This beautifully printed and bound book from Spitalfields Life Books is a monograph exploring the work of the artist Doreen Fletcher. There is an introduction by The Gentle Author (the Spitalfields Life blogger), who describes his first encounter with Fletcher’s work like this:
‘One day I received an email with a photograph of a painting by Doreen Fletcher attached at the end. It was quite an indistinct photo, just the size of a thumbnail, but I was immediately spellbound. The picture had a rigorous structure, a mystery and an authority which drew my attention at once. It was quite unlike any painting I had seen.’
He discovered that she had given up painting ten years ago and stored all her work in the attic – so he asked to see the paintings. ‘It was obvious that these paintings comprised a significant body of work, of range, contrast and accomplishment’.
The Gentle Author photographed her work and publicised her paintings on his blog to enormous interest.
Since then Fletcher has had her work exhibited in Townhouse Spitalfields by Fiona Atkins in 2016 and 2017, and in the National Gallery when she was shortlisted for the first Evening Standard Contemporary Art Award in 2017.
This monograph coincides with a retrospective of her work at the Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts, which will display the whole range of Fletcher’s work from her early beginnings to the present day, as she is now painting again in East London and in France.
Fletcher describes herself in the book as ‘an only child, born into a working-class family, and my parents were – as you might say these days – semi-literate.’ She passed her eleven-plus to get into the local grammar school and was always in the top stream but felt self-conscious because she came from ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’
A beautifully drawn pencil drawing illustrates what Fletcher describes in the book as the first landscape that she knew: ‘It was composed of greys and browns – soot-streaked streets with sparrows and pigeons. I used to long for colour, for tinsel, for fairy lights and fairgrounds.’
The detailed depiction of the flowers in the foreground of this delicate drawing perhaps express some of that longing, which eventually brought her to London.
After studying for her foundation degree in Newcastle-under-Lyme, she moved to London with another artist and enrolled at Croydon College, painting full-time and paying her way by working as an artist’s model three days a week (‘the most boring job you could imagine’). Eventually she moved to East London to live and paint.
‘I was excited visually by being somewhere new to me yet that also reminded me of where I grew up. In the Potteries, the town planners’ ethos was ‘If it’s old, let’s sweep it away’ – regardless of its cultural and historical significance. I saw the same fate awaiting the East End.’
In the book she describes her first visit to Mile End for a date in 1983. Near the station she found the subjects for three subsequent paintings, the first one being her Bus Stop, Mile End in 1983, one the Terminus Restaurant which she painted in 1985, and finally the nightclub Benjy’s which she painted in 1992.
‘Opposite the station, a grandiose thirties building stood in sorrow but a couple of square buildings next to it looked more cheerful in the fading sunlight. They housed Conlon’s Men’s Clothing Shop and Terminus Restaurant, both of which had seen better days… I was fascinated by the pale tones of the peeling façade of the Terminus Restaurant.’
It’s Fletcher’s background, one could argue, coupled with her artist’s eye, that helps her see the beauty of these very humble, functional buildings that most of us would pass without a second glance.
In ‘The Lino Shop’, Poplar, 2003, although the shop advertises ‘Fancy Goods’ the street as a whole is resolutely un-fancy, with its traffic lights, advertising and street lamps. But the sky above is lit with a glowing golden light, towards which some faraway trees seem to imploringly lift their branches.
It’s like one of those moments when you are walking on a London street and look up momentarily to the sky and catch your breath. But Fletcher’s work captures so many of these little moments, contrasts of light and shade and flashes of bright colour which illuminate the everyday, with paintings from Limehouse, Poplar, the Isle of Dogs, and Bethnal Green.
The paintings come to an abrupt end in the early 2000’s, by which time she had become thoroughly disheartened both by the lack of real appreciation of her work and by the many changes occurring in East London, including development and gentrification.
‘I remember the day I made a conscious decision to pack away my paints. It was November 16th, 2004. I said,’ That’s it! I am not going to paint again.’ She was to continue with her resolution for over a decade – until the time the Gentle Author approached her, and she showed him her collection of works stored in the attic.
Her new paintings set in East London (the monograph does not cover the work she does in France) seem to announce her return to painting with a splash. They are brighter, even more confident although they still record the ‘pockets of life that we ignore.’
‘A painting is successful for me when I believe I have captured an essence of a place in a moment.’
‘Your no Banksey’, Limehouse, 2017 reflects Fletcher’s constant interest in graffiti and the urban landscape in general. The setting is a tyre shop, the proprietor isn’t working on the van in the shop but taking a break, standing at the front looking to the right.
Above the shop is another beautiful sky – blue, with thunder clouds massing in the distance. It’s a moment in time – and perhaps also, an ironic, tongue-in-cheek reference to the artist’s own feelings about the contemporary art world that ignored her for so long.
A retrospective of Doreen Fletcher’s paintings will take place in the Nunnery Gallery, Bow. The exhibition will celebrate the work of this until recently under-recognised artist and take the opportunity to bring together her works from 1983-2004. The show will run from 25 January to 24 March 2019