Leaning back in a metal chair outside the Shawarma Lebanese kebab house in Shoreditch, I surveyed the scene before me. An odd site to be sure. Hazardously perched high above the street on top of what looked like glass cases were two tube trains. It just didn’t look safe. It looked like they may tip into the road below at any moment. How do you get planning permission to do something like that? How do you get them up there? How do you know it will be safe?
Wiping the remnants of a doner from my jacket, I took a few more swigs of Coke and studied the brick supporting structure more carefully. On closer inspection, I picked out the severed arched stumps of what used to be a railway bridge which must have crossed the street here in times long past.
So I concluded, up top, was built to take trains anyway, heavy steam ones too I shouldn’t wonder, so wimpy old tube trains would be a breeze for these mighty brick shoulders. Yes, a wonderful reuse of an old structure to be sure. A genuine asset to Shoreditch and a fine subject for a watercolour painting.
With that in mind, I was glad that I had just filled myself up as I would be here for at least the next few hours getting it all sorted. I paid my bill and set to work.
I wandered across for a first look and quickly decided that the structures either side really added to the piece and gave it scale and context. I also liked the roller coaster composition across the top. I also enjoyed the liberal graffiti which for once added to the structure.
Great Eastern Street is in Shoreditch in London’s East End. Shoreditch is currently going through a vibrant and very creative regeneration, galleries are popping up all over the place and these tube trains typify the flavour of the area.
It is a pretty busy street too, so as I began to work out my painting, I could also study my fellow man. If you stand on a street drawing for long enough you slowly become invisible, paradoxically, no one notices you watching if you watch all the time.
I worked out the red building on the left, making sure I drew in the right amount of windows at the right height, though my work is very loose, technical details like that are important.
To my left, was a fella nonchalantly leaning back on a bin grinning into his phone. Though I had only just noticed him, I could see he had been there a while as the pigeons had begun to gather at his feet pecking for scraps. I did a side drawing of him and would work him in later if he fitted. He didn’t notice me of course. He was transfixed, stabbing at his phone and beaming away to himself. Forget being an invisible artist here, I could have been King Kong eating a biplane and he wouldn’t have noticed me.
Then I observed something rather curious. There was a girl on the opposite side on the street texting as well. She too was smiling away.
I carried on drawing and included her too. As I worked, I became aware of them both texting and smiling alternately. One would text, the other smile. Then the opposite would happen in response. This grin/text tennis went to and fro across the street for a good few minutes. I became certain that although they were not even facing each other they were nevertheless having a conversation. Why would they do that? What’s going on?
I then moved my drawing to the tricky angles and arches of the tub trains above me. It took a few minutes of hard focus to get a bit of dynamism in the composition. Once done, I moved my eyes back to the street and the couple were gone. All that remained was the quietly burning ember of his cigarette at the foot of the bin. Another East End mystery never to be solved.
The birth of cool
With any trendy area, you will get fashion hot on its heels and Shoreditch is no exception. For the time I was there, I saw one ‘Hipster’ after the next moving up and down the street. It is an interesting style however sometimes the ‘look’ overtakes the individual, the result being that the clothes can end up wearing the person. Many simply don’t look at ease with themselves at all, and give an almost clumsy impression in the effort to look relaxed.
For me at least, the coolest people of the day were an elderly Afro Caribbean couple standing on the far corner of the street. It looked to me as though they could have been big Ska fans when they were younger, as he was wearing a Pork Pie hat, a buttoned lemon yellow jumper and despite a walking stick, he still had a bit of a confident swagger about him.
She had a big hair bob and a bright blue silk skirt with a hint of the early sixties about it. They both looked fantastic and were totally comfortable in what they were wearing.
They knew who they were and they liked it. I guess that could be a key to being genuinely stylish.
To the right of the composition, behind the brightly coloured building you will find ‘Chariots Roman Spa – England’s biggest and best men’s health spa’. I find it rather charming that a big rough city like London still deals in the delicacy of euphemism. A gay friend of mine once said to me ‘there’s nothin’ healthy about that place!’ Despite the negative review, I was considering putting it into my painting though it’s a bit boxy and the composition would stretch too much. Maybe next time.
As I was musing on this, I could see a commotion between two men exiting Chariots. It seemed heated and the argument moved across the car park and right into my line of site. They both halted in front of me and continued bickering.
One was stony faced and leaning back against the wall with a ‘I’m having none of this’ look on his face, the other passive and exhibiting an ‘I’m talking sense’ look on his face.
I must have had a ‘What the hell is going on?’ look on my face as I could not pick up a word of it over the traffic. It was agony. I couldn’t even figure out which one could have been the transgressor. I plumbed for ‘The leaner’ initially as the guilty tend to look away, but then so do ‘The hurt’. No, I had no idea. Over the next ten minutes however things calmed down a bit and a fragile peace seemed to have broken out. Good news.
Then they did something inexplicable to me. They went BACK into Chariots! One thing I was pretty certain about was that whatever caused the row had its origins in there. I felt like shouting over and telling to go to Shawarmas Lebanese kebab house instead. Yes, you will be fat but you will be happy.
I went on with the drawing and took some colour notes with my watercolours. I bent the perspective all over the place to get what I was looking for, and once I was happy with it, I positioned my unknown ‘players’ on the stage for the final composition. I loved painting this picture. London just keeps giving.
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