Christmas Days: a little bit of Bignell

I had another mini-post almost written when I realised that with a few related pictures and a bit of research I could make it into a full-length post and I never waste those ideas when they come so who could I turn to for today’s mini-post but my old friend John Bignell? I’m breaking my own mini-post rule because I could easily grab a few more Bignell pictures and make it another long post but actually putting this handful of images into a short post throws them into relief and emphasises how special they are.

So here are three great Bignell pictures.

From the artistic world, the Tate Gallery in 1959.

Tate gallery Epstein retrospective 1958

A group of men wrestle with a massive sculpture at a retrospective for Jacob Epstein. Struggle seems to bleed out of the statue into the effort to move it. Not being familiar with Epstein’s work at first glance I thought this was a kiss between two titans, but of course thanks to Google Images I realise now that this is a Biblical struggle – Jacob and the Angel. The figure at the rear is lifting the other upward supported by his alabaster wings.

I’ve taken photos of men moving a massive object (a giant safe which had to be taken out of an archive room and moved the length of the basement to a suitable lift) so I understand the process but Bignell has caught the emotional content of the action. The comparatively thin sculpture at the rear seems to convey a sense of anxiety, for the movers, or the statue.A clever bit of framing by Bignell, or just a piece of luck?

If you look at my post about Lionel Davidson’s novel the Chelsea Murders you’ll see one of Bignell’s fanciful pictures, Satan Triumphant featuring a black clad man in a devil’s mask with a woman in white.

This picture from 1955 is in the same vein.

Virtue fight back - Bignell 1955l

Entitled “Virtue fights back” this is a very strange image. On a rooftop opposite St Paul’s Cathedral another black clad man with the face of a skull and clawed hands fences with a woman who looks like a circus performer. What is going on? Is it the same couple? It looks like the same cape. I’ve yet to find any more Bignell pictures in this vein so you may never read a long post about Bignell and urban fantasy. That’s what it reminds me of though,Neal Gaiman’s novel/TV series Neverwhere and Christopher Fowler’s first (and best in my opinion) novel Roofworld, both about hidden worlds which co-exist with the mundane version of London.

From the circus to a funfair:

Battersea fun fair 1957 jb113

This is another late 50s picture, one of a small set featuring the fun fair in Battersea Park. The woman having some 1950s difficulty with her wide skirt and its supporting petticoat is climbing out of the Caterpillar, a favourite ride for couples.You have to wonder if Bignell set this up but what is definitely genuine is the atmosphere of good humoured fun.

So there’s Bignell playing with the real and the artificial, in three different ways. Every photograph sits somewhere on the line between chance and intention.


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