Walter Steggles was the last known survivor of the East London Group of artists, a painter with a distinct way of depicting the English landscape, especially that of East Anglia. He was a core member of the Bow-based group which remains almost unknown to the art world but which between the wars achieved a string of exhibitions, gained hundreds of inches of press coverage and attracted the interest of notable collectors.
Like other group members, Steggles had no strong immediate artistic antecedents. He was born in London in 1908, son of another Walter Steggles, who managed a high-class boot and shoe business in the Strand; Sir Thomas Beecham the conductor, the Russian bass Chaliapin and the wife of the painter Sir John Lavery were regular clients.
His mother, Annie, an optimistic woman who survived to her hundredth year, took up painting at 73 and in her eighties travelled to Paris and elsewhere with her son to find subjects. Like him, she maintained a keen interest in the Stock Exchange, and he recalled that "her every transaction showed a profit. She and her friend Mrs Harrison would discuss the Footsie for hours."
There were three sisters and a younger brother, Harold, who became a partner in a firm of solicitors and another member of the East London Group. Walter set the pace in obtaining formal art tuition by attending classes run by Charles Genge at Bethnal Green Men's Institute, which were taken over in 1925 by John Cooper. When Cooper moved his classes to the Bow and Bromley Evening Institute, Walter went with him. The Bolton-born Cooper, who had studied at Bradford, the Slade and in Paris, taught at the Central School and was about 30 when Walter met him. "He was probably the best teacher I ever knew. He would not impose his ideas, always finding a good point to remark on. He would say: 'You are trying to imitate someone not as good as yourself.' "
Cooper attracted teaching talent to Bow. Steggles remembered William Coldstream, Rodrigo Moynihan and Gerald Ososki at the institute in the period before the Second World War. Walter Sickert, whose "useful advice has been constantly with me", turned up several times. Steggles's lifelong friend Lilian Hawthorn, who with her husband Elwin was a notable member of the group, recalled Sickert's eccentric dress on such occasions. Once he held forth dressed like a golfer in plus-fours and diamond- patterned socks, so that "the girls in the class began to have fits of giggles and had to put their hands over their mouths".
The first exhibition of the East London Art Club, as the group was initially known, was held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1928. The philanthropist Sir Charles (later Viscount) Wakefield launched a fund to frame work by those who "by their pecuniary position [some were out of employment] could not provide this for themselves". In 1929 the group transferred to the Lefevre Galleries in King Street, St James's, with Sickert a contributor. Lefevre was to host a run of group shows until 1936, in addition holding solo exhibitions for members. The catalogues had introductions by leading art critics, and national newspapers found good copy in the fact that a casual labourer, a basket-maker, shop assistants and a window-cleaner and one exhibitor "too poor to pay his bus fares" were showing in the West End.
Encouraged by the dealer Colnaghi, Steggles went to West Ham Technical College to learn engraving and etching, but the slump in the print market around 1930 thwarted that ambition. He continued painting and with his brother Harold shared a show at Lefevre in 1938. From 1939 to 1943, the year John Cooper died, he studied at the Central with Kirkland Jamieson, F.J. Porter and Bernard Meninsky. By now he had exhibited widely in Britain and abroad, but he would never seek a one-man show. The Contemporary Art Society acquired three of his pictures and Manchester City Art Gallery has two.
Like his brother, Walter Steggles had during most of his life to paint while earning a living. For some years he was employed in the drawing office of the shipping company Furness Withy, during the war working for the Ministry of Transport. The collector Sir Edward Marsh had offered to find him a position as a war artist, "but I didn't want to draw war scenes". After retirement in 1967, Steggles was able to concentrate on painting. He and his mother moved frequently, spending periods in Cookham, Winsley near Bath, Scole in Norfolk and Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. The range of interesting subjects widened.
Steggles remembered Sickert's dictum: "A picture must have a 'Look here!' quality. He was right. If you don't attract people, why should they bother to look?"
Walter James Steggles, painter: born London 15 August 1908; died Calne, Wiltshire 5 March 1997.
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