Brothers in art

RECENTLY, WE DROVE to Southend-on-Sea in Essex to see an exhibition, “Brothers in Art”, at the town’s superb Beecroft Art Gallery. There, we enjoyed visiting a temporary exhibition of the paintings of two artists, about whom we knew nothing: the brothers Walter (1908-1997) and Harold (1911-1971) Steggles. They were members of the East London Group of artists, East End workers who created and exhibited together between 1928 and 1936. Influenced by the artists John Albert Cooper (1894-43) and Walter Sickert (1860-1942), the group produced pictures that often-depicted everyday scenes and mundane sites in a joyful way.

The Steggles were born in Ilford (east London), sons of the manager of a high-class footwear store in London’s Strand. They were not born into a family that had any history of artistic talents. At an early age, the brothers began visiting art exhibitions, including, in 1925, one at the Bethnal Green Men’s Institute Art Club at the Bethnal Green Museum. This led them to join the art classes there. Walter was 17 and Harold was 14. Unhappy with the classes at Bethnal Green, they joined the art classes conducted by John Cooper at the Bromley & Bow Institute. He encouraged the brothers to paint scenes near the institute. Soon they became members of the East London Group.

In 1928, the Group held an exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The brothers exhibited several of their paintings at this prestigious public art venue. Many influential members of the art scene attended the show, one of them being the then director of the Tate Gallery. Several of the brothers’ paintings at the exhibition were acquired by the Tate.

The East End Group also held regular exhibitions at the Lefevre Gallery in London’s West End. The gallery, which existed from 1926 until 2002, represented leading artists including, to mention only a few, Seurat, Matisse, Degas, Picasso, Dali and Kandinski. 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 … Before long they found themselves sought after by other galleries and Harold became a protégé of the flamboyant aesthete Eddie Marsh who lived near his office in Gray’s Inn as well as accepting a prestigious commission from Villiers David to paint the gentlemen’s clubs of St James.” (https://spitalfieldslife.com/2017/07/26/harold-walter-steggles-artists/).

Harold recalled that the first picture he sold was bought by the highly influential art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen (1869-1939) and was hung at the Tate Gallery in 1929. In 1936, Walter had one of his paintings exhibited in the Venice Biennale.

Walter and Harold sold their paintings and became prosperous enough to buy a car. This allowed them to make forays into East Anglia where they painted things they saw.  Some of these East Anglian scenes were on display at the exhibition in Southend alongside their paintings of sights in London; many of these places have disappeared since WW2.  Both Walter and Harold were commissioned by the Shell petrol company to create posters. These display places in England, beautifully depicted. Several of these were also on display.

Even though the brothers were successful as artists, they had to continue working in non-artistic jobs to gain a sufficient income. When Walter retired, he was able to concentrate fully on painting.

With the death of John Cooper in 1943, the East End Group declined and the works it had created faded from the artistic world’s limelight. What the group created was not as excitingly innovative as the art produced by the now better-known artists, some of which I mentioned above. However, the work of the Group and, in particular, of the Steggle brothers is of high quality and very pleasing aesthetically. It was well worth trekking out to Southend to see their paintings.

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