by David Buckman. Francis Boutle Publishers, November 2012. 382 p. ill. ISBN 9781903427682 (pbk.), £25.00.

Reviewed March 2014
Rebecca Young, Director of Library Services, NSCAD University, ryoung@nscad.ca

This book is an exhaustive and thorough history of the East London Group, a group of men and women artists that was founded by the energetic and charismatic teacher, John Cooper. For more than a decade, writer David Buckman researched, consulted with surviving group members, and interviewed their families to create this exceptionally detailed book. Buckman outlines the social context of east London which served as a backdrop formed by economic scarcity, high unemployment, crowding, and poor health conditions. Attempts were made to alleviate some of these inner city problems with the establishment of evening education. These schools, or institutes, were beneficial to the education of adults who worked all day, had families, and very little money to spare, yet wanted to put energy into painting as more than a hobby.

The text describes the chronological arc of the East London Group, from its beginnings in the Men’s Institute Art Club in Bethnal Green, then to the district of Bow in East London, and the growth of popularity of its exhibitions in the 1920s and 30s. The Group’s last exhibition was in 1936, and many of its members continued to work and give solo exhibitions.

The book includes 128 pages devoted to biographies of members, which Buckman compiled by interviewing some of the surviving artists and their relatives, and by consulting archival material and published documents of the Group’s activities and exhibitions. These profiles provide some of the most interesting aspects of the book, as the reader is given a sense of the variety of origins and motivations for the artists, who, in some cases, made tremendous effort to form a creative life amid the social and domestic stresses of the time. The paintings are primarily of interiors, streetscapes, and structures that made up the imagery of the city, and show the influence of English realist contemporaries such as Walter Sickert, who contributed to the East London Group’s first exhibition in 1929.

The book is well indexed, includes a list of illustrations, a selected bibliography of books and catalogs, and a list of works by East London Group artists held in public collections. This is the first extensive work on the Group as a singular topic, though it has been documented previously in individual biographies and reference texts. It would be suitable to support the teaching of modern art history, or topics related to interwar art in Britain.

© 2014 ARLIS/NA