Photography by Tom Hains
CultureLife and livingLocalNews

Artist Jon George on being Chisenhale Arts’ founding member

In a rare behind-the-scenes look within the mysterious walls of the artists’ studios at Chisenhale Art Place, local photographer Tom Hains captures one of its founding members, the painter Jon George, at work. 

Chisenhale Art Place, the imposing red brick warehouse set on the Hertford Canal on Chisenhale Road, has housed artists, sculptors and dancers since the 1980s yet its origin remains little-known by locals.

You may have seen an exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, or even taken classes at the Dance Studios, but the third part of the institution: the artists’ studios, remains firmly hidden from public view.

Thanks to local photographer Tom Hains we can reveal the beautiful studio that belongs to one of Chisenhale’s founding members, Jon George. 

Since helping set up the organisation in the 1980s, George has been painting away from one of the 42 studios in the building. His own is tucked away at the back, facing Hertford Canal, and is artfully littered with easels and picture frames; not to mention of course, his own work covering most of the desks and walls. 

George, now 75, was one of the ragtag collective of artists in the 1980s responsible for turning an abandoned factory into one of East London’s most reputable arts charities with their bare hands and £1000 pounds. 

It’s the early 1980s. George is part of a collective based in Butler’s Wharf near London Bridge. But when the landowners decided to transform it into a commercial space, he and a group of about 20 other artists set about finding a new home. 

Their hunt for an affordable studio yielded the building that would become Chisenhale Art Place. Only back then, it was one of the many abandoned old warehouses in the post-industrial landscape of the East End: good news for George and his collective because it meant the rent came cheap. It was, and still is, owned by Tower Hamlets council. 

So the original artists, who would go on to be known as the ‘ founding members’, signed the lease and set about cleaning up this derelict industrial space. 

‘The windows were all broken,’ recalls George, standing amidst the easels scattering his studio. 

‘Because it was a factory, the inside was all open space. So we had to put up walls to create seperate studios ourselves.’

According to George, the founding members had a budget of around £1000 for the rebuilding. 

‘It was quite a lot of money back then,’ he says with a laugh. ‘We raised that money by throwing a massive leaving party at Butler’s Wharf before we were evicted, and we charged an entry fee.’

Once settled around Roman Road, George and his collective made themselves familiar with the popular hangouts in the area.

‘Back then there was a distinctive lack of cafes on Roman Road,’ he says. ‘But we used to go to this great sandwich place. It’s moved location since then, but it’s still there now on the high street.’

He is of course, referring to Randolfi’s: the much-loved Italian-style deli and former ice cream cafe that evokes strong memories of their famous lemon-ices for many of long-standing Roman Roaders. 

Sadly, in the half a decade since Chisenhale’s early days, George is one of the few founding members who remain. 

‘I’m one of about five of us left,’ he says. ‘Originally there were about 20 of us.’

He spends his time quietly painting away in his studio, occasionally taking trips to the countryside to paint his landscapes – his main interest. The pictures by Tom Hains below capture George working on his latest painting: a country scene from Hexam, a town in Northumberland. 

‘I’m going back there soon to do some colour studies,’ he says. ‘When I was younger I was more interested in making up the colours in my head. But now, I’m more interested in observing and capturing them in a way that is more accurate to life.’

George is currently exhibiting his paintings at Well Street Kitchen, which is on the other side of Victoria Park between Hackney Central and Homerton. 

Photography by Tom Hains.

Jon George painting in his studio, Chisenhale Arts
Jon George's studio overlooking Hertford Union Canal, Chisenhale Arts
Jon George portait, Chisenhale Arts, Bow
Bookshelf at Jon George's studio, Chisenhale Arts
Portait of artist Jon George, wearing purple jumper
Paints at Jon George's studio, Chisenhale Arts
Wooden pegs at Jon George's studio, Chisenhale Arts
Jon George standing in his studio, Chisenhale Arts, Bow
Canvases at Jon George's studio, Chisenhale Arts, Bow

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