It's been quite a while since I was here, but I was prompted today when I came across a painting by Albert Turpin, a painting of prefabs, I lived the first seven years of my life in a prefab. Prefabs were intended to be a major part of the plan to deal with Great Britain's housing crisis in the aftermath of World War Two, " Homes for Heroes". The intention was to erect 300,000 new homes however only 165,000 were built before 1951 when the Temporary Housing Act ended. For twenty years they were a common feature of the urban landscape, they provided welcome starter homes for the wartime wedded, like my parents. Prefabs have long since vanished but the National Trust have taken some into their care, reminders of the social and domestic world of post war Britain.
Albert Turpin was born in 1900 in Bethnal Green, London. It was an area defined by poverty and hardship. Albert left school at fourteen and joined the the Army, eventually becoming a Royal Marine. It was during his service that he developed his passion for art. After the end of the war Albert married and became a window cleaner, working in the mornings and pursuing his artistic passion in the afternoons. He attended evening classes at Bethnal Green Working Men's institute and the Bow and Bromley Commercial Institute. One of the teachers at Bow was John Cooper, a painter trained at the Slade. It was Cooper who was instrumental in forming the East London Group of artists. The group was made up of gifted working class men and women. Included in the group were the brothers Harold and Walter Steggles, George Board, Archibald Hattermore, Elwin Hawthorne and his wife Lilian Hawthorne. Cooper also drew upon his Slade connections and Sickert, Coldstream, Bray and Dicker occasionally tutored and exhibited with the group.
The history of the East London Group has been well documented. Their first significant exhibition was held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1928 and attracted wide coverage, in 1929 they had a show at the Lefevre Gallery which was a huge commercial success. Exhibitions were held annually at the Lefevre for the next eight years and members took part in many group shows and a touring exhibition went to Canada and the USA. In the early days of the Group their work focused on the East End of London where they lived, subjects were canal scenes, railway bridges, shabby terraced streets and back gardens. With their success they lightened their palette and broadened their horizons, with the notable exception of Albert Turpin. He remained true to his roots and determined to record his East End London, of which he had an intimate knowledge.
Turpin's strong political beliefs infused his art. An ardent Socialist and an active anti Fascist, he served as Councillor in Bethnal Green, was Secretary to the Fire Brigade Union and eventually became mayor of Bethnal Green. His work provides a unique and passionate record of the vanished world of the East End of London, surely a working class hero.
AGED AND AWKWARD