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Anthony Eyton RA and the bell ringers of Spitalfields

Published 10 November 2014

The Academician’s lifelong artistic engagement with the East End neighbourhood now includes the bell ringers of its iconic Hawksmoor church.

  • Anthony Eyton RA first visited Spitalfields when, as a student at Camberwell Art School in the late 1940s, he ventured north of the river to see a Mark Gertler exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. The bustle, colour and industry of East End life made an instant and indelible impact on the young artist.

    “All these barrows, great big men selling things – I thought they were rather heroic looking. Then I went to Fournier Street and for the first time saw Christ Church Spitalfields, and was amazed with it. And of course the colourful streets, and the sweatshops - the sewing machines going - very different from now.”

    Twenty years later, his ongoing fascination with the area saw him take a studio in Spitalfields. “I found a very romantic house in Wilkes St, very near Christ Church Spitalfields, where you could look out of the top floor window and do paintings of the tower. I spent one year there then moved to Hanbury St and spent 14 years there. So I got to know the neighbourhood very well. The best time of all was that first year in Wilkes Street when they were actually machining downstairs. I had the top floors and it was very creaky and ancient and decrepit.”

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    Anthony Eyton RA and the bell ringers of Spitalfields

    This short video shows Anthony Eyton RA working on a pastel drawing of the bell ringers of Christ Church Spitalfields, firstly in the church itself and then in his Brixton studio.

  • Eyton now lives and works in Brixton but he continues to visit Spitalfields and it remains an enduring subject in his work. During the 60 years that he has been painting and drawing its buildings, people and street life, the area has changed a great deal. City high-rise buildings loom over the ancient narrow streets and the sweatshops have been replaced by trendy shops and bars, but the market remains and so, of course, does Christ Church Spitalfields - which Eyton continues to paint today. His pastel drawings of the great Hawksmoor church are currently on show at Eleven Spitalfields, as part of the exhibition Drawing on Hawksmoor.

    The exhibition also includes his drawings of the church’s bell ringers. They are members of the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths, a bell ringing group that was founded in the 18th century. His introduction to the group came about through a happy coincidence: “A man called Philip Vracas now owns the house in Hanbury Street where I used to have a studio. He was getting in touch with the old tenants and one evening we had a glass of wine and nice things to eat and talked of old days. He said that he was ringing bells at Christ Church, so I got interested and asked if it would be possible to come along… I’ve been drawing them ever since.”

    Eyton regularly climbs the narrow spiral staircase to the small room where the bells are rung, sets himself up on a ledge with his pastels and works quickly to capture the movements of the ringers. They, in turn, have created a special composition, or ‘method’, to use the campanological term, in his honour.

    It is an unusual subject, seldom recorded in art, Eyton explains.

    “It hasn’t been given much attention in the pictorial world before. The main thing is the impact of their dedication and energy - their liveliness transfers itself to me as I’m making a record of it. Their energy gives me energy.”

    Watch our short video above to find out more, and to hear an extract of the method Eyton RA Delight Major.

    Anthony Eyton RA: Drawing on Hawksmoor is at Eleven Spitalfields has been extended to 30 January 2015.