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James McKinnon

by Derek Rothera January 30, 2021

James McKinnon


FROM HACKNEY TO HASTINGS an exhibition in the Autumn of 2017

Paintings & Drawings
London Fields, Night, 2004, oil on canvas, 40.5 x 30.5cm.
Private collection. The painting is featured in the book 'East End Vernacular - Artists who painted London's East End streets in the 20th Century'. The Gentle Author. October 2017.
James at work
The exhibition runs from 17 October to 12 November 2017 
Tuesday to Saturday 11.00 am to 6 pm, Sunday 12 to 5 pm
Tower at Night, London Fields, 2012, oil on board, 38.5 x 54cm.

Just as location, location, location is important when choosing a property, so it is at the heart of James Mackinnon’s artworks.  His interest in places and their buildings began as a young child.  James recalls vividly how as a boy of about eight he became obsessed with the Post Office Tower.   As he became older, it was the “vibes” of places that attracted him: an abandoned art deco Odeon cinema in Deptford and the mysterious, echoing Greenwich foot tunnel that leads under the Thames through to the Isle of Dogs.  These prompted a curiosity about mysterious places then unknown.  He was affected not only by the fabric of the buildings but also by the traces of those who had inhabited and left their impressions on them.  From the outset, “it was not just the architecture, rather an emotional thing.”

Already as a child James showed exceptional ability to draw and paint, using felt tips, poster paints, drawing on long rolls of wallpaper and whatever else came to hand.  He was lucky to be born into an artistic family and to get further encouragement at school, but it would be many years before he determined the precise course his career should take.

East London Nocturne, 2017, oil on board, 32.3 x 58.5cm.

His grandparents were both artists who trained and met at the Slade School of Fine Art.  Hugh Mackinnon was an experienced teacher of drawing and textiles at the Central School of Art and then Hornsey College of Art/Middlesex Polytechnic, finally becoming principal lecturer there.  Hugh’s wife Betty, in particular, was “a massive influence” on James’ development.  He recalls: “They lived in a modest house in Leytonstone and their surroundings were full of amazing things and unusual people, and I thought: ‘I want to be part of that world.’” James’ father had taken a different course, becoming an eminent consultant paediatrician.  He appreciated that an artist’s life could be financially uncertain, but recognized his son’s dedication and self-determination, so did not discourage him.  James recalls his father in typically colourful humour: “Just paint yourself fartless - and you’ll be all right.”

Aged eleven, James won an art scholarship to Dulwich College, which had an outstanding art department.  Among his interviewers was the Royal Academician James Fitton, by then known for his scenes of London life, film posters and political cartoons, an artist whose work James came to admire.  Also on the panel was Dulwich’s head of art, Barry Viney.  “I would eventually spend much of my time in his department.  He could seem stern, but in his office, full of books and the reassuring aroma of Piccadilly cigarettes, I saw a much softer side.  Not only was he encouraging, but he was seminal to my development, introducing me to the work of artists such as Harold Gilman and Richard Dadd and setting interesting projects in the holidays.”  After A-levels, James enjoyed the liberal atmosphere during his foundation year at St Martin’s School of Art.  His personal tutor was Ben Johnson, with his international reputation for architecture-inspired paintings.  Both Viney and Johnson were meticulous in their approach, a distinctive feature of James’ drawings and paintings.

Early Doors, The Shakespeare, Stoke Newington, 2016, oil on canvas, 60.5 x 45.5cm.

When James entered Kingston School of Art he was “still not mature enough to know I wanted to be a painter.”  So he settled for a degree in 3D interior architectural design, specializing in design for  film and television, where he was encouraged by head of department Moira Tate.  Leaving in 1991, James worked on several interesting projects, notably at the National Film and Television School, in Buckinghamshire.  James concluded that this competitive world was not for him. “You needed to be pushy and I wanted to work at a more meditative pace.  

“Then one day sitting by the Thames, depressed after an emotional disappointment, I had a sort of epiphany.  I realized that I just wanted to look at buildings, to draw and paint them.  It was the one solid thing in life.”  His painting of a shabby launderette in north Greenwich would be the first of many studies. 

Life is usually tough for a freelance artist, but along the way for James there have been notable plus points.  One was assisting the distinguished painter Patrick Hughes, which James feels gave him valuable insight into another artist’s practice and providing a regular salary.  He also worked with the photographer Tom Hunter on London Fields East – the Ghetto: an 18-foot sculpture of the squatted houses in Ellingfort Road, Hackney.  “My old skills in set design proved very worthwhile.”  Originally created in 1994, in 2010 it was refurbished and housed in a specially designed £40,000 showcase as part of the Museum of London’s permanent collection.

Round Midnight at The Haggerston, Dalston, 2012 - 2017, oil on board, 84 x 109.5cm.Featured in the forthcoming documentary 'The Bastille Concerto' produced by Tony Collins, the film celebrates the life of legendary jazz drummer Clifford Jarvis and is due for release in 2018. The painting was commissioned by mentor and fellow jazz afficionado, Peter Gold, Hackney.

After he moved to the East End in the early 1990s he had become fascinated by its landscapes.  With passion he recalls a little terrace of Georgian houses near London Fields near where he then lived: its nearby railway line, overhead electric wires and tower blocks relieved by a patch of grass.  “A lot of London landscapes have this interesting and funny juxtaposition.  I began to paint what I was drawn to and began to roam around using my travel card.  I was obsessed by Stratford and would wander through Plaistow, walking until I found something that moved me and made the right composition for a painting.  Another obsession was a grim underpass under the A13 at Canning Town, a frightening place covered with graffiti.”  He wishes he had painted the Lea Bridge Road area before gentrification began to take effect.  Now he sees the pictorial potential in the walk across Hackney Marshes to Walthamstow market and beyond.

The birth of his son Joseph prompted a move to St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, several years ago.  Away from his beloved London, he regrets that there are less depictions of the capital than he would have liked in this exhibition.

Wherever he finds himself, James is drawn to places that many would find ugly, might even want to avoid.  Not surprisingly, among his admired artists are Atkinson Grimshaw and Algernon Newton, both once dismissed by the critics, now much-collected.  Like them, he magically transforms the commonplace, producing pictures suffused with an air of mystery and bathed in a singular light that linger in mind long after first seen.

DAVID BUCKMAN author, The Dictionary of Artists in Britain since 1945

The Flask, exterior, 2016, oil on paper, 71 x 54cm.

The Flask, interior, 2015, watercolour on paper, 74.5 x 53.5cm.


 Canal, Rosemary Works, 2013, oil on canvas, 30.5 x 40.5cm.

Canal, Broadway Market, 2016, oil on board, 45.5 x 60.5cms.

Camden Town Tube, 2016, oil on paper, 51.5 x 36.5cm.

Tunnel, Hampstead Tube, 2015, oil on canvas, 30 x 30cm.

Post & Telegraph, Victoria Park, Hackney, 2015, watercolour on paper, 43 x 49.5cm.

Homage to Elwin Hawthorne, 2012, oil on board, 27 x 38cm.


Woman seated, The Rochester Castle, Stoke Newington, 2012, pencil and conté on paper, 90 x 63cm.


Hampstead street oil


Field of Cows, Winterborne, Dorset, watercolour on paper


East Ascent and Marine Court, 2017, oil on board, 27.5 x 41.2cm.


East Ascent and Marine Court, 2017, watercolour, 27.5 x 41.2cm.


Seaside Terrace, 2017, oil on board, 38 x 106cm.


Mercatoria, 2017, oil on board, 50 x 36cm.


House on the Corner, 2017, oil on canvas, 40.5 x 50.5cm.


House on the Corner, 2017, drawing, 40.5 x 50.5cm.


The Lawn, St Leonard's on Sea, 2016, oil on board, 95 x 60cm.


The Backstreets, St Leonard's on Sea, 2017, oil on board, 54 x 41cm.


Pickled eggs and onions, 2015, oil on canvas, 30 x 30cm.


Still life with lemon and lime, 2016, oil on board, 22.7 x 30.4cm.


Blue Pot with Guinness Bottle, 2017, oil on board, 37.5 x 30.3cm.


Still Life with Golden Syrup tin, 2016, oil on paper, 24.5 x 34.5cm.


William Nicholson study Sun Fish 


Love Café (revisited), 2015, oil on paper, 64.5 x 49.5cm.


Seafront with clock, St Leonard's on Sea, 2017, oil on paper, 74 x 53cm.



1968                       Born London, 13 April

1979                       Art Scholarship to Dulwich College, London.

1986                       Foundation Course in Art & Design, St Martin’s School of Art.

1987                       BA (Hons) Three dimensional design, Kingston Polytechnic.


Selected Group Exhibitions

1995                       Photographer’s London                                    

                                The Museum of London

1998                       Summer Interlude, The Paton Gallery, Hackney.

1999                       Tower Blocks – Love them or Loathe them. The Museum of London.

2001                       Creative Quarters. The Museum of London.

2003                       British Watercolours. Mall Galleries.

2007 – 2010         London Art Fair, Cosa Gallery London.

2005 – 2015         Contemporary British Art. The Millinery Works Gallery, London.

2017                       V & A Museum of Childhood, Searching for Ghosts, Holly Street, Portraits and

Holly Street Tower Block Sculpture, 11 Feb 2017 to 21 Jan 2018


Film / Documentary

‘Under the Cranes’ Emma-Louise Williams and Michael Rosen, 2011

Featured artists Leon Kossoff, Jock McFadyen and James Mackinnon

‘The Bastille Concerto’ documentary produced by Tony Collins, celebrating the life of legendary jazz drummer Clifford Jarvis. To be released 2018.


Photographer’s London 1839 – 1994, Mike Seaborne, The Museum of London

Artists London – Holbein to Hurst’ Kit Weld, Lucy Pelz, Cathy Ross, Merrel Publishers Ltd, 2001.

Dictionary of British Artists since 1945, David Buckman, Art Dictionaries, 2016

East End Vernacular – Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th Century’ The Gentle Author, October 2017.




Derek Rothera
Derek Rothera


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