London Sketch Club

Centenary Exhibition Poster Text

London Sketch Club

There are very few long-lived organisations, that haven't, for reasons not entirely of their own making, given up so much of the spirit of the past. The London Sketch Club is one of those, hanging on to a tradition born way back in the last century.

This exhibition tells a story of the club through the work of its highly talented and often characterful members. The exhibits, some shown for the very first time, date back to the club's founding on April Fool's Day in 1898.

John Hassall RI, president from 1903–4, was the first of many 'keepers of the archives'. He collected and safeguarded many items which might otherwise easily be lost – setting a model for archivists following him. The firm guardianship of the archives has served the club well and ensured the survival of key artworks despite the 'souvenir hunting' instincts of members and the moves from Wells Street to Marylebone Road and from Marylebone Road to Dilke Street in the 1950s.

Together with the artworks on permanent display, they give witness to the creativity, skill, energy and spirit of club members, both past and present.

1898–1913

This period, from the founding of the club to the start of the Great War, saw the development of club life, defined by such eccentrics as Phil May and Tom Browne.

It also saw the formulation of a Sketch Club style or more precisely two styles – a bold linear style favoured by its poster artists, and a romantic style favoured by followers of the 'Fairy' school. Artist members in both camps influenced a whole generation of commercial graphic artists and examples of their club work are embodied in the artworks and material on show in this exhibition.

Members loved drawing each other and still do – Thorpe's studies are a particularly exquisite example of such work – and they revelled in producing promotional designs for conversazioni, smoking parties, dinners, exhibitions, in fact any event however minor provided an excuse for drawing. Dudley Hardy's poster showing Walter Churcher is an early example of a promotional design.

Whilst members were often prankish (drawing on unsuspecting visitor's shirt fronts typified this tendency), they went out of their way to record their activities for posterity; by taking photographs of events – such as their gatherings at the club's Wells Street studio – by collecting autographs of distinguished and not so distinguished visitors, and by collecting 'wacky' memorabilia.

1913–1929

This period starts with the Club's move to Marylebone Road (now rather ingnominously the site of Woolworth's head office) and continues right into the heady rip-roaring twenties. Entrance to the new club was through a somewhat cheeky Old Bailey door (later replaced by one from Newgate, and now hung in this room). John Hassall thought the new premises too sanitised and promptly lit a bonfire in the middle of the room to make it more like the place they had just left.

In many ways the Club came into its own during this period although artists' conversazioni (and artists' studio parties) fell out of favour. Smokers and fancy dress parties still continued to provide members with an outlet for their outrageous behaviour and creativity as did the Club's annual bash – Barribal's 'The Finishing Touch' is an example of an invitation illustration from this period.

Held at the Wharncliffe Rooms next door to the club's premises, The London Sketch Club Ball became a highlight of the social diary. The winner of the best fancy dress costume category was presented with Albert Toft's 'Metal Pourer' sculpture.

In the 1920s, members drew on both Tuesdays and Fridays and a club dirge was sung to end each evening. Entitled the 'Watchman, What of the night', Clay Thomas was its lead singer.

1930–1949

During this period the Club was probably at its apogee from both a social and creative point of view. Smokers nights became ever more popular again, as witnessed by the wealth of publicity material on display, and to such a degree that suppers had to be served in two sittings.

George Parby, known as 'The Grand Old Man of the London Sketch Club', and one of London's true eccentrics, presided over many of the Club's social functions as self-styled Master of Ceremonies. He is the subject of many drawings, paintings and sculptures made during this period by Arnold Beauvais, Lawrence East and others.

Regular visitors around this time were entertainers Stanley Holloway, Victor McClure and the famous Shakespearian actor Henry Oscar. Charlie Chaplin even made a visit, an autographed portrait marking the event.

In the mid 1930s, a few members decided it was about time to promote their work more aggressively by holding a large exhibition outside the club on the theme of 'London and the Thames'. They advertised the exhibition by parading around town with posters on billboards, like sandwich men. Held at the Arlington Gallery, the exhibition met with some critical success although The Thunderer accused the work of a certain slickness.

1950 to the present day

The Club from the 1950s onwards has continued to uphold the traditions and ethos of the past. For reasons better known to themselves, members still loved dressing up for Soldiers' nights, Tramp Nights, Pirates Nights and Savage Nights. (To be fair members didn't behave like savages; they simply hosted evenings for members of the Savage Club.)

All these events needed advertising so the tradition of producing hand-drawn posters, invitations and menus continued. Menu for Tonight exhibited here is a delightful example of such a work.

The sale of the Marylebone site to Woolworths meant that the Club could purchase these wonderful premises in Dilke Street outright. But as with the move from Wells Street to Marylebone Road in 1913, some older members couldn't adjust to the change. John Seabrook, Don Blake and Gathorne Butler, amongst others, have guided the club well and ensured its survival through periods when the market for illustrative work was weak and figurative art quite unfashionable.

Throughout the period, Club members' work however became more and more out of step with the popular imagery as fine artists began to outnumber graphic artists and designers. This trend has now been reversed and it is hoped that future members will meet the challenge set by the club's founder members.

 

The London Sketch Club