George Westren: On the straight and narrow

Admission: Free Entry. Pre-booking is not required.

Located on the Ground Floor in Gallery 3

About

This free-to-enter exhibition celebrates the life and work of a relatively unknown artist, George Westren. The show represents a positive outcome to a emotive story that gained worldwide news attention in the summer of 2022.

In June 2022, George Westren became the unlikely subject of a viral news story reported by TV, radio and print media across the world. Westren, a relatively unknown artist living in a tiny housing association flat in Spitalfields, East London, had sadly died in July 2021 during the UK’s Covid lockdown. A year later, in June 2022, a neighbour stepped in to prevent George’s portfolio of intricate op art drawings from being destroyed by a home clearance firm. The artwork went viral on Twitter where Westren's story - of humble beginnings, homelessness, addiction and eventual salvation through art - touched hundreds of thousands of people.

Funds raised through the sale of a small run of prints helped to preserve, catalogue and exhibit Westren’s artwork. The exhibition is curated by Alan Warburton, the neighbour who rescued the works. Saatchi Gallery are pleased to have the support of George Westren’s family in showcasing this selection of works that represent twenty years of dedicated endeavour.

As Westren himself said, making these intricate designs kept him ‘on the straight and narrow’ after many years struggling with addiction and homelessness. The artist designed and executed his work in a straightforward way: patiently plotted with compass point, ruler and pencil, then inked with felt tip pens on standard cartridge paper. Initially inspired by the work of Bridget Riley in 1999, Westren embarked on his own creative journey over the next 20 years, beginning with simple ‘tunnel’ designs, through which he ventured towards his own distinct motifs and techniques.

His pulsating stars, battling chevrons, interlocking spears and protruding 3D edges hover between subtle op art illusion and muscular, graphical clarity; all the more impressive that he worked alone, without formal art training, producing a steady sequence of work that so clearly demonstrates a precise understanding of contrast, depth and optical effects.

Westren’s love for art took him to art classes at outreach projects around London, where he forged new friendships, most importantly with fellow artist Bill Dennison and Jaime Bautista, director of SMart Network, both of whom - in Westren’s words - showed him that he might be ‘worthy of someone's attention’.

This exhibition has been made possible due to the thousands of people around the world who saw the value of George’s work and were touched by his story, and especially those who bought prints that helped fund this project. Special thanks also go to the Westren family, SMart Network and the Ten Feet Away art group at Union Chapel, Islington, London.

ABOUT GEORGE WESTREN

Born in February 1947 to working-class parents in Ilfracombe, a seaside town in North Devon, George Westren always felt like an outsider. When he left school at 16, short lived careers in plumbing and the RAF presented challenges to his shyness and low self-esteem. Over the next 30 years, he sank into addiction and homelessness. Then, in 1999, a friend encouraged him to attend an exhibition of Bridget Riley's work at the Serpentine Gallery in London, where he had a wake-up call. With a new motivation to overcome lifelong inhibitions and seek help for addiction, within a year Westren had secured a small housing association flat in East London. This respite from the dangers of rough sleeping allowed him to diligently create a portfolio of precise and sophisticated op art illustrations which he continued building for the rest of his life. Westren’s love for art took him to art classes at outreach projects around London, where he forged new friendships, most importantly with fellow artist Bill Dennison and Jaime Bautista, director of SMart Network, both of whom - in Westren’s words - showed him that he might be ‘worthy of someone's attention’. Westren, like so many others during the COVID-19 pandemic, died at home, in Spitalfields, in June 2021.

ABOUT ALAN WARBURTON

Alan Warburton is an artist living and working in London. Alan was a downstairs neighbour to George Westren for many years. In June 2022, Alan interceded to rescue the artworks of George Westren following the clearance of Westren’s home. Alan has since worked with the family of George Westren to secure the future of the works for the family and to curate this presentation of a selection of the works to the public.

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