Painting a picture of Great Yarmouth in the 1930s

THE word “amazing” is currently overworked by television presenters and their interviewees although it is scarcer in the written word. Today I feel it is justified here in describing a recent coincidence after a reader contacted me about a 1932 painting entitled Great Yarmouth he had seen in a museum in the north-west of England.

The oil-on-board picture, depicting the Barking Smack public house on the Golden Mile as viewed from the Jetty forecourt across the road, is the work of the nationally acclaimed artist Harry Rutherford – brother of Robert, an entertainer mentioned in this column several times as a member of the pre-war Gorleston Gossips concert party in Gorleston Pavilion.

The company also included Yarmouth soprano Helen Hill, a regular broadcaster on BBC radio during the war, and her husband Frank Wilcock – Robert’s sketch and song-writing partner.

The Pavilion itself has also featured in Through the Porthole lately: last month I recalled the Gorleston Chamber of Trade successfully suggesting old-time music hall as its summer entertainment after a string of disappointing audiences at previous shows, an idea that led to years of “palace of varieties” type productions there, rescuing the venue from the doldrums.

That is a close parallel to seven decades and more ago when the Gorleston Gossips launched their shows in 1928.

Mary Fielder, daughter of performer Robert Rutherford, tells me: “The Pavilion had not had a summer show for several years and Wilcock and Rutherford took a big risk when they decided to try a summer season.

“They learned from bitter experience that their first season was too long, programmes were changed every week to entice holidaymakers to visit more than once, and the start and end of the season were not good financially.”

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The Mercury reader who experienced the pleasant surprise at spotting the Barking Smack painting in the Rutherford Gallery in Hyde was John Lambert, a member of the local Harrod family who divides his time between Elmgrove Road in Gorleston and the greater Manchester-Liverpool area.

“As a boy I lived near the Barking Smack, so basically it was my playground!” he explains. “I was taken aback when I came across this painting quite by chance.”

I am grateful that Mr Lambert brought the picture to my attention.

A close study of the animated Yarmouth scene depicted by Harry Rutherford reveals that one young woman is wearing a white United States Navy-style hat with the words “OK Chief” on it.

Marie Holland, art curator with the Tameside Museums and Galleries Service, who has given me great help about this Rutherford work, says: “I have it from a newspaper article that it was the first painting at the Royal Academy to include American slang.”

I can but surmise that the Royal Academy has not had many other works containing US slang since then...

Mrs Fielder adds: “My dad and ‘uncle’ Frank (Wilcock) were partners in both the concert party and in writing material together until Frank died in the 1960s.

“I have programmes and photographs of the company right through till 1937.

“Helen Hill’s family was the reason the show was in Gorleston: her parents had a restaurant which is still there and I think still may be under the name of Hill.”

In fact, the restaurant, function room and baker’s shop in King Street, Yarmouth, have long gone. The business was acquired by Gorleston baker Matthes as far back as 1938 although it continued to trade under its old name; when the premises were blitzed in 1941, the cafe moved above the men’s outfitter Montague Burton until postwar rebuilding enabled a return to the former site.

In 1980 Took’s acquired the business, but it closed in 1992.

As for artist Harry Rutherford, he was drawn to Yarmouth and Gorleston not only by the presence here of his brother Robert but also because he loved the potential of theatre and music hall as subjects for his brushes and pencils, although his works generally were wide ranging. He also helped to paint the Pavilion scenery.

Says niece Mary Fielder: “I know that Uncle Harry spent several seasons, or part of, down there. Under the influence of Walter Sickert (1860-1943, once described as ‘one of the most important British artists’), his love of the theatrical world was strengthened, and having a brother in the business was a bonus.”

At her home, Mrs Fielder has another of Harry’s works, Comedians’ Corner, a self-portrait of Harry Rutherford sitting in his brother Robert’s dressing room in Gorleston Pavilion.

“It has just returned from being on loan to Tameside, on public display in the Rutherford Gallery. It belongs to me and is here again now.

“Comedians’ Corner was my Dad’s bit of the dressing room in Gorleston Pavilion.”

A few years ago she visited the building and noted that “the dressing room was unchanged since the 1930s!”

Is one of the dressing rooms there still known as Comedians’ Corner? One of the current lessees told me he had never heard of it in his 16 years there and doubted if there had ever been a “Comedians’ Corner” in the building.

Because I had never heard of Walter Sickert, who so greatly influenced Harry Rutherford, I put his name into a computer search engine, and was very surprised at one entry about this London-based artist. Apparently he was renowned for the sleazy images he painted, and was also one of the numerous individuals alleged to have been none other than Jack the Ripper, Britain’s most famous murderer, who terrorised Edwardian London.

The accuser was the famous United States detective novelist Patricia Cornwell who spent $6m researching Jack the Ripper’s grisly murders of London prostitutes between 1888 and 1891 for a book in which she named Sickert as the notorious killer.

But Ripperologists declared that despite her comprehensive investigation, she had been unable to prove Sickert’s guilt and they dismissed her theory. The identity of Jack the Ripper remains a riddle.

The Barking Smack, one of Yarmouth’s oldest public houses, was originally called Jacob’s Well. In the 19th century, when fish were still being landed on the beach and not in the river, salesmen used its upstairs rooms as offices.