A selection of these paintings are now on display at the exhibition Empty Streets – Noel Gibson’s East London (1967–75), at the Nunnery Gallery in Bow.
Gibson, who died in 2005, was originally an abstract painter, and perhaps it is this impulse to look beyond strict realism that makes these paintings of pubs, bridges, houses and streets so compelling.
People are strangely absent, giving the East End the eerie air of a ghost town. Yet this absence serves as a reminder of human activity. Metal frames of market traders’ stalls lie empty in Hessel Street, Stepney, while on Canon Street Road the spire of a church pokes through the ominous gap between two houses.
Colour adds to the enigma. Grey skies and pavements contrast with rusty autumnal hues. Or else the canvas is left blank, as in a painting of Brick Lane, which leaves the chimney of Truman’s Brewery to stand unopposed. Even in the most wintery scenes there’s a brightness to the streets and buildings. According to curator Gary Haines, Gibson used yellow ochre for houses to show that they were dying but were not yet dead.
Gibson tends to apply paint loosely, leaving parts of the canvas exposed. This gives East London a faded quality – appropriate given he was capturing a period of flux; a time when new communities were being established and many old buildings being demolished.
In the gallery’s cafe, miniature reproductions of the works are juxtaposed with photographs of what lies there today. Given that only 45 years have passed, it’s somewhat surprising that most bear no resemblance to the paintings whatsoever.
History buffs will find much to chew on here, though it would be unfair only to ascribe documentary significance to these paintings. Gibson claimed to “love these buildings”, and this feeling of warmth is palpable in each canvas. When such a positive and unfaltering appreciation of London is communicated so effectively in paint then that is surely something to be celebrated.
Empty Streets – Noel Gibson’s East London (1967–1975) is at the Nunnery Gallery, 181 Bow Road, E3 2SJ until 21 September