Art In The East End

Given the amount of press coverage of the East End of London – both before and after the increased newspaper coverage that resulted from form the Jack the Ripper murders – one could be forgiven that the people of the area were lawless, drunken, ignorant and were incapable of enjoying or even appreciating the finer things in life.

However, this generalisation was true of only a very small portion of the local population.

Many of the residents of Whitechapel and Spitalfields worked hard, lived respectable law-abiding lives, and were as eager to appreciate culture and the arts as those who dwelt in the more affluent West End of London.


Two people who dedicated many years to improving the everyday lot of the people of the district were the Reverend Samuel Augustus Barnett (1844 – 1913) – the vicar of St Jude’s on Commercial Street and his wife, Henrietta.

A photograph of Mr and Mrs Barnett.
Henrietta and Samuel Barnett.


Throughout the 1880’s, the couple had been staging an annual art exhibition at St. Jude’s, and, as the following article, which appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette on Thursday, 2nd May, 1889, many of the local people were extremely appreciative of their endeavours:-

“It is a small crowd, but one that is typical in its elements, that we, see gathered round the picture. A little knot of Whitechapel people: its units are distinct in their degree from those which would go to form such a group in London either north or south or west,

To one who knows his East End and the dwellers therein it is not very difficult to “range up” the crowd, and to tell, pretty accurately to which battalion of the great army, of workers each individual may be assigned.


There are a couple of tired-looking but intelligent young men from one of the factories or breweries close by; and next to them a sailor, strayed thus far from his Ratcliff Highway haunts. Keeping themselves to themselves very obviously are Eliza Ann and her “follower” whether “allowed” or not.

Certainly to them the picture we are all in front of yields in importance to their own poor little bit of romance-telling and dreaming of dreams.

Nothing, however, but what is immediately before them fills the thoughts of their neighbours, three bright-eyed and – even though it be Whitechapel – rosy-cheeked boys that discuss the subject of the work with a healthy unconsciousness of the fettering existence of canons of taste.


And out of the push and slush of Aldgate – for it is raining outside – there has come in to the show, if only for its brightness and shelter and companionship, an unmistakeable example of a chronic “out-of-work.” Too poor even to pay a penny for his catalogue -unable, perhaps, to make much headway with it if he had one – he sidles near our boy-friends, and surreptitiously gains his information from the champion reader of the three.

A couple of foreign Jews and the wife of one of them are spelling out as best they can the information from a catalogue borrowed from the authorities, for it is Passover time, and today buying and selling are to them things unlawful.

Then one by one the members of the group change, and though the crowd is always there its atoms are perpetually shifting and rearranging themselves.

A Photo of St Judes.
St Jude’s Church, Commercial Street.


What pictures do the 50,000 and more visitors to the Whitechapel picture Exhibition like best?

Do their town-tired eyes turn for relief and rest to a sunny landscape, or a breezy sea piece, or do their tastes lean to subject pictures that treat of what they have seen and know, to pictures of action or those of sentiment and idealism?

Considering that this is the ninth of the series of picture exhibitions that Mr. and Mrs. Barnett and their friends have arranged in St. Jude’s school-rooms we have a right to imagine some amount of art education on the part of at least a portion of the visitors.


Many of them, as conversation proves, have the proud record that for the last nine years they have never failed to view this East-end version of the Royal Academy Exhibition.

It was proposed to try and gauge, during the three weeks of the show that closed last Sunday, the level in art matters of the crowds that visited it, and everyone entering the rooms was besought by notices on the walls to “Vote for your Three Favourite Pictures.”

The request was not pushed importunately; it was felt that those who cared sufficiently would vote, and it was theirs – the thinking and interested part – whose opinion was wished for.

On the whole, the appeal was responded to very fully and encouragingly. It was, indeed, found necessary to discourage the voting of the boys and girls as being likely to swamp a really typical show of figures.


The visitors to the Exhibition this year were 47, 000 and the number of those who voted was 4,000.

The collection consisted of 226 pictures, and of these, curiously enough, only 11 received no votes at all.

One may look on this as of itself an interesting piece of evidence that fashion and the following of the majority were not great considerations to the voters.

What they liked they said they liked, and the reasons they occasionally gave for doing so showed that there were in each case grounds – though sometimes quaint ones – for registering as they did.

Among-the first twelve pictures, not one landscape was included, nor indeed had any such subject more than 100 votes.

The lesson taught by the votes cast seems to be that it is a picture “with a tale,” or with a strong element of human interest, that appeals to the Whitechapel people. They want something that interests, by the story it sets their mind to work upon, or that draws upon them for such knowledge of people and events as they possess.


The largest number of votes were given to Mr. Holman Hunt’s “Triumph of the Innocents” and its place at the head of the list, one must, of course, allow something for the prominence given to it by exhibition in a separate room, with carefully arranged draperies and lighting.

Still, with due deduction for this, there is little doubt it owes its position to the fact that in it a master-voice told the people a tale of greatest beauty and interest, and one of which, moreover, as they find out, by thought and study, its meaning and its depth, they feel that they themselves have helped to tell.


It is intended next year to make more of a feature of this voting principle. It seems to have a tendency to focus the interest of those Coming to see the pictures, and if it really does lead to more thought over them, and to more attempts to bring out and to the surface the lesson each contains, the voting will be another agency working to the same end as the Whitechapel Exhibition Committee.”