'If this street were in Paris, everyone would have wanted to paint it.' – Noël Gibson (1928–2005)
It is always nice to meet an old friend and this is how I feel writing on the work of Noël Gibson. I first encountered the work of Noël in 2012 when asked to give a talk about his paintings to launch an exhibition of his work at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, where 24 paintings of his are located. I subsequently curated an exhibition of his work in The Nunnery Gallery, Bow, 'Empty Streets: Noel Gibson's East London (1967–75)' in 2014.
When first viewing his paintings, I was struck by the emptiness depicted in them, a sense of waiting. I was also struck by the fact that he painted the streets I knew: the streets of East London.
His impasto style gives the streets and houses the same texture you can feel today when you run your hand along an old brick wall lining one of the many streets of Bethnal Green or Whitechapel. It takes me back to my childhood memories of the East End in the 1970s.
Noël Gibson painted East London during the late 1960s and 1970s. This was an East End rapidly changing and welcoming new populations. In this period, the established Jewish community was moving away and the South Asian population was taking their place.
Redevelopment of the East End begun apace after the Second World War. Many houses were demolished to make way for new and by the 1970s disillusionment had set in regarding this new-for-old restyling. Local communities become aware of their local heritage.
Noël sensed this and captured these streets before they were transformed. As Noël said in an interview in The Times in August 1972, 'I go back to check up on a detail, a colour, and a whole street is gone.'
Born in Glasgow in 1928, Noël moved to East London in 1962 and stayed in the area until 1974; he became Provost Verger at Southwark Cathedral in 1977. He trained as a singer but taught himself how to paint. He was creative and artistic to his core. A bohemian, he loved the Italian way of doing things. This was reflected in the way his home was furnished – he was well known for decorating his house at 90 Southwark Bridge Road with flowers. He was also an animal lover. As two of his friends noted in the memorial booklet produced for his funeral, 'he was the only Londoner we've met who loved pigeons.'
Starting as an abstract painter, he soon became fascinated with the streets around him. He said to The Times, 'I began as an abstract painter, but when I came to Stepney I found paintings at the doorstep. But I think there's still a quiet abstract quality in my paintings. I am trying to express the spirit of the buildings, the strength of them, of the people who were there.'
It is the spirit of the buildings that shine through in his work – they are a memorial to the people who have lived in them.
Gibson's painting of No. 1 East Smithfield has a dedication from him on its reverse, 'Dedicated to the many Jews who must have lived in this House and made their way and moved on.'
There is a striking absence of people in these paintings. He was not interested in painting the people on the streets as 'people turn them into an episode, with a background. But I'm painting the background.'
Anyone who knows East London knows that the dramas of characters of any street can rival any operatic libretto and indeed you have to get up very early or late at night to find the streets without people. Noël has undoubtedly 'removed' the people from his view of the East End and that is intriguing.
The most radical example of this is in his painting of St Leonard's Road and the Church of St Michael and All Angels. The plinth in the foreground is actually the base for the war memorial erected in 1920. The war memorial consists of a figure of Christ placing a chaplet of laurels on the head of a kneeling Crusader in full armour. Gibson has painted the plinth and not the figures. The plinth stands empty.
The vigour of his paint stroke captured the attention of the critics. The Hackney Gazette in 1974 remarked, 'His pictures of ordinary scenes in Bethnal Green, Stepney, Wapping, Stoke Newington and Poplar have an excitement which is usually kept for pictures of more exotic places.'
In 1972 Gibson's popularity was at its height when Hackney Council mounted an exhibition featuring 60 of his works. Almost all of them were sold and he was commissioned to paint more. His paintings were purchased by private collectors in America, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
Noël regularly exhibited in London and was always met with positive comments, especially from fellow Londoners. The comments in the visitors book from his exhibition at the Canaletto Gallery in July 1972 reflected the importance of his work to them: 'So glad Mr Gibson is making a record of the old streets before the bulldozers get in,' and, 'A beautifully artistic preservation of the changing face of the East End.'
One street, in particular, attracted Noël and his sketchbooks and subsequently oils – this was Hessel Street, in Whitechapel.
It was this street that Noël was referring to when he told the Hackney Gazette in 1974 why he was so drawn to paint the streets of East London: 'If this street were in Paris, everyone would have wanted to paint it.' It has, as was termed in the heading of the article, a 'magic' that attracted him. It was as he remarked to The Times, 'one of the most interesting streets in London... I could paint a hundred paintings in that street.'
Gibson's motivation in painting streets was to keep the houses in them alive, to capture them before they disappeared. He described his use of yellow ochre for some of the houses to show that the houses that were depicted were dying but not dead.
The chimney viewable in this depiction of Brick Lane, belongs to Truman's Brewery which closed in 1988. My Dad worked for the Brewery for over 18 years, walking down the 'Lane' to go to work. I did the same when working for The Whitechapel Gallery, walking literally in my father's footsteps to go to work. History echoing itself, as it so often does.
Noël Gibson's paintings are an invitation to explore East London's streets. The streets in which he is calling forth the souls of old houses through his artwork. These souls are not from the dead, however, but from the living, breathing transforming East End of London.
I never knew Noël Gibson, but I miss him as you miss an old friend. I am pleased we have his paintings of East London. My childhood. If you listen closely you can hear voices coming from them, full of laughter, talking of going down 'the lane', having a jaunt over to Vicky Park, talking of anxiety, of love. Voices of all nations, with an East End accent.
Gary Haines, archivist and researcher