Doreen Fletcher: Paintings, edited by The Gentle Author Review and Artist Interview
Spitalfields Life Books, 2018
This is the story of an initially neglected and disillusioned artist who, through a series of chance encounters, has become better-known and is now enjoying the career that she thoroughly deserves. Throughout the eighties and nineties Doreen Fletcher painted urban scenes around London, especially the East End, but in 2004, disappointed by her lack of recognition, she stopped painting altogether. Some ten years later a chance encounter with The Gentle Author, the anonymous blogger who records and celebrates life around Spitalfields in the East End, led to renewed interest, belated recognition, gallery exposure and publication of this book of her works. And, thankfully, a resumption of painting.
Put simply, these pictures are a delight. They have a double attraction, the most obvious being the subject matter. Many of Fletcher’s paintings, especially those from the 1980s, are of buildings or decaying urban landscapes which were under threat of demolition at the time, and have long since disappeared. They are a visual record of what is now lost, and therefore have a wistful quality which is immediately engaging. The street scenes have an atmosphere of gradual, subtle senescence, in that the scenes depicted are not completely derelict —they are human constructions which have outlived their usefulness and are awaiting destruction, and replacement with something supposedly better. They evoke a past which can no longer be recovered.
However, there is more in these paintings than mere nostalgia, no matter how attractive that might be. The great Romantic painters of the past, Caspar David Friedrich for example, were amongst the first artists to realise that landscape can be depicted in such a way as to reflect upon the human condition, even when the human figure is absent. While many of Fletcher’s paintings may record a fading human environment, they also have a timeless quality that transcends their subject matter. They are accurate representations of an urban world quietly disappearing from view, but are also reflective observations of typical places encountered in everyday life and passed by without much thought.
Artists as diverse as Cézanne, Monet, Hopper, Magritte, and Bomberg, to name just a few, have all taken inspiration from seemingly ordinary man-made objects within a natural landscape or setting, and turned them into something much more powerful. Bomberg notably coined the phrase “spirit in the mass” in an attempt to describe his efforts to give inanimate objects emotional power. Depicting solid structures in a painting in such a way as to evoke an emotional response might be a fiendishly difficult skill, but for the artist it may be the most rewarding. A fine example of this can be found in one of Magritte’s most enigmatic works, The Empire of Light, 1954, which captures a single building at night, in front of a river which reflects the light. Nothing seems unusual about the picture until the viewer realises that there is a noontide sky behind the building. Magritte has combined images of night and day so as to initially confuse us, and then make us wonder. One commentary suggests that this deliberate ambiguity was an attempt to overturn the usual interpretation of light and dark as synonymous with good and evil, and replace this dichotomy with something much more disquieting.
A 1998 painting by Fletcher, Twilight, St. Anne’s Churchyard, has a similar disturbing effect. The yellow-green light in the background gives the scene an otherworldly sense of unease, while in the foreground the black trees seem to be reaching out to entangle everything around them. In her weekly blog Fletcher writes of this painting “I held off for a time before introducing the green into the sky, wanting to convey the effect of loneliness, anticipation, expectation, and maybe hope.” It is clear both from this painting and from Fletcher’s comments about it that, from the outset, this artist was intent on using the landscapes of the world around her to convey more than simply the passage of time, or urban decay.
In 1994 Fletcher came across a corner shop in Canning Town which reminded her of similar shops in the Potteries of her childhood. Returning later, she found it closed and already boarded up and ready for demolition, but she was still interested in the scene and recorded it in a coloured pencil sketch. It is a beautifully executed work which catches the nuances of the faded world that it represents, with old advertising signs still visible in the window. This really could be an image from any inner city or town street, as these kinds of neighbourhood shops were in steep decline at that time, and are now almost non-existent. They are symbolic of a kind of communal life which can be over-sentimentalised, in which neighbours did perhaps interact for the common good, but were often also thrown together by grinding poverty and the lack of meaningful opportunities for improvement. An image like this is a powerful evocation of the passage of time, in the form of this closed-up shop.
This painting can most obviously be compared with those of Edward Hopper. He is famous for his haunting images of an America in which the urban environment becomes representative of the human existence of which it is a significant part. A painting like House by the Railroad (1925) is not dissimilar to Fletcher’s picture of the corner shop —the difference is one of scale. Hopper’s building is more monumental, but its windows are also shuttered. There are no visible signs of life, and the picture’s horizontal plane is cut through by the rusting iron of a railway track. This is a scene of faded melancholy, as the sun casts shadows over an old, condemned building. Like the shop in Canning Town, this old house is not remarkable in itself, but both have been transformed by the artists’ expertise into visual expressions of isolation and abandonment. Both images have a quiet authority underscored by the absence of the long-gone human figures for whom, and by whom, they were built.
Fletcher makes reference to Hopper in her blog commentary about her 2018 painting The Dental Surgery. She writes, “I reflected on Edward Hopper and his voyeuristic interest in half seen lit rooms, an interest of which I share.” Later she adds, “For me, the work of painters like.... Edward Hopper, all contain that sense of being caught in that pause, a moment which places itself between thought and potential action and where consequences still lie waiting to be born in the future.” The work in question is the last in the book, and a fitting finale. Again, this is a corner scene, on a dark winter evening. There is a glow from the first-floor window, but that is the only reference to human activity. Most of the windows are either dark or bricked up, and the street itself is deserted. Unlike in the previous works mentioned, there is no suggestion here of the passage of time; instead this is a record of a place when day is fading and interactions may be taking place within the lighted space, but we are too far away to be sure.
One of the most interesting paintings reproduced in the book is Palaseum Cinema, Limehouse, painted in 1985. Unusually, this work does have a clearly visible human figure, albeit quite a small one: a lonely ticket sales lady in her booth just inside the brightly lit foyer. In her blog about this painting Fletcher writes that she “was immediately struck by the building’s appearance of tawdry glamour,” and that is what is so appealing about this work. In many ways the cinema itself represents a phenomenon with which we have somewhat lost touch. Those of a certain age will remember when most towns had at least two (or more) cinemas, and a visit to one was always a source of excitement, not always connected with the film itself! In this picture we see the decline of a social and cultural icon that has virtually disappeared. We now have large multi-screen venues that show only the latest films, while the small local cinema which catered mostly for those within walking distance, or a short bus ride away, has been largely consigned to distant memory.
This painting shows striking similarities to the work of some of the Photorealist artists in the USA. Davis Cone, for example, has concentrated almost exclusively on Art Deco cinemas for his subject matter, which, like their counterparts in this country, are fast disappearing and therefore represent the passage of time. His paintings, built up from dozens of photographs and transposed in acrylic onto canvas, are unlike those of Fletcher in that they are composite realisations of the chosen locations, rather than accurate portrayals of what can actually be seen at a particular time. However, the overall effect of both painters’ works is remarkably similar. Palaseum Cinema is an urban landscape which combines the nostalgia of the past with the reality of the present. Like much of Fletcher’s work, it is a snapshot, but a carefully chosen one. The evening light emphasises the glowing entrance, which should be welcoming customers and which in the distant past would have seen queues snaking along the pavement, as people waited patiently to gain admittance. At that time the girl in the booth would have been like a master of ceremonies, taking money and guiding people in; she would have had a significantly important social role within the cinema’s organisation. Now she sits alone, waiting for customers who may never even arrive. Fletcher catches that moment perfectly, both the actual —the early evening light coming from the once-thriving cinema— and the imagined, the handling of the painted surface to evoke a world with which we think we are familiar, but which is actually already lost.
In a 2018 interview for the Roman Road London website, Fletcher made this telling statement: “The art establishment continues to ignore me as they do the East London Group. I am a little disappointed but not surprised.”* It is sadly true that canvas painting has become an undervalued art form, and oil painting which takes as its subject everyday visual reality has become the most undervalued of all. The art market is, by its very nature, a volatile one, subject to the vagaries of fashion and public opinion, and personal interpretations of the real world are increasingly sidelined.
To return to the Edward Hopper connection, in 1953 in the journal Reality the artist published a definitive statement about his art, in which he stated: “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”
This declaration could apply equally to the art of Doreen Fletcher. It is entirely appropriate that she is now receiving the attention that she deserves, and I would recommend this collection of her paintings to everyone who believes that an artist who imbues her work with the spirit of place is deserving of both our attention and our admiration. The paintings reproduced in this book are not simply a record of buildings on the eve of their demolition —they also capture moments of reflection on both our past and our future. Man-made structures embody the hopes of previous generations, and when they are destroyed we lose part of what connects us to our heritage. These images are a sympathetic record of that connectivity, and it is laudable that they can now be seen and appreciated by us all.--Paul Flux
Interview with Doreen Fletcher
When I first looked at your pictures I was struck by the absence of human figures within most of the urban landscapes. What was the thinking behind this?
There are some human figures in the work, but I am economical with them in terms of presence. To my mind you can’t have buildings without people, and habitats are the evidence of that presence, living on in the fabric and structure, marks and patina.
My paintings are also concerned with memory. When I recall a place at a specific moment, it is generally difficult to recall individual faces or gestures and a focus on people implies action, reducing buildings to a backdrop.
When you were a teenager (https://www.doreenfletcherartist.com/) was there a particular event that was the catalyst for your interest in what you term "the almost gone" and for capturing it in paint?
I haven’t been asked that question before but, reflecting on it, from early childhood I was saddened by familiar environments disappearing and morphing into something less characterful. For instance, my dad and my grandad shared an allotment near our terraced street where they kept chickens and grew tomatoes and chrysanthemums. This all came to an abrupt end when I was ten and the allotments, with the ‘lanes’ (as the paths between them were called), were demolished to make way for a secondary modern school. I mourned their loss and the sense of possibility for adventure that they had created for some years.
To me your work, like David Bomberg’s, seems to seek to make visible the indefinable, subjective experience of the subject matter that Bomberg called “the spirit in the mass.” How would you respond to that?
The spirit of a place is very important to me but I place importance on the allocation of elements to achieve two things, firstly defining space, and secondly communicating its identity in terms of what I find significant as an artist.
Figurative painting is really not fashionable now: rarely do oil paintings figure in the final judging of the Turner Prize, for example. Have you ever felt tempted to explore other modes of painting, such as abstraction?
No. My journey in terms of subject and content has never wavered from a concern for my immediate environment: the urban destruction of the Potteries and east London, the loneliness of life in the city, and the struggle to survive socially and economically.
I have eclectic tastes in the painting that I admire. I appreciate abstract paintings and have several hanging on my walls, but have no interest in starting to explore the possibilities of mark making on a canvas or ‘taking a line for a walk.’
While reviewing your paintings, I was reminded of artists as diverse as David Friedrich, Cézanne, Monet, Bomberg and Magritte, and also the Camden Town Group. Which artists do you feel have influenced you the most, and in what ways?
We didn’t have access to art or books in the house I grew up in, although my parents were generous in supplying me with any books I wanted, so I was influenced initially by whatever I came across. At the age of eleven, I used to spend hours gazing at and dreaming about The Hunters in Snow by Bruegel during interminable maths lessons. I rated classrooms according to prints on the walls. I disliked Courbet’s painting of the Wounded Stag, found Monet’s Poppy Field a bit too sugary and adored the orange colour in Matisse’s Goldfish Bowl.
I was influenced as a teenager by Impressionism, as many teenagers are, and then Cézanne, but perhaps not in the manner that you might expect. It was the bohemian way of life that attracted me. I read Zola’s The Masterpiece and biographies of the lives of Renoir, Monet, Sisley and of course Cézanne, but it was the tawdry glamour that attracted me: living on the edge in the attics of Montmartre, going to the bars and cafes after a hard day’s painting to laugh, argue and drink with like-minded friends.
However, the greatest influence on me as an artist has to be the urban paintings of the American artists, starting with the Ashcan School —Robert Henri, John Sloane, George Bellows— and finally and most influentially Edward Hopper, whose work I encountered first when I was twenty-one. I have a dog-eared catalogue from the marvellous Hayward Gallery show in 1982 that I often refer to if I feel ‘stuck.’ I love the theatricality of his paintings, the sense that something has happened or is about to happen. You mentioned earlier the lack of people in my work —it’s all going on off stage, behind closed doors.
Much of modern art seems to be about the expression of the interior self, yet you seem to confine your own role in your paintings to that of observer. Why is the artistic presence in your work so understated —is this part of your philosophy as a painter?
This is probably connected to growing up in a Methodist community where the virtues of work and placing the concerns of others before oneself were considered paramount. Although my family were not religious, the Midlands community in which I grew up was imbued with a culture of self-discipline. I remember that by the age of eight, I was taking responsibility for reading and writing for my parents, who only had a very preliminary education and were at best semi-literate.
Later, I was sent to grammar school where I felt I had to conceal my background from the other girls who, in the main, came from professional homes. Conversely, in my home streets I was always the girl who attended the ‘other school’ and wore the fancy uniform. I think this played a role in making me stand at a reserved distance, looking on.
I think that one of my favourite paintings in the book is After the Hurricane: the leafless tree in the centre reminds me strongly of the Nordic expressionists. Was this a deliberate reference on your part?
No, it was concerned with the memory of waking up on the morning of October 16th 1987, unaware that a hurricane had taken place! I received a phone call at 7:30 am cancelling a modelling appointment and, when I reacted somewhat irritatedly, I was told to look out of the window. A week or so later I wandered along the river and came across this tree that epitomised for me the devastation wrought by the hurricane. The Nordic expressionists are difficult for me. I see their landscapes ‘in the flesh’ from time to time and am struck by the brilliant application of colour and angst-ridden, energetic mark-making, similar to Emil Nolde and Schmitt-Rottluff, but really I am a follower of the “Oh for a beaker full of the warm South” mentality. Having said that, recently I visited an exhibition of works by Harald Sohlberg, whom I haven’t before come across, and identified with the soulful beauty and poignancy of his best work —also the sunsets with the branches of bare trees starkly illuminated against the sinking sun. I was delighted at this unexpected treat. The same day I saw the Bonnard exhibition and came away disappointed, because I felt that a lot of the work came across too diffidently. However, days later, the best of his paintings are soaking through my skin, whereas those of Sohlberg remain firmly on my retina.
As much of the London which you have painted is disappearing, are you concerned that your paintings may be viewed too simply as a nostalgic record of the past, rather than as a direct engagement with these environments?
I think that any art that works is, at its core, a social document, containing something that defines ‘a time’ and the processes that work within it. I don’t mean ‘art processes’ but things at work in the community or the environment, in this case the built environment. Of course, some will regard certain images as nostalgic, and if one is working with memory this is hard to avoid, but I never work to provoke sentimentality or imbue my pictures with it. I paint to invoke the light, colour, and the grit on surfaces in a contemporary environment, and I suppose this makes for realism but I also think that there is a certain poetic quality that we miss in the everyday or mundane.
Canaletto would often alter his city views to emphasise elements which he saw as more important. Have you ever added or omitted details in order to improve a particular scene?
Yes. Once the essence is established I regard the composition in terms of grids and the distribution of elements like punctuation (street furniture is very amenable for this purpose). Surprisingly, perhaps, I love the works of Mondrian when viewed in actuality, where one can see how he has painted over and re-arranged rectangles on the canvas, keeping the lines and weight of colour as neat as possible. I can empathise and identify with that approach and the satisfaction felt when the arrangement is finally ‘just so.’
I noticed that your work, in particular some of the drawings (https://www.doreenfletcherartist.com/untitled), can be likened to the American photorealists. Do you ever work from photographic images, or are you always directly in front of the scene that you paint? If the latter, what sorts of practical challenges can this pose in a busy urban environment?
I could never, ever paint in a busy street or cold park. I need a quiet, peaceful environment and consistency in terms of holding a scene and a particular moment in my head to develop atmospherically. When I was younger I used to listen to talking books to allow me to drift away whilst painting. These days I usually prefer silence.
I start by walking and looking, focusing on specific buildings that hold my interest, not because they are about to disappear but for the abstract possibilities, surface, texture, form and colour. I take many photographs. Once I have settled on the final composition, usually but not always, I make a detailed drawing that I then square up onto the canvas meticulously. A thin wash of oil paint mixed with turps follows and then the slow, painful process of building up the surface begins. This can take months or over a year.
How do your rural paintings of the Cevennes area of France (https://www.doreenfletcherartist.com/copy-of-statement) and your urban art complement each other? Do you find that common themes emerge? (For example, it is noticeable that both the East End of London and Cevennes have a rich Huguenot heritage.)
Maybe it’s the Methodist peeping out of me again! I have always been bemused by the fact that many people who like my works see the two areas of focus as unconnected and isolated from each other, yet the response from indigenous inhabitants is identical. I have shown twice in the Cevennes in recent years, and the locals always comment on the degree to which I capture the essence of the valleys. Like the Eastenders, they have had to adapt to changing economic circumstances: natural disasters such as chestnut blight and silk worm disease wiped out their prosperous livelihood in the late nineteenth century. Yet they survived, working the inhospitable terraces, and today they earn a very good living from ‘oignons doux,’ which sell in Paris for a fortune. The buildings too are adapted in a similar manner to those in East London. We have a semi-converted barn that once housed the silk worms and my studio is on the reconstructed mezzanine where they would have been incubated.
How do you see your painting developing in the future?
An interesting question, but not easy to answer. From the plethora of shows and interest recently, I’ve had the opportunity to reassess things, firstly in terms of several decades of work, but also in terms of the turbulent period in which we live: Brexit, the environment, and also technological change, analogue to digital, street life to online.
The subject and content will, I think, remain rooted in a kind of urban geography that has always inspired me, but I have also become aware of the transformation of the post-industrial landscape, the way people are caught up within it and how they continue on, still operating between the cracks. For myself, though, and for my work, turmoil does not translate into incoherence, or fracturing; these are luxuries for a more confident age. Instead, painting for me is a way of remaining rooted to something when so much change is taking place— this might be one of the reasons why the show at the Nunnery Gallery was such a success, with over 1000 visitors weekly.
I’m just amazed at how I stumble across things hidden in plain sight, and feel privileged to coax them out of the shadows through my work.
Doreen Fletcher was interviewed by Paul Flux. Many thanks to Doreen for her time.
* Stop Press: Doreen Fletcher has recently had a painting accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, 'Mother and Child, Plaistow.' A further picture, ‘Carlyle Hotel, Bayswater,’ is on show at the Guildhall Art Gallery in the exhibition "Architecture of London," May 31 - December 1st. (Ed.)