Daniel Farson says in his book, Limehouse Days, that it was he who ‘discovered’ (Farson’s own quotation marks) the Poplar-born painter, Dick Whyte, who at the time worked as a rigger in the West India Docks.
He started painting in 1959 by accident, when his father who made model boats as a hobby had some paint to spare and Dick experimented with a picture. I saw it and a couple of others in the Gun on the Isle of Dogs and asked if I could meet him.
A broad man with a turned-up nose and curly hair falling over his forehead, he had the look of a calf taken by surprise. He was immensely likeable and friendly and the last thing he wanted to do was to talk about his painting, steering the conversation towards his new flat, local pubs, or his experience with the Army in Italy, though his eyes absorbed the scene around him as he was talking.
Farson had just purchased the Newcastle Arms on the Isle of Dogs, which he renamed Waterman’s Arms. As part of his plans to provide old-style music hall entertainment, the pub was to be extensively redecorated, and Farson wanted Whyte to paint a mural behind the stage showing the view of Greenwich Naval College from the Island.
Whyte wasn’t keen. He didn’t think he had the experience or the skills for the job. Besides, he had only painted boats, cranes and similar; he had never painted grand architectural views.
Fortunately for Farson, Whyte was beginning to sell more and more of his paintings, and was gaining confidence. He agreed to painting the mural, which was ready in time for the pub’s opening in 1962. It has appeared as the backdrop, literally, in many images.
However, long after Farson had departed, in a scene from the 1980s film, Long Good Friday which was filmed in the Waterman’s Arms, everything has been redecorated, and the wall was covered in flock wallpaper.
I think it is a shame that I can find no more information about Dick Whyte and his work. All I have written here is taken from Daniel Farson’s book. There have not been that many ‘proper East End painters’, and he had a bit of a name in the 1960s, yet I can find no examples of Dick Whyte’s work on the Internet, no information about him at all.
What happened to Dick Whyte and his family? Did they carry on living as normal in their Poplar flat? And what about all his works? I asked Tony Alltoft if he knew anything about this (Tony lived above the pub at the time of Farson, being the young son of the pub manager Gordon Alltoft). He replied that his family had one of Whyte’s paintings, but it was stolen during a break-in…most likely by thieves who had no idea about what they were stealing.
If anyone knows any more, it would be good to hear from you.
UPDATE 7th October 2014
Shortly after I posted this article, Tony Alltoft posted the following photo of Dick on Facebook. He is standing outside Waterman’s Arms on what was then called Glengarnock Avenue.
I was also pleased and excited to hear from Dick’s daughter, Jackie Martin, who told me more about her father. In her own words:
Although Dick Whyte was ‘discovered’ by Dan Farson, and was in the limelight for a short time, he was a private man, who always only thought of his painting as a hobby and so continued working as a rigger in the West India Docks, living in Poplar with wife Rose and his girls. He did continue painting and during the 70’s and 80’s some of them could be seen in various other pubs on the Island and in Limehouse, the Gun, Queenie Watts’ Rose and Crown, and old friends Bobby and and Jeanie Wiseman’s pubs, the names of which I can’t remember?!
In 1980 he had a terrible accident whilst working in Newhaven docks and broke his back. He spent a year in Stoke Mandeville National Spinal Injuries unit. Faced with spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair, or ‘pram’ as he called it, took its toll. It took him some time to come to terms with his paraplegic but eventually he went back to painting what he knew, loved and dearly missed, the Docks.
He spent his later years enjoying his garden and his grandchildren with Rose and they celebrated their Golden wedding anniversary. Sadly he passed away in 2004 and left a great void in our family.
Jackie also said she still has some of his work, and kindly sent me a photo of one of her favourites, accompanied by a photo of Dick. Thanks a million, Jackie!