Elwin Hawthorn was born in the East London Maternity Hospital, Stepney, during the night in the middle of a very violent thunderstorm and thinks that the Gods must have been protesting! Elwin’s family lived at First Avenue, Manor Park, E12 and in 1953 when Elwin was eight years old his family moved to a flat in Vicarage Lane, East Ham, sadly one year later Elwin’s father passed away.
He currently lives in Upney Lane, the same street that Vera Lynn once called home. During the 1950s when Elwin was a child he remembers East Ham having a department store, a piano shop, an up-market model railway shop and a theatre, it is completely different today of course, featuring many modern outlets such as mobile phone and Poundland shops. Elwin feels that many high streets look the same now and that they have lost their character and I agree with him.
Elwin’s parents Elwin and Lilian Hawthorn were both artists who were part of the East London Group of painters. You may have noticed that I have spelt Elwin’s surname without an ‘e’ on the end. The Hawthorn family name is spelt without an ‘e’, however when Elwin’s father the artist was becoming better known during the early 1930s the press wrote articles spelling his surname with an ‘e’ on the end, Hawthorne. At that time Elwin senior’s work was being exhibited at a gallery called Alex Reid & Lefevre and they instructed him to sign his paintings ‘Hawthorne’ in order to avoid any confusion, and thus he became known as the artist Elwin Hawthorne.
Lilian Hawthorn’s paintings are vibrant and cheerful, Elwin remembers his mother as being one of life’s optimists and I like her paintings very much. Lilian used oil paints and sometimes experimented with pencil and ink, she enjoyed still life work but also painted scenes from photographs and tried her hand at painting on glass. In 1954 Elwin’s father died and she had to get a job in the local Co-op department store in East Ham (which has since been demolished). She later worked at a place called Fenocrafts in Upton Park where a group of artists painted flowers onto frosted glass.
I asked Elwin if he remembers his parent’s paintings being displayed at home, however he did not take a lot of notice of them as they had been there since he was born and he accepted them “as something that was always there”.
Elwins' father was a very hard worker, he had a day and an evening job and did not get home until late so Elwin and his sister Anne did not see a lot of him as children in those days were in bed by 8pm. I asked Elwin what jobs his father did before becoming a successful artist and he said “I think he took anything that was available. After the war he managed to get a job in a wages office at the electronics company Plessey in Ilford and was employed there until he died”.
He believes his father painted watercolour pictures as prep paintings for oil versions. He has some of the watercolour paintings and they have not aged at all, he said “they could have been painted last week as they have not aged. I expect he used the best quality paper”. Elwin also remembers his father making an oak table with a ‘Taurus the Bull’ carving and also making lino cuts and woodblock work. His father had a very heavy cast-iron press that he used for his linocuts and a roller that transferred the ink onto the special brown lino, the lino and paper were then put into the press. Elwin still has the linocut tools that his father used.
In the 1960s Elwin’s mother found one of Elwin senior’s paintings, it is called ‘Almshouses’ and had been used as a shelf in the coal bunker in their flat at Vicarage Lane! His mother filled-in the screw holes and framed it, Elwin is very fond of this painting. In 2018 Elwin found a canvas rolled up near the gas meter in the under-stairs cupboard at his home in Upney Lane, the painting is of St John’s Church in Hampstead and he has had it renovated and framed. He thinks he must have put the canvas there when he moved into the house in 1999, but it had been a stressful time for his family (having sadly lost his mother in 1996 and his relative, artist William Tuck, not long after) and his memory of that time is understandably blurred.
Elwin has some of his father’s oil paintings but two of his favourites “St John the Baptist Church” and “North Foreland Lighthouse” are hung in public galleries, so he tried to paint copies himself. Elwin does not consider himself an artist, he said, “to me it was a mechanical process of copying. I think I had an instinct how to paint and also, I had watched my mother paint.” He used oil paints and mixing notes that his father had left and painted the pictures the same size as the originals. Elwin has also copied his father’s ‘The Mitford Castle’, ‘Broadstairs’ and ‘Cumberland Market’. The method he used was to square up a photograph of the relevant painting then copy each square onto a Daler board.
Elwin believes that an artist’s motivation is very important and that his father’s paintings varied in quality over the ten years or so that he was at his best. Elwin has the original of the “Grove Park Road, W4” painting and feels that the quality is not as good as that of the “St John the Baptist Church” painting. He painted the copies of his father’s paintings ten years ago and every day looks at them and thinks, “are they successful or not? It must be a distraction for artists to endlessly question their work”.
Elwin believes his father developed an interest in painting during his spare time and began to exhibit his work at the Bethnal Green Museum where John Cooper, an inspirational art teacher, taught art. From there he followed John Cooper to his classes at Bow & Bromley Commercial Evening Institute and again from there to Cooper’s classes at East London Art Club, which ultimately became known as the East London Group. Elwin said, “my father’s paintings received many good press reviews and his biggest breakthrough was when he entered into a long-term contract with Alex Reid & Lefevre Galleries in King Street, St James’s. His paintings were bought by well know people such as the Earl of Sandwich, Viscount D’abernon, Earl Radnor, Sir Edward Marsh, Gerald Kelly and J B Priestley.
Elwin proudly remembers, “only two artists represented the East London Group at the 1936 Venice Biennale: Walter Steggles and Elwin Hawthorne.” I asked Elwin had he met any of the other East London Group artists and he said he has met Walter Steggles on several occasions and also Cecil Osborne and his wife once during 1959 or 1960.
Elwin enjoys photography and has taken many pictures of places he has visited, animals (especially cats of all sizes) and also of one of his favourite subjects, vintage cars. Elwin’s mother brought him his first camera when he was 13 years old, it was a Boots Koroll costing £4. Elwin believes the reason he became interested in photography was not to take photos but to learn more about the chemical process. He quickly began to develop and print his own films (both monochrome and colour) and took an interest in special techniques that required dangerous chemicals such as mercuric chloride (for a negative intensifier) or uranium nitrate (to tint monochrome prints red). He mixed his own solutions from raw chemicals in accordance with published formulae. He said, “I used to drive my mother mad – mixing chemicals on the window sills and watching them self-ignite!” He is glad he was born at a time when a child was allowed to visit a chemist shop and ask for those chemicals, “can I please have a bottle of Lucozade, 100g of uranium nitrate and also a 100ml bottle of concentrated hydrochloric acid!”
When he left school in 1961 Elwin began working at a licensed Agfacolor processing laboratory called Jones & Bailey in EC1. Elwin feels that the print quality went downhill once Kodak took over in 1963. Kodak used the S1 printer machines which quickly printed standard prints but the results were poor, however enlargements were still printed on traditional professional enlargers. Elwin remembers a Kodak technical advisor visiting the processing lab who was unable to successfully clean the large developing tanks in the Agfacolor paper processing machine in preparation for the Kodak Ektacolor process. They tried using household cleaners which did not work so Elwin suggested they try a 10% solution of sulphuric acid and potassium dichromate and they asked Elwin to write it down. They returned two days later with two huge bottles of concentrated sulphuric acid and large bags of potassium dichromate and said “It was your idea, so you can have the pleasure of mixing it up!” In those days there was no safety equipment – no gloves, eye protection or special clothes.
In March 1965 Elwin was employed at a processing lab called Contaprint, which was owned by Dixons. He did not enjoy working there and eventually lost interest in that type of work, but he never lost his interest in photography. He then worked as a television engineer for a decade and studied the Czech language at night school for three years (1972 – 1975), he would have liked to have worked as a translator, but unfortunately jobs like that were rare so after completing a course in tax, accountancy and English law he worked at the Inland Revenue until he retired in 2005.
Elwin enjoys driving long distances and drove to Czechoslovakia with his mother in 1973 taking lots of photographs during their trip. His mother copied two of his photos from the trip, one being the former railway station building at Štrbské Pleso in 1973.
Elwin took the photo below in the former Czechoslovakia in 1974. As the train approached, the locomotive driver waved at Elwin to stop, he did not realise it was illegal to take photos of trains at that time!
In 1969 Lilian and her son visited Portmeirion soon after ‘The Prisoner’ starring Patrick McGoohan had been televised. They both enjoyed the series and had a memorable trip visiting the place where it was set. They stayed at the main hotel in the grounds which at that time was expensive and Elwin found it very snobbish! He remembers the men being dressed in dark suits and the women in expensive dresses, he and his mother felt underdressed and a little out of place. The cars parked there were Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Jensen Interceptors and many other exotic cars and Elwin parked his company car next to them…a rusting Ford Anglia estate car (and so he should!). All of the menus were in French and the wine list was very sophisticated so it was difficult to know what to order. Elwin made me smile as he recalled, “it was strange – it was almost a telepathic process that tells others that we did not rightly belong there!”
Elwin became a member of the Barking Photographic Society around 1959-61, it was based at Eastbury House off Ripple Road. The club hosted the occasional exhibition and although his photos were not considered pictorial enough he was once placed first by an external judge. For some scenes Elwin prefers monochrome prints to colour. He remembers the secretary of the club, Peter Elgar, being very supportive of his work. I used to belong to a camera club that held meetings in Basildon and the same Peter Elgar used to come to some of our club meetings as a guest speaker or judge - what a small world!
Elwin still enjoy enjoys photography and has catalogued most of his work onto his computer. He also has paintings by his parents that are a fond reminder of times gone by when they were a happy family living together in the East End.
Some of Elwin's photos are below for your enjoyment.