a father who managed a specialist shoe shop in the Strand and a mother who worked as dressmaker but had always wanted to be a painter. They were descended from William Steggles, an ecclesiastical sculptor on their father’s side and the landscape painter Frederick Goodall on their mother’s side.
When Harold left school at thirteen years old and found employment as a clerk with a solicitor in Grays Inn, he and Walter took to visiting galleries and viewing the national painting collections together. Soon they were undertaking sketching trips to pursue their shared passion, and reading widely about art, discussing the writings of John Ruskin and Joshua Reynolds.
In 1925, they visited an exhibition of paintings by the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute Art Club at the Bethnal Green Museum and signed up for lessons at the Institute, aged fourteen and seventeen respectively. However, the brothers were quickly disappointed with the tuition and, after Walter quarrelled with the head of the Institute, they transferred to John Cooper’s art classes at the Bromley & Bow Institute where he encouraged them to paint scenes in the vicinity of the Institute in Bow. Under his tutelage, both brothers flourished as artists and they were to become the youngest members of the East London Group.
When Harold was just seventeen years old, John Cooper hung eight of his paintings at the East London Art Club exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1928, and Charles Aitken, director of Tate bought one to show in his gallery, offering twice the asking price of one guinea.
Photographs of the brothers at this time show them as a pair of smiling handsome youths with short, neat haircuts and near-identical matching suits, sometimes worn with plus fours. Enjoying the fruits of their artistic success, they took motoring trips together and expanded the range of their subject matter to include the rural landscapes of East Anglia.
“All my brother’s pictures found buyers,” wrote Walter in excitement at his younger brother’s triumph when they showed with the East London Group at Lefevre Galleries and, over successive years, Harold contributed sixty pictures to these exhibitions. Before long they found themselves sought after by other galleries and Walter became a protoge of the flamboyant aesthete Eddie Marsh who lived near his office in Gray’s Inn, accepting a prestigious commission to paint the gentlemen’s clubs of St James.
The climax of this run of success came with Harold & Walter Steggles’ joint exhibition at Lefevre Galleries in 1938, yet Harold continued his work as clerk apart from some time in hospital being treated for stomach ulcers which he attributed to malnourishment in childhood.
When the war came, both were excluded from service for health reasons and applied to become war artists but were turned down. Instead, Harold was asked by Moorhead Bone to contribute paintings to an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford which were to be sold to benefit Red Cross.
In 1943, at thirty-two years old, Harold married Lilian Wood, the widow of a Spitfire pilot, even though her husband did not approve of Harold being an artist. It was a curious union of contrasting personalities, Harold considerate and quiet, and Lilian, outgoing, keen on tennis and disinterested in art. Harold took legal exams and advanced in his work at the solicitors but considered himself lacking in the necessary education and temperament, con- fiding to his daughter Elizabeth that, if it had not been for the war, he might have carried on with commissions. Twenty-five years after Harold died at the age of sixty, Walter wrote, “I have not yet recovered from the shock of losing him.”
Grove Road, Bow
Warner Street, Clerkenwell, 1935
Grove Hall Park, Bow, 1933
When Walter Steggles (1908–97) left school at fourteen, he joined a shipping firm in the City of London, working, “as dogsbody in the superintendent’s department which meant spending periods in the drawing office.” Once he and his brother Harold started regular art classes in 1925, such was his en- thusiasm that he would take the train from Fenchurch Street Station back to the family home in Ilford for dinner before returning to the East End.
Like his younger brother, Walter enjoyed the encouragement of John Cooper at Bow, whom he described as “probably the best teacher I ever knew,” recalling how “He would always find a good point to remark on in someone’s work and would say, ‘You are trying to imitate someone not as good as yourself.’” Walter also appreciated the participation of established artists at the classes in Bow, writing “Sickert’s advice has been constantly with me,” and was both challenged and flattered when John Cooper sometimes asked him to take over the class.
At twenty years old, Walter contributed eleven paintings to the East London Art Group Show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1927 and, like his brother Harold, one of these was purchased and hung in the Tate. With admirable lack of ego, Walter wrote, “I do not like one man shows, my pictures look better mixed in with others.” He and Harold both exhibited at all the East London Group shows at the Lefevre Galleries between 1928 and 1936, followed by a joint show in 1938, and the two brothers found themselves part of a cosmopolitan artistic milieu, that included Ben Nicholson, Charles Ginner, Philip Wilson Steer, George Braque and Raoul Dufy.
In 1939, excluded from military service due to asthma and not chosen as a war artist, Walter was transferred to the Ministry of Transport for war work but continued his art studies at Central School of Art. Offered a job as an art teacher by London County Council after the war, instead he returned to work at the shipping company in the City.
After Harold’s marriage, Walter’s sister Muriel drove him on painting trips and she remembered that when he found a scene that he liked he would sketch it on the spot and then work up the painting at home, also Sickert’s preferred method. Walter wrote, ”sketching is better than a camera, I only did one painting from a photograph and it was dead.”
Inspired perhaps by the presence of Stanley Spencer, Walter and Muriel moved to Cookham where their parents came to live with them, much to his father’s regret, declaring “We should never have left Romford!” By now his mother was painting prolifically. “My son has his own studio,” she boasted to Stanley Spencer. “He’s lucky, I paint in my bedroom,” replied the old master.
Still working into the nineteen-nineties, Walter wrote, “I sometimes wonder what makes us pursue the arts. It is not money as people in insignificant jobs usually do better.” At the end of a long and sustained painting career, he wrote proudly, “It is sixty-five years since I sold my first picture at a public exhibition. It was bought by Sir Joseph Duveen and was hung at the Tate Gallery in 1929.”
Old Houses, Bethnal Green, 1929
The Railway Fence
Bryant & May Wharf
The Red Bridge
The Chapel, Minories
Take a look at some of the other artists featured in East End Vernacular
John Allin, Artist
Pearl Binder, Artist
Roland Collins, Artist
Anthony Eyton, Artist
Doreen Fletcher, Artist
Barnett Freedman, Artist
Harry T. Harmer, Artist
Elwin Hawthorn, Artist
Rose Henriques, Artist
Dan Jones, Artist
Leon Kossoff, Artist
Jock McFadyen, Artist
Cyril Mann, Artist
Ronald Morgan, Artist
Grace Oscroft, Artist
Peri Parkes, Artist
Henry Silk, Artist
Albert Turpin, Artist
Click here to preorder a copy of EAST END VERNACULAR for £25
This post first appeared on Spitalfields Life | In The Midst Of Life I Woke To, please read the originial post: here