By Robert Cunning
I first met Harry Jonas in the early 1980s. I was a volunteer with Islington social services, and a message came in to help an ageing artist, who thought he was the best painter in Britain.
I had heard of him because he had painted a portrait of one of my cousins some years before.
When I met Harry he made a vivid impression on me. Though old and frail, very thin and into his 90s, and also incredibly untidy, his mind was sharp and his voice clear. He was immediately interesting, full of wit and warmth. He called himself the “Last of the Fitzrovians”, because for most of his life he had lived near Fitzroy Square, which had been an artist’s colony since Victorian times.
He had a studio apartment in Maple Street, in the shadow of the Post Office Tower (now BT Tower) but when the huge redevelopment happened in the early 1970s of Euston Road and the adjoining areas he was forced to move out.
He had been living in Fitzrovia since the 1930s, and was there throughout the war and the Blitz. I remember him telling me of the German restaurant Schmidt’s in Charlotte Street, which operated throughout the war, and was still in business when I was a student in London in the 1970s.
Harry was a very sociable and likeable personality, and had many friends in the bohemian quarter of Fitzrovia. His friends were in particular, John Armstrong and Glyn Philpott, who were well known painters. Also he knew Matthew Smith who lived nearby. He was a good friend of Alec Waugh, journalist and writer and brother to Evelyn.
As a young man Harry had been an actor with Betty Balfour in silent cinema and worked with George Pearson creating many films, most of which have been lost except for a copy of Love, Life and Laughter which was recently found in an archive in Amsterdam and has been restored by the BFI.
At this time he also knew Augustus John, who was a popular portrait painter and friend of Sir William Orpen, who had Harry’s studio before him. Harry told me that Burne Jones used to have that studio at one time.
When Harry had to move, it was a big disruption to his life and his social contacts. Fortunately he had a controlled rent and tenancy, so the developers had to find him a good place somewhere.
His housing dilemma became a cause celebre, because Harry was the last resident on Maple Street in the old houses. Oliver Reed, who was a famous actor in the 1970s, took up his cause and helped to put pressure on the landlords.
Sometime in the 1970s Harry moved to Myddleton Square in Islington. This is a beautiful old Georgian Square, just behind Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Harry had a whole suite of rooms on the ground floor. This place was a great place to work and live though I think Harry felt quite uprooted from his previous life in Fitzrovia.
His main friends in the 1980s, when I first knew him, were Patrick Symons who was a well known painter and RA. Patrick managed to secure payments for Harry’s electricity bills, from the Artists Benevolent Fund, administered by the Royal Academy. Also he was very pleasant and kind, and had known Harry for many years. His other friends at that time were Francis West the painter, and his wife Jenny West, a frequent visitor to Harry who helped him a lot. She was the daughter of Jocelyn Herbert the theatre designer.
Another occasional visitor was Joseph Sickert, also known as Hobo Sickert, the son of Walter Sickert, the famous painter. Hobo had known Harry for a long time, but had a period of exciting detective work with Harry in connection with the Jack the Ripper story. Walter Sickert knew one of the young women who was murdered, and had told his son of the theory that the scandal involved the then Prince of Wales, the Duke of Clarence. Harry and Hobo were in frequent contact with Stephen Knight, a Sunday Times journalist who wrote a book about it called “ Jack The Ripper, the final solution”.
Harry continued to live and work in Myddelton Square until his death in 1990.
Robert Cunning is a painter who now lives and works in rural Shropshire and is a regular visitor to London.