For two months in April, May and June, 2008, we had a very special London Exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery. This was a regular exhibition site of the Essex Art Club in the past, but we had not exhibited there for more than twenty years.The Gallery is a magnificent building which houses the City of London Art Collection. When the building was rebuilt, the remains of a Roman amphitheatre were discovered: the design was changed to incorporate them in the basement where they can now be visited. There were only two outside exhibitions in the year, and we were invited to provide one of them. The exhibition was in two parts: a current Essex Art Club exhibition and an exhibition dealing with the history of the Club and the many distinguished artists who have been members or associated with it. Sandy Connor's historical research provided the basis for this and permitted the Guildhall Art Gallery to borrow a wide range of paintings and other historical items.Nearly 400 people attended the excellent private view, quite a crowd even in such a big gallery. Our then President, Ken Howard, RA, opened the exhibition. People seemed impressed by the quality of the pictures and by the interesting history of the Club. The sales desk was extremely busy. The Ken Howard Award was won by Sandy Connor. Sarah Harvey sold one of her pictures long before the exhibition. (Photos below).
Ten years ago, as a new EAC and committee member, I offered to write a short history of the club to line up with the forthcoming Centenary Exhibition at Ilford Library. Billie Figg kindly handed over a couple of plastic bags with some old scrapbooks, minutes books (dating back to 1914) old posters, catalogues and recent scrapbooks full of press cuttings and photos, which she had been keeping up to date.
I didn't realise as I started to digest the contents of these humble bags, what a wealth of fascinating history had preceded us. This was my first encounter with Walter Spradbery and Haydn Mackey who seemed to have guided the EAC from its early beginnings at Walthamstow Art School through two thirds of the twentieth century, teaching, inspiring, encouraging and exhibiting.
The old minutes books, handwritten in copperplate script described meetings, exhibitions and events which were a revelation and fascinating to read. The line up of illustrious presidents, vice- presidents, patrons and guest exhibitors to both London and local exhibitions was hard to grasp. This had been an extraordinary art club, led by 2 exceptional men.
Months were spent searching through archives which provided clues and surprises and occasionally even answers to questions. The highlights of that period were informative encounters with John Spradbery (Spradbery's son) and Helen Power (Mackey's daughter) who were both delighted to know that the EAC was still dabbling away. There came a point at which I had to stop and collate the most pertinent elements of my findings into a short history for the Centenary Exhibition in 1999.
The Centenary Exhibition history section occupied 2 or 3 display cases which contained loans from local museums and a large illustrated family tree which showed the chronology of all the EAC presidents and vice-presidents. At the opening, Ken Howard expressed his feeling of privilege to follow such a worthy line of eminent artists.
The potential for a proper history exhibition was too good to ignore. But further research proved that there weren't any appropriate local venues and the cost of borrowing paintings from national collections was prohibitive. It remained just a dream.
So eight years later, when our Chairman Ron Clark returned from meeting at the Guildhall and announced that they would be delighted to invite us back for an exhibition and would like to include our history as well, I couldn't believe that an opportunity had arisen to share our history with a wider audience in such a splendid venue.
Not only had my dream been realised, but I was offered free reign to request the loan of artworks from our national collections. My initial aim after studying old exhibition catalogues, was to gather works which had previously been shown in the eleven EAC exhibitions at the Guildhall, between 1949 and 1986.As I progressed along this line of research, I realised that it was rather optimistic. But I did succeed in securing many works which had been in a variety of past EAC exhibitions. Sometimes I would discover an 'unknown' (to me) EAC artist by accident such as Dennis Flanders, whose 6 amazing drawings of London live in the dark store room under the Guildhall Art Gallery. This store room is a treasure trove of paintings and includes some wonderful work by Ken Howard, George Clausen, Frank Brangwyn and Marcus Ford.
More visits to some great store rooms of art included the RA, Imperial War Museum, William Morris Gallery, Epping Forest District Museum and Vestry House. Unfortunately the Transport Museum was undergoing major changes at the time and it wasn't possible to view Spradbery's superb poster designs beyond their excellent website.
Some magic moments occurred such as in the RA, where the collections manager had lined up my 'shopping list' of work by John Nash, Mark Fisher, George Clausen, Frank Brangwyn, Walter Westley Russell and Frank Dobson for my very own private view. I had recently failed to track down the Churchill painting which had appeared with the EAC at the 1950 Guildhall exhibition. It had sold at Sothebys fairly recently and the owner hadn't responded to our request. So when I casually asked "...I don't suppose you have any Churchill's , do you?" and 2 excellent Churchill paintings were trundled out for my inspection and selection....... I was speechless.
Another visit to the RA Library to select work on paper by Haydn Mackey was equally exciting. Just too much wonderful work and so hard to select just a few. The Imperial War Museum held the greatest surprises of all. Both Spradbery and Mackey had been commissioned to produce work from the studies they had made during their stretcher- bearing years (for which they were both decorated for bravery) in the first world war. There were drawers filled with Spradbery's beautiful watercolours, which looked as fresh as if they had just dried on the paper. Mackey's sketches and watercolours were equally vibrant. Then a visit to the basement store room where Mackey's oil paintings hung on racks. What a revelation! So many superb paintings of ordinary people going about their duties in dressing stations, store rooms and the walking wounded portrayed in a huge (almost life-size) procession. It was overwhelming!
On that occasion the Guildhall curator accompanied me and we just wanted to borrow them all! But some of the paintings were unframed and needed conservation work and there wasn't enough time, space or resource. The curator's response was so positive that by the time we parted she was planning a future Mac and Sprad show. Watch this space!
It was after this visit that the rapidly swelling history section was moved from the small thoroughfare which divided the current exhibition, to the capacious and impressive room beyond, where it could comfortably accommodate large works, easels, sculptures and artefacts in display cases. It also facilitated enough space to show the beautiful and rarely seen 'Swans' by Frank Brangwyn, from the William Morris Gallery.
My first taste of borrowing success was for the loan of the model for the farthing coin from the Royal Mint in Cardiff. This had been designed by sculptor Harold Wilson Parker and exhibited in some early EAC exhibitions. He had studied at Walthamstow Art School and the Royal College. Our loan was later threatened after a fire at the Mint had thrown everything there into chaos, which thank goodness was overcome just in time for the Guildhall opening.
The most elusive artist proved to be W H Milnes, the first and longest serving (1899-1933) EAC president and head of Walthamstow Art School until 1906. He showed regularly at the RA summer exhibitions and the remaining unanswered question is......where are his paintings? Wakefield Art Gallery triumphed with the loan of an etching by him.
After nail-biting periods of silence, approvals for loan requests started to roll in, Castle House Museum in Dedham agreed to lend us the Munnings which had shown at the 1952 EAC Guildhall Exhibition, the V & A approved the Burleigh Bruhl and even the National Portrait Gallery approved the 2 Pankhurst paintings, despite their fragile condition. The only real disappointment came from the Tate Gallery who took so long to decline our request that there wasn't enough time left to find a replacement for the Frederick Brown work, but luckily the Elsa Fraenkel sculpture which they declined because of poor condition, had a second casting in the possession of her son, which was in excellent condition and he very kindly agreed to lend it to us.
Despite several last minute hiccups, everything fell into place in time for the excellent private view. Amongst the thronging crowds were John Spradbery, Helen Power and Frank Dane (Elsa Fraenkel's son) who all thought that we had done them proud and without whom the history section would have been a poorer show.
There had been some apprehension that the historical element of the Guildhall exhibition would leave the present day EAC in the shade. I think that it was of its time and has revealed a fascinating glimpse of artistic production from east London (formerly Essex) through the twentieth century. Its legacy survives to inspire and underpin a lively and active creative energy which hopefully will sustain the EAC for another century.
One hundred Years of the Essex Art Club' a Brief History by Sandy Connor is available at £2.50 (inc p & p)