Doreen Fletcher painted the streets of East London until she gave up painting in 2004, discouraged by the lack of interest and recognition. In 2015 a chance encounter with The Gentle Author – writer, blogger and publisher – of Spitalfields Life, resulted in her paintings being brought to a new public, largely via social media. I first saw some of her work in the exhibition Henry Silk and the East End Vernacular at Abbott & Holder in 2018. A few of her paintings, not for sale, hung in the second ‘Other artists’ room and I blogged about them, admiring their Edward Hopper like quality, their similarity to the American in subject matter, in vibrant colours, unusual viewpoints and the rendering of people, small and anonymous, but never insignificant, within the built environment.
Last night saw the launch of Doreen Fletcher, A Retrospective at the Nunnery Gallery, Bow Road and we went along. We arrived at six when the doors opened, but by a quarter to seven it was impossible to move. The show had featured in BBC Online and The Guardian and was ‘exhibition of the week’ in The New Statesman so a lot of interest had been generated. Tremendous for the artist, who is finally getting the recognition she deserves, but less so for the viewer. Nonetheless I was able to catch a quick word with The Gentle Author, though not with Doreen herself.
The Nunnery Gallery is housed in a nineteenth century former convent and has two viewing rooms and a bar and the paintings were in all of them, though it grew increasingly difficult to move from one to another and we finally gave up. We will go back, because the paintings deserve greater concentration and contemplation than we were able to give them yesterday.
The art is representational, a faithful depiction of place. She says ‘My concern as an artist is with the pockets of life we ignore’ and she is a painter of the ‘almost gone’. So this exhibition is, amongst other things, a social document of a lost place and time and way of life.
The scenes are often flat, a shop or cafe front, head on to the viewer with strong horizontals ( I never realised just how many East End streets had pavement railings until seeing Fletcher’s paintings ). She shows the pattern and colour within these flat frontages – Pubali Cafe, Limehouse (1996) with its pinks and blues and Pepsi signs; VIP Garage, Commercial Road (2001) with that green which is rarely found in nature but is often a feature of urban, painted environments; the Launderette, Ben Jonson Road (2003) with its grid of metal shutters and metallic signs. These are depictions of real places and are perfectly realised paintings.
I particularly like the paintings which have interesting perspectives, the corner of roads, like The Lino Shop, Poplar (2003), Ragged School Museum, Stepney (2017) and Fried Chicken Shop, Silvertown (2017). Salmon Road in the Rain (1987) is a favourite of mine, with its blue sky after rain and the reflections in a road still wet. Bartlett Park, Poplar (1990) is a depiction of a road junction and subject matter doesn’t get more quotidian than that, as the road leads the viewer off to the block of maisonettes passed the one brick building and its bill-boards and smoking chimney.
Fletcher is also interested in light, so many pictures are set at dusk or night time and with unusual viewpoints, from under a railway or canal bridge, rather like some of the viewpoints used by the Impressionists when they painted the urban environment. The good news is that she is painting again and some of her later works are included in this show.
I can thoroughly recommend this exhibition. Go, it’s free, runs until 24th March and the Gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday and, because I always like to end with a book, how about Doreen Fletcher, Paintings (2018, Spitalfields Life Books ). Some of the images in this blog are taken therefrom and do not do justice to either the paintings or the quality of their printed reproductions.