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  • Writer's pictureMary Smith

Elwin Hawthorne, East London artist

'Broadstairs', by Elwin Hawthorne, 1931. © the Artist's Estate

Broadstairs has always been a popular place for city-dwellers to come down and take in the crisp, clean air and sea views.  The town boasts its fair share of famous visitors and residents, not least a young Queen Victoria and of course the eminent Charles Dickens to name but two. After all, as a young princess Queen Victoria holidayed regularly in Pierremont Hall. Charles Dickens famously spent several years living and writing in the clifftop Bleak House. Getting away from the smog and dirt of London down to our little coast remains a much-loved pastime, especially as the seafront hasn't really changed all that much over the years.

A young Princess Victoria on Broadstairs sands

A lesser-known but very note-worthy visitor to Broadstairs was London-based post-WW1 artist Elwin Hawthorne. A prominent member of the East London Group, he joined fellow artists Walter and Harold Steggles as they drove around the country in their newly-aquired Ford motorcar. All prolific painters of industrial East London, they perhaps seized the chance to not only get out of the city for a while, but to also paint something different. What resulted were numerous depictions of provincial, between-the wars-England, often by the sea.  One of their destinations in the late 1920's/early 1930's was the Broadstairs we know and love. Hawthorne, clearly taken by its charm, produced some truly beautiful work here.  

1931 photo view of Harbour Street, taken by Elwin Hawthorne. © the Artist's Estate

Hawthornes' paintings are somehow both pleasingly surreal and realist at the same time. They possess an other-worldly quality - with all but a few people and the odd vehicle omitted -  and are comfortingly evocative of the true spirit of the place.  He and the Steggles brothers were at one point commissioned by Shell to contribute to the oil companys' famous series of posters depicting English life. Hawthorne's submission was a wonderful impression of the commanding North Foreland lighthouse. 

Shell poster commission of 'North Foreland Lighthouse, Broadstairs, Kent', 1929-31. © the Artist's Estate

With a nod to the Arts & Crafts movement preceding, Hawthorne also turned a hand to wood carvings and linocuts and one can imagine him poring over his sketches and photos to get the pieces right. His view of the Broadstairs harbour skilfully captures the character of the jetty and its fishing boats, without becoming twee. The omission of any people or seagulls (always guaranteed in real life) making that possible. 

'Broadstairs', 1931. © the Artist's Estate

Going by Hawthorne's Broadstairs work, we can imagine he might have spent a very pleasant day or two observing the quintessential English seaside comings and goings. His reference photo and sketch of the bandstand is a delight to modern eyes, making us wish a full painting of the scene existed.

Hawthorne's reference photo of Broadstairs bandstand, 1931. © the Artist's Estate

Anyone who has been down to the bandstand will recognise the bunting fluttering in the wind, the music getting carried off by the sea breeze and the deckchairs waiting for their occupants to bring cups of tea or ice-cream cones to sit down with. If Hawthorne had painted this scene in full, no doubt the deckchairs would have remained empty and all but the band conductor left visible to the sole gentleman looking on. 

Sketch of Broadstairs bandstand, 1931. © the Artist's Estate

The East London Group was mentored by world-renowned post-impressionist Walter Sickert, Hawthorne working as his studio assistant from 1928-1931. Sickert himself lived semi-retired in Broadstairs from 1934 to 1938, perhaps introduced to the sleepy seaside town by Hawthorne? This from Alan Waltham of East London Group in its modern guise: It "might have accounted for Sickert’s interest in moving to Broadstairs although it might also have had something to do with JMW Turner’s affections for the Margate and Thanet area generally: who knows?"  You can learn all about the fasinating history of the group along with other places around Thanet and East Kent that Hawthorne painted here. Alan Waltham has family connections to the Steggles and has spent the last few years lovingly documenting the groups' works, correspondence, painting notes and all manner of other emphera to save them getting lost in time. He has curated exhibitions showing some of the pieces and hopes to continue this next year. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see them down here in Broadstairs?

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