Agitprop: some pictures from the Mike Braybrook archive

When I decided on the word agitprop for this post I actually had to look up the term up before starting to write to check the actual meaning. It was a term that I heard or read a lot back in the 1970s when I first came to London. The various dictionary definitions boil down to art forms with a political message, derived from a Russian combination of words for agitation and propaganda. But when I was hearing it for the first time it seemed to refer to any anti-establishment activity or literature. Time Out, I recall had a section headed Agit Prop. (Or am I imagining that?). And it was all wrapped up with the underground press, protests and campaigns of every kind. There was a lot of protesting back then. I remember a campaign to save a residential square near my college from developers, and another against the lack of use of Centre Point (then not fully occupied). This was of course before the internet, mobile phones, emails, instant messaging, social media and citizen journalism. There was just the printed page, and makeshift newspapers, magazines and handbills circulated around colleges, schools, community centres and anywhere where people gathered. And word of mouth of course. Community activism was everywhere, not least in North Kensington where there was plenty to complain about.

00003_1

These days academics from all over the world are studying urban protest and community action and their research sometimes brings them to libraries like ours which have been collecting what we call ephemera for years. Ephemera consists of,  as the name implies, the throwaway scraps of paper which were only intended for the moment, but which can turn into useful historical documents if someone hangs onto them. That’s part of my job as a professional hoarder, keeping scraps which may turn into the raw material of history.

img401

 

Mike Braybrook owned a printing business at various locations in North Kensington and it was he and other like him who printed the posters, handbills and free sheets which promoted activism in west London. I never knew of him till after his death in February 2007 after which a group of his family and friends came together to preserve an archive of his work. The Mike Braybrook Archive was recently added to the stock of the British Library. I’ve had some involvement with the friends who have worked on the archive and have scanned some of the material and been able to keep copies for the library. So today’s post is not intended as a comprehensive view of the archive, but just as a snapshot of an era of urban activism in London.

00015

The artwork on these posters and handbills often looks crude.

00002_1

The creators often had little to work with in the way of time and materials. But the hand made look reminds us that this was an era of do-it-yourself art. The punk movement came out of this time, with its cobbled together fanzines and cover art.

Some posters were a little more sophisticated, and showed some artistic flair.

00015_1

The archive doesn’t just contain political material but also promotional material for community events like the Notting Hill Carnival.

img396

See the logo at the bottom, of the International Times (along with Oz and Frendz, one of the leading “underground” newspapers)

00003

Other events were not quite so well known, and were concerned with fund raising for local projects, such as this one, near one of London’s iconic locations.

00014_1

Or this, at a slightly less famous venue.

img400

There were famous causes and a few famous names.

00017

Perennial London issues.

00008_1

With radical solutions.

00025_1

Not to mention folk demons from the past.

00005_1

And familiar, if perhaps naive, images of rebellion.

00030_1

(I’m not sure when this imaged was created or what it was used for – any suggestions?)

I’m presenting this as a little bit of history without commenting on the issues themselves. But people are still angry and are still protesting even though methods of getting your point of view across have changed. Some of these issues remain current. Some of the imagery has stuck with the popular imagination.There is still plenty to protest about.

 

Postscript

The Mike Braybrook Archive was deposited in the British Library in December 2016. The material is not yet ready for access but future researchers will find it a valuable historical source in the years to come and Mr Braybrook’s family and friends are to be commended for their work in preserving it for posterity.

 

 

 

 


Bignell in Wimbledon: sunny days

In my last post about John Bignell I tried to make the argument that he was much more than a working photographer and that we should take him seriously as an artist. Now I may be undermining my own argument by presenting a set of photographs which at one level are just quick snapshots of what he might have seen on a day out, like you or I might. I came across these pictures while trawling through the Bignell collection for “strange” photos but found myself charmed by these pictures of an ordinary summer day.

wimbledon-common-007

These pictures taken on or near Wimbledon Common were taken about 1970, a comparatively idyllic period in London life after the tumult of the 1960s and before the complications of the 1970s. I was 15 then and I would have enjoyed walking on the Common on a summer day. Many years later I used to like walking across Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common to Wimbledon village and getting the bus back to Putney. It’s a part of London that makes me feel calm and relaxed. Above is the famous windmill.

wimbledon-common

I don’t know who this family is, or whether Bignell knew them. Something about the casual nature of the pictures make me think he did. The dog of course is perfectly placed for the composition, which Bignell can’t have arranged.

wimbledon-common-crooked-billet

Bignell is particularly good at photographing children. In this period it was still possible to wander around with a camera and take pictures of children playing.

In trees,

wimbledon-common-village-green-crooked-billet

Or by water.

wimbledon-common-005

Bodies of water of course are particular attractive when you’re 9 or 10 or 11. (Remember that scary public information film about its dangers?)

wimbledon-common-004

Wading through shallow water

wimbledon-common-001

Poking around from a distance, with soem help from your parents

wimbledon-common-003

Taking a few minor risks

wimbledon-common-006

And getting a bit of help from the grown up kids.

There were not quite enough pictures here for a full post, but rather than do a short one I’m adding a few related pictures.

This is Putney Heath, a little further north than Wimbledon

lower-common-putney-c1970

I think this is the cricket pitch. It’s another special spot on a sunny day.

This picture is back in Chelsea at the St Luke’s playground in Sydney Street in 1975  when it was rather more unstructured than it is today.

st-lukes-childrens-playground-c1975

A vintage piece of playground equipment from the same day.

st-lukes-childrens-playground-c1975-02

And another view of some play with balls. Mnay girls from the 70s will recall games of two balls. I’m not sure of the date of this one

clapham

 

So, John Bignell then. Not just an artist but a master of the commonplace and capturing the moment.

Postscript

Perhaps a bit of an inconsequential post this week, but  I wrote four posts in one week when I was preparing to go to my mother’s funeral. It was pretty cold that day, and now we come to publishing the post it’s pretty cold again with more of the same promised. So this is a good time to remember sunny days from past decades when some of us were younger and as close to carefree as you can get after childhood.


Holland Park 1987: after the storm

This set of photographs is kept in our main picture collection with the prints, paintings and other picture,s filed under the relevant class number, so the large envelope they’re kept in isn’t something I come across often. In fact I’d been in one of our archive rooms checking on the floor – there’s a water pipe underneath the concrete which sometimes gets hot, something you try to avoid in archive rooms and I was looking in cabinet drawers checking on the temperature in the room. I recognized the set of images and as I often do thought is there a blog post here? Obviously there was.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-501

I showed these picture to one of my younger colleagues, who wasn’t even born at the time of the storm and found she had never even heard of it. So it goes. But the great storm of 15-16 October 1987 was a huge event across south west and south east England involving loss of power, damages to buildings, vehicles and trees. In addition 22 people died as a result of the storm. It deserves its popular title, the Great Storm.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-474

I have vivid memories of the lights going out in our old flat that night. Our son was only two weeks old and we were going out the next day to register the birth at Chelsea Old Town Hall. On our way there the next morning we saw masses of leaves and small branches in the street and even a few fallen trees in the back streets of Chelsea. Later it became clear that there was masses of destruction across the London area. In the communal garden of the flats where we live now one massive tree had fallen, though not into the buildings, and the replacement trees that you see today are small compared to the others nearby.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-328

I think these pictures are the work of the library photographer John Rogers, who must have gone to Holland Park in the days following the storm to make a record of the damage. Many parks, gardens and open spaces in London and elsewhere suffered damage similar to what you see here and I’m sure many people remember seeing similar scenes in the days and weeks that followed.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-485

In many cases trees were knocked down completely and lie with their roots exposed, large pieces of soil still attached.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-486

Paths were scattered with fallen branches.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-494

Some of them blocked.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-478

Familiar features looked quite different

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-488

And familiar statues look forlorn

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-477

Some of the paths were open.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-467

Others were not.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-461

Parts of the park were reduced to a tangle of undergrowth.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-476

But the structures in the park remained intact.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-469

And life went on

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-514

But some inhabitants look pretty shocked.

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-322

You can almost hear the bird thinking what on earth happened here?

holland-park-storm-damage-1987-513

 

Postscript

In a flurry of scanning I digitised 70 pictures, thinking that if I did them all it would never need to be done again. But It did make it harder to select the final set to use here.  Of course the damage was repaired over a number of years and the park now looks  like a sylvan paradise again. In the wider picture you might say we got off lightly. But you can mourn trees as well as animals and people.

In terms of  a word count this has been quite a slight post. But sometimes the pictures tell the story without the need for too much commentary. Even talking about what was coming this week on the blog induced some reminiscing among colleagues who were in London at the time. If you have any stories to tell about your experiences during or after the storm please leave a comment.

Another postscript

As I said last week I have noted a number of deaths in the last year. I was saddened to hear of the recent death of David Le Lay. David was a local architect and a leading figure in the Chelsea Society. I worked with him on several exhibitions and helped him with some of his research. He was an expert on Chelsea, much more of an expert than me. He was good-humoured and courteous with an eye for life’s absurdities. He once did me the favour of coming to the library to appear in a Dutch TV show to explore the recollections of a woman who believed she lived in Chelsea as a servant in a former life. He kept a straight face throughout and even thanked me for arranging the experience. Chelsea will miss him. My sympathies to his partner and friends.

Here he is working on one of his projects – the landscaping of Dovehouse Green.

david-le-lay-at-dovehouse-green-copy


Lancaster Circus: a vanished crossroad

It really was called Lancaster Circus at one time, the confluence of Lancaster Road, Walmer Road, Clarendon Road and Silchester Road, and was also called Lancaster Cross. This is where we stopped on our journey along Lancaster Road, at the point where the modern Lancaster Road peters out and morphs into Silchester Road with a gentle curve past the new Aldridge Academy.

pc-1145-lancaster-circus-copy

This early 20th century postcard view is looking south from Silchester Road towards Clarendon Road. The Lancaster public house is the largest building in the picture and next to it Walmer Road (where the plain awning is visible) also heads south. (See the post here). Lancaster Road is crossing the picture. A map helps, and here is one from 1935.

1935-os-map-lancaster-road-vi67-copy-copy

As you can see, the public house was not the largest building in the vicinity. That was the Kensington Public Baths, also called the Silchester Baths.

silchester-baths-copy

This picture is dated about 1970. The baths were closed in the late 1970s , despite a local campaign to retain the building for community purposes and a new sports centre was built nearby which was iteslf rebuilt in 2015.

This picture shows the baths at the time of demolition.

aerial-view-of-silchester-baths-under-demolition-late-70s-ht-usc-copy

You can see other changes to the local landscape across the road from the baths.

This earlier picture shows a whole section of the area near Lancaster Road, including the Council buildings we looked at in the previous post on Lancaster Road.

methodist-church-lancaster-road-l-1243-copy

Take a quick look back into Silchester Road as it was in the early 20th century.

silchester-road-pc945-copy

A very pleasant looking scene. Does it seem like a more affluent area than the 1960s?

And as it was in 1970, looking in the opposite direction towards the railway.

silchester-road-looking-west-1969-ks1488-copy

There’s one of those double street lights again. This is another view of the Lancaster pub.

lancaster-road-east-side-161-1969-ks1417-copy

Walmer Road is visible on the left, and here is the view south from there.

 

walmer-road-central-section-looking-south-from-lancaster-road-1969-ks1498-copy

There are more pictures of Walmer Road in a previous pair of posts. (Starting here) If we alter the point of view you can look down Clarendon Road.

clarendon-road-looking-south-from-lancaster-road-1970-ks1690-copy

And finally south into Lancaster Road.

lancaster-road-looking-south-1969-ks1395-copy

This picture shows the corner of Fowell Street, which ran south off Lancaster Road opposite the Baths.

lancaster-road-east-side-167-corner-of-fowell-street-1969-ks1416-copy

This is what the area looked like on a 1971 map.

1970s-os-map-showing-west-end-of-lancaster-road-16

You can see that a wide section of the area has gone. This picture shows part of the demolition.

lancaster-road-east-side-demolition-site-1969-ks1411-copy

Those buildings in the background are, I have been told, two of the towers of the Edward Wood Estate. I must admit that I find it hard to get the angle right in my head, so have a think about that yourselves. It’s always tricky conceptualising places that no longer exist.

lancaster-road-east-side-no-numbrs-1969-ks1413-copy

This picture shows the edge of the demolished area on the rights. The photographer could not see any numbers on these houses so they might already be empty.

We’re in the final stretch of the old Lancaster Road now.

 

lancaster-road-west-side-252-1969-ks1398-copy

252 Lancaster Road. The cross street is Blechynden Street (which we have also covered before – some pictures here)

About ten doors down that side of the road, the trees, bushes and other undergrowth are quie luxuriant.

lancaster-road-west-side-262-1969-ks1399-copy

This impressive building which is part of St Francis School is on the corner of Treadgold Street.

lancaster-road-east-side-237-1969-ks1410-copy

And this is looking back up Treadgold Street at the corner opposte the school.

treadgold-street-looking-north-towards-lancaster-raod-1969-ks1523-copy

This corner in fact.

lancaster-road-west-side-294-copy

The picture shows the final section of Lancaster Road as it was in the 1960s and early 1970s in the 29os and 300 house numbers. This is where it went down to meet Bramley Road. The tall buildings in the background were part of the Phoenix Brewery. Most of the buildings in the picture have been replaced but the street survives under the name Whitchurch Road. The name Whitchurch had  formerly applied to a small area around this spot (A man named James Whitchurch was a local landowner.)

This takes us almost outside the borders of Kensington and Chelsea as they used to be when Latimer Road was in Hammersmith. I’ve explored that area through the pictures of Bernard Selwyn and there are a series of posts set around that border zone which I wrote last year. [Links: here, here, here and here ]

Postscript

I hadn’t anticipated continuing the story of Lancaster Road immediately when I wrote last week’s postscript, but I’ve been preparing several posts at the same time and this one did get finished in time.

This part two post turned out to be almost entirely set in streets or parts of streets which have changed completely since the photographs were taken. For me this is another venture into a space that only exists in pictures and memories. For those of you who remember this period of North Kensington’s history I hope these images take you back there.

Thanks once again to Maggie.

Another postscript on an unrelated matter

I seem to have got into the habit of noting the deaths of rock musicians as they occur. I must be at the age when my heroes are starting to die. This time it’s someone who was never particularly famous in the wider world, but was nevertheless a significant figure in the history of popular music, Jaki Liebezeit, the drummer of the German avant garde rock group Can. I loved that band, have most of their albums, even saw them on five occasions (quite a lot for me). More importantly I still listen to them, forty years or more ago after I first heard their music. Jaki himself was very influential on later music whether it was post-punk or EDM. The music world is a little less interesting without him.


Lancaster Road: mostly 1969

This is one of those posts about North Kensington which come with an explanatory map. Lancaster Road is one of those east to west streets which originally stretched from St Luke’s Road in the east, crossing Portobello Road and Ladbroke Grove ending up at Bramley Road. It doesn’t go that far any more, but I’m going to save the western end for a second post as we have plenty of pictures to look at before we get that far. I’ll show you a map in a moment but in deference to Twitter, who always display the first image of the post in the automatic tweet which WordPress sends out for me, here is something a little more engaging than a map:

lancaster-road-horse-and-cart-1969-ks1412-copy

The horse and cart is always a good image to start with, as they were still a common sight in North Kensington in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And here’s the map:

img523-copy

Have a closer look at this one because it shows several places of interest, some buildings still there like the Library or the Serbian Church, others used for different purposes like the Ladbroke Technical School, some of them no longer in existence at all, particularly on the west side of Ladbroke Grove.

When I think about Lancaster Road I think about the crossroads with Ladbroke Grove and the section leading up to Portobello Road. That was the part of the road that was most familiar to me when I first worked at North Kensington Library and used to walk up to the Portobello Road to buy some lunch. This picture shows the south side of the street near the intersection with Portobello.

lancaster-road-south-side-near-61-1971-ks2114-copy

 

And this one shows the north side of the road a little further west, the entrance to the old Isaac Newton School and the Kensington Institute (adult education).

 

lancaster-road-north-side-isaac-newton-school-1971-ks2087-copy

Here’s a flashback showing the intersection more than a hundred years ago.

lancaster-road-nkca-2001-065-copy

And this is a similar view from 1969.

lancaster-road-looking-west-from-ladbroke-grove-1970-ks1579

Behind the man crossing the road on the right you can see the KPH public house. We’ve looked at that before in the post on Ladbroke Grove. On the other side of the road, the branch of Barclays Bank is under construction. Next to it the building with a white section of wall used to be a bakery. (The date 1933 is visible at the top of the building)

Next to that is the Royalty Cinema building. By 1969 it was a bingo hall. It has a certain place in local history because of the unsubstantiated rumour that Reginald Christie worked there as a projectionist.

lancaster-road-south-side-105-1970-ks-1581-copy

A closer look at the other side of the road shows a row of surviving buildings.

 

lancaster-road-north-side-134-136-5265-copy..

No longer in existence though is the white building beyond the Royalty.

lancaster-road-south-side-solomon-wolfson-school-1970-ks1583-copy

This was Solomon Wolfson Jewish School. I remember classes from the school coming into the Library when I was there there in the early years of my library career (when I must admit I had no idea where the school was exactly)  The building was demolished in the 1980s and replaced by the London Lighthouse. The Museum of Brands moved in there more recently.

Next door was another school.

lancaster-road-south-side-ladbroke-lower-school-1970-ks1582-copy

Ladbroke Lower School at the time of the photograph, a substantial building where you can now find a Virgin Active centre.

It’s at this point that St Mark’s Road crosses Lancaster Road. This is the view from there:

lancaster-road-looking-west-from-st-marks-road-5247-copy

The spire belongs to the Methodist Church, our destination for today. On the left on the picture is another religious establishment, also visible on the map.

lancaster-road-south-side-133-convent-of-the-little-sisters-of-the-assumption-1970-ks1587-copy

At number 133, the Convent of the Little Sisters of the Assumption. North Kensington at this time had several convents, although the nearby Convent of the Poor Clares on Westbourne Park road / Ladbroke Grove had already been demolished.  Note the empty space on the map. Thomas Darby Court, a sheltered housing block is now on this site.

Staying with the map  if you look on the north side of the road at this point you can see the last remaining piece of Ruston Close, the renamed Rillington Place, and the Council buildings next to it (formerly an iron works), all behind Lancaster Road facing the railway line.

A second section of the same map is useful now.

img524-copy

On the south side of the road between St Mark’s Road and Walmer Road, most of the area on the map has been redeveloped. One of the surviving buildings is Morland House.

lancaster-road-south-side-morland-house-1970-ks1589-copy

A housing block. Look at it on Google Maps these days and you will see it behind a number of trees with thick foliage. The whole area looks much greener in this century.

On the opposite side of the road between numbers 236 and 238 is a barely visible passage.

lancaster-road-north-side-240-238-1970-ks1593-copy

It’s just about where that sign is. (check back with the map). I had to have this pointed out to me by a local resident, so don’t just take my word for it. If you had gone down that covered passage about 1969 this is what you would have seen.

lancaster-road-north-side-rbkc-workshop-offices-1970-ks1596-copy

And if you had walked further the buildings on the left would be revealed.

lancaster-road-north-side-rbkc-mechanical-workshops-1970-ks1594-copy

These were Council buildings at the time, probably used for maintenance and repair of Council vehicles. On the  right of the picture you can just see a chimney dating back to the period when the building was the Bartle Works. That chimney often appears from another angle in pictures of Rillington Place, looming over the wall at the end of the street.

Below, a quick look back across the street at the terraced houses typical of Lancaster Road aside from the larger buildings (numbers 139-149 I think).

lancaster-road-south-side-147-149-1970-ks1590-copy

They look a little run down. (Is that a Ford Zephyr?) But suitable for gentrification. It was not to be for this particular stretch of houses.

We’re almost at our stopping point now.

lancaster-road-looking-east-from-walmer-road-1970-ks1592-copy

Here you have a better view of the Methodist Church, at the place where Lancaster Road crossed Walmer Road. Clarendon Road and Silchester Road also converged at this point in an area which was called Lancaster Cross, and also Lancaster Circus (I’ve seen that term on an old postcard.). Here is another part of the Cross, diagonally opposite the church.

lancaster-road-the-lancaster-public-house-1969-ks1418-copy

The Lancaster public house curving around the corner with Walmer Road heading south on the left. This is where we pause at a part of Lancaster Road which would be more or less unrecognizeable today, except perhaps for the zebra crossing which may be in the same place. (If you follow the link to the Walmer Road post you’ll see the same crossing and street light from the south.) We’ll continue our tour down Lancaster Road in part 2 of this post.

Postscript

Thanks to Maggie Tyler who helped me identify many of the pictures of Lancaster Road in our collection. Her expertise in North Kensington matters (and other areas too) is invaluable. Part 2 will probably not be next week as I’ll be out of town again. Instead, I’ve already written another self-indulgent post about one of my favourite topics.

Also thanks to people who have sent their condolences about my mother’s death, Lucy, Karen, Marcia, London Remembers, Sue and Steph, plus others who have spoken to me in person. As I hinted last time I now own a large number of family photographs which may find their way onto a future blog post. Families and their history are a core part of what we do here and everyone is part of the larger story.

 

 


Holland Park 1980: a day out

Although we’ve seen some images of Holland Park on the blog on most occasions I’ve concentrated on some detail, like the murals, or more recently on interiors of Holland House. This week I want to show you some photographs taken as part of our photographic survey by our photographer John Rogers back in 1980. He wasn’t concerned with documenting every corner of the Park but was looking for interesting views which might be familiar to visitors and odd details which might have been missed.

In 1980 the Greater London Council (GLC) still ran the park. It was transferred to the Royal Borough of Kensington  and Chelsea in 1985. Some features have changed in the last thirty six years, some have remained the same.

holland-park-archway-passage-leading-to-orangery-1980

This fairly dull looking colonnade facing the Orangery is now the home of the highly decorative murals I mentioned above.

Here is the nearby pond, which now has some railings around it.

holland-park-orangery-1980

And the other side the Belvedere Restaurant which probably no longer admits bare chested men.

holland-park-belvedere-restaurant-1980

The pleasures of a municipal park, however grand its history, have remained the same for many years. Hanging around on a sunny day doing nothing much at all.

holland-park-south-view-of-orangery-1980

Stretching in the sun as in this south view of the Orangery.

 

orangery-clock-tower-and-statue-1950

(I believe this sculpture is by Eric Gill, called The Maid, placed on this spot in 1976 but moved  in the 1990s because of weather damage and now in the park cafe. Judging from recent pictures, where the figure looks very worn in comparison the weathering was significant.)

Playing at the play centre.

holland-park-toddlers-play-centre-1980

Especially in the sandpit.

holand-park-toddlers-playing-centre-copyFor older kids there were the climbing ropes at the adventure playground.

holland-park-rope-ladders-playcentre-1980And swinging by rope.

holland-park-adventure-playground-1980-copy

For older visitors there were  ducks and other avian creatures to feed.

holland-park-1980-4

From the large, not easily missed varieties.

holland-park-1980-8

To the small and sometimes well camouflaged.

holland-park-ducks-10-972-1980

On land, or on water.

holland-park-ducks-afloat-1980

Or between the two.

holland-park-ducks-10-971-1980

There was sport, for the athletically inclined.

holland-park-south-of-orangery-1980-2

Or you could just stroll down a secluded avenue of trees.

holland-park-1980-2

Discover statues, some prominent, as the one below.

lord-holland-statue-1980

(Henry Richard Vassall-Fox, 3rd Baron Holland . The statue is now found in the middle of a pond, although here it seems to be entirely on land. It was moved when the block of flats, Melbury Court was built)

Some obscure, almost concealed.

holland-park-statue-in-gardens-1980

(The so-called Melancholy Old Man)

And some just plain odd.

 

ice-house-detail-holland-park-1980

Cherubs about their business near the Ice House gallery, accompanied by fish, innocent in this case. (They’re not always so blameless).

The High Street is not so far away.

holland-park-path-from-kensington-high-street-1980

Postscript

Regular readers will have noticed that there was no post last week, just about the only occasion we’ve missed a week. I was going to be vague about my absence on a personal matter but it may have some bearing on future content so I’ll just say that my mother passed away over Christmas after a short illness and I went home to deal with the funeral arrangements and other matters. Frankly, I was not in a blogging frame of mind even though I already had this week’s pictures selected. It was about this time last year that she was complaining to me about the extensiveness of the news coverage of the death of David Bowie and I was explaining that for some of us this was a significant event. It’s been said that 2016 was a year with a great many deaths. I can only agree.


Bignell’s world of the strange – an anthology

John Bignell was a jobbing photographer for most of his working life and took photographic assignments wherever they took him, from the banks of the Thames to ancient Greek cities. Or just round and about in Chelsea. I once had to look for something in the Chelsea News and went through an entire bound volume of a year’s weekly papers and found at least one photo by him in almost every issue. He covered news stories, did catalogue shoots and took portraits. He did what used to be euphemistically called “glamour” work (although some of the pictures in this genre look a bit odd, rather than erotic,by modern standards ) and documented burlesque shows at the Chelsea Place and elsewhere. And sometimes, when the mood took him he took pictures which now look like some kind of 1950s idea of illustrations to 21st century urban fantasies. I’ve featured some of these before as lone items but I’ve wanted to collect them together along with some more of his “strange” pictures. So some of these images will be familiar to regular readers and some won’t. But all of them are in some way weird or eccentric.

I realise that I am imposing something of my own love of the uncanny or the Fortean onto these images. But go with me. These two,for example,look they belong in an adaptation of a Neal Gaiman story. If Neal Gaiman had lived in the 1950s that is.

Virtue fight back - Bignell 1955l

“Virtue fights back”, 1955. I used this in December 2014, and made the connections with Gaiman’s book / TV series Neverwhere and Christopher Fowler’s novel about another London Above, Roofworld. This could be the same duo.

Satan triumphant 1958 - Copy

“Satan triumphant” 1958.

Actually I think the models are the same, Desiree and Pierre, from the Chelsea Palace. Here they are on stage as “apache” dancers, a favourite cabaret theme of the time.

apache-dancers-desiree-with-pierre-1956-copy

 

This picture was also part of a stage show, continuing the “claws” theme.

SF 13

Never mind the knife, Madam. pick up the ray gun!

Bignell had started playing with strange scenarios as far back as 1949, in these two pictures, illustrating Cinderella, in a King’s Road antique shop called Horace Walpole.

cinderella-1949-dsc_6675-copy

The two ugly sisters are represented by dummies with the stuffed heads of deer.

cinderella-and-two-ugly-sisters-1949-roy-aldersons-antique-shop-horace-walpole-copy

Seedy and sinister like something out of a fantasy by Powell and Pressberger, which leads us to the next image.

This picture from 1958 was entitled “Probably the most widely seen eye in the world.” The eye belonged to the Mayor of Chelsea’s mace bearer and featured in posters and publicity for Michael Powell’s ill-fated film Peeping Tom, which more or less ended his UK career.

img418-copy

On the back of one print of the picture Bignell has written a reference to Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography”, even noting the page number in the Penguin edition of the mention of Peeping Tom. There’s nothing particularly illuminating there but perhaps Bignell wanted to remind anyone who read the caption that someone thought the film was a serious piece of work. There seems to have been a lot of moral panic about it when it first came out, which seems almost inexplicable in the light of what we’ve seen since. Following Bignell’s lead I refer you to David Pirie’s “A new heritage of horror: the English Gothic cinema” for an account of the film and its reception.

Continuing the gothic theme is this atmospheric picture of a respectable looking man alone in a dark alley, actually Carlton Mews, near Trafalgar Square.

carlton-mews-trafalgar-square-copy

He looks a little like a character in an M R James or Algernon Blackwood story on his way to a supernatural rendezvous.

Less morbid is this picture,  of an ecstatic dancer named Lyn, in a Margaret Morris style pose on a beach at Foulness in 1956. Bignell entitled it Lyn-a- leaping

lyn-a-leaping-1958-pencil-inscription-a-guess-maybe-copy

Next a picture from 1955 (or possibly 1956) that is wrong on many levels.

dsc_6688-copy

It was entitled “Ancestor worship”, to add more misconception to the wrongness of a Frenchman in a gorilla suit holding a juvenile chimpanzee. (Yes, it was Pierre again.) What did they imagine the young ape was thinking? He can’t have been fooled for a second, so perhaps he thought it was just another of the inexplicable things the humans did from time to time. This was at Chessington Zoo, a perfectly reputable establishment where they probably still had chimpanzee tea parties in the 1950s and other anthropomorphic entertainments, so some of the apes would have been used to close contact with people.

Bignell couldn’t resist another photo of the “Chessington gorilla”. Here he is with his partner Desiree again.

desiree-and-pierre-the-chessington-gorilla-1956-copy

Although this is also a strange picture it will offend no hairy humanoids, and might interest human or non-human lovers of wacky cars. These so called bubble cars used to be seen around the place in the 50s and 60s. Motoring experts will correct me if my identification is wrong but I think it’s a Heinkel. (Interestingly there was another variety of bubble car made by Messerschmitt – what prompted aircraft manufacturers to make tiny cars?)

The last picture is simply a salute from the master of the revels, Bignell himself, with his eye on the camera, and the viewer.

bignell-and-friends-including-ma-daly-at-lord-nelson-c1968-1954-copy

For the record, and I know a few of you will wonder, they’re at the Lord Nelson (later the Trafalgar) in the King’s Road. There are two dates on the picture, 1968 and 1954. The earlier one seems more likely but you never know in Bignell’s world of the strange.

The trouble with Bignell

The trouble with the work of John Bignell and writing about it is that for most of his career he was, as I said in the first sentence, a working photographer going where the work took him, and fitting in the more personal / artistic work when he could. For most of his career he doesn’t seem to have concerned himself too much with his place in the history of photography. When he eventually did a book it was called John Bignell: Chelsea Photographer. It’s a good book but it established him as an observer of Chelsea/ London life. That’s not a bad thing in itself but I think he was so much more than that, as photos like the one in this post and others show.

I’m going to carry on writing about him and posting photographs by him. One of these days perhaps the wider world will recognize him as a great original.

Postscript

One of the many great qualities of the Bignelll collection is that you’re always finding surprises, or variations on photographs you thought you knew, a different print or an unexpectedly informative caption in Bignell’s hand. As often happens while trawling through the collection for this post I came across further ideas for new posts. There could have been more on childhood in the 50s for example. There’s probably a possible post about Wimbledon Common too or more on Bignell’s models. To spare your sensitivities I’ve never done a post on his glamour work but that too is aesthetically interesting . Strictly speaking the nude and the sundial (featured here) should be in this anthology  as it has a few mystical connotations, with a second picture from the same session but to keep this post safe for work we’ll keep that one back for now. We’re used to thinking of the 1950s as a staid, conventional era, but there was plenty of strangeness bubbling up under the plain clothing.


%d bloggers like this: