Producing a painting of this scene of Spitalfields Market has long been on my list of ‘Paintings to do’. I love painting markets, and this one is a real treat with plenty of history attached too.
So when I was commissioned by a couple to paint it I jumped at the chance. The extra element here was that the client’s family had worked in the market way back to the 19th century when it was all fruit, veg and horses. It is a great connection, and with that in mind, he wanted the painting to be set in its 1930’s hay day. More about that later.
I met the client and his wife at a local cafe, and we went through the history of his family at the market and discussed the suggested angles to take on the final piece. This included an old photo of his family at their market stall in the 1930’s. What is it about those old photos that are so fascinating?
Drawing Spitalfields market
There is nothing like getting in front of your subject so all three of us got out on the street and I started to pull a few loose drawings together and working out the best angles. After about 45 minutes, we felt the best view was standing just in front of Hawkesmoor’s Christ Church, and looking across to the market. Here we could get the frontage working well, and the road looking up to Liverpool Street.
At this stage, I would normally draw the locals too, however, as we are going back in time to the 1930’s there was plenty of Google research to be done and I pulled the characters and trucks from that. I also added the client’s relatives from that wonderful photo. It all seemed to work out well and the client was happy with our final drawing.
Painting Spitalfields market
The brick of the market is a lovely red colour and this was the key to this for me. The brick of choice for the Victorian architect looking to make a name for themselves.
I put plenty of time into this and then moved on to the characters. They were a joy to do. The only challenge is that in those days, ten year olds dressed the same as their granddads and in the same dark colours. I pepped this up a bit with a smattering of buses, lorries and horses. Oh and plenty of produce too.
I loved working on this piece and even though the research took a pretty long time it was well worth it.
History of Spitalfields Market
The rather odd name of Spitalfields goes way back to the late 12th century after the hospital and priory of St Mary’s Spittel. Communities always gather around religious centres and, what was a very rural community at the time, began to settle about 800 years ago.
The Royal charter for a market proper was set up by Charles II in 1682 as London began to spread out following the fire of 1666.
This was just in time for the arrival of the protestant Huguenots fleeing French persecution in 1685. This set an odd precedent for the future, as since that time, and maybe before this, part of London has always been a haven for those fleeing oppression or difficulties abroad. They seem to gravitate to Spitalfields.
Once the Huguenots settled into British life they dispersed and disappeared. The now common British names of Olivier, Adam, Hardy, and many Allen’s, are an echo of those times.
Replacing them were the Irish fleeing the potato famine, these were employed mainly in the massive building programmes of the 18th and 19th centuries. They were the workforce of the industrial revolution.
They again dispersed and were replaced in about the 1880’s by Eastern European Jews fleeing Russian and Polish Pogroms. There were once over 50 Synagogues in the area and could have been one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe.
The latest change was in the 1970’s when the Jewish community moved out to North London and were replaced with the Bangladeshi community seeking a better life.
Throughout this time, the market has adapted and changed according to local needs. Sometimes in decline, sometimes thriving.
The market’s most popular period was from about 1920 to about 1980. Oddly its popularity as a food market spelled its demise, as the local streets became so congested that they had to move it to a far larger site in Leyton in East London. Far from the City, nearer to the M11.
Spitalfields Market today
At this time, the remaining buildings were probably at their most vulnerable to the wrecking ball and could well have been replaced with another glass office building. Thankfully, this did not happen.
These wonderful structures have found another use in a modern, fast changing world for everyone to enjoy. It thrives as a focus for the regeneration of this whole part of the East End. Here you will find the latest in arts, crafts, fashion as well as food. It has never been more vibrant.
That said, I feel if Spitalfields food market was moved to Leyton today then I am not so sure the market would not survive the teeth of the wrecking ball. All would be lost. The ghost of Charles II ‘The Merry Monarch’ would not be so merry then.