Category Archives: Chelsea

18th century escapades – Lady Walpole’s curious grotto

Whenever I start to write about the paintings of Marianne Rush I have a tendency to wander off into fantasy. As I recently had a very pleasant meeting with a distant relative of the lady I feel an obligation to anchor this post in reality as far as possible. So let’s be clear. The picture below is not a painting by Rush, (we’ll get to her later) although there’s something about the trees and the foliage in the foreground which reminds me of her work. This is a black and white photograph of a water colour by another artist (possibly unknown) of “Mrs Aufrere’s house in the Stableyard, Chelsea”, about 1780. It shows the entrance to the Coal Creek, a kind of canal which ran a short distance into the grounds to the west of the Royal Hospital, and on the corner, the Octagon Summer House.

The house which may be visible in the distance used to be called Walpole House, and had been one of the residences of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (but don’t get him confused with the previous Earl of Orford, Edward Russell, who had been Walpole’s mentor and whose title died out. Walpole took the title himself as a tribute to his old friend). Walpole is regarded as the first Prime Minister and the longest serving in that role. (He is the father of Horace Walpole, author of the Castle of Otranto, the first “Gothic” novel and builder of an extraordinary house, Strawberry Hill  in Twickenham which fortunately you can read about elsewhere) Walpole and his first wife Catherine (Horace’s mother) used the house and garden for entertaining and filled both with extravagant collection of furniture, decorations and exotic trees and plants.

I have here next to me a small pamphlet entitled…. well, instead of copying all that out let’s use the medium of the digital image.

There’s that word “curious”. The final line refers to a separate sale of “exoticks”. Regretfully we don’t have a copy of that. The exoticks, were the many plants and small trees which had grown in the garden, along with exotic fruit like pineapples, which were popular and expensive items for the leisured classes of the day.

Walpole died in 1745, hence the sale. His wife had died in 1737. Without intending to malign either of them, it seems that though the marriage had begun as a happy one, the two had gone their own way in its latter years. Walpole also had children by his mistress Maria , who became his wife after Catherine’s death.

I had no trouble finding images of Sir Robert. Here he is looking as grand as possible

Although we have a print showing Lady Walpole it proved slightly harder to find. Fortunately there are other images of her online. She was famed as a great beauty, but not as notorious as a slightly later celebrity.

The sale catalogue backs up the notion that the Walpoles enjoyed an extravagant and sumptuous lifestyle.

Have a look at the contents of ” the taffetty bedroom

Fabric wall coverings were popular with those who could afford them.

The contents of the “worsted damask bed chamber”:

The senior servants’ rooms were less ornate, although they had the basics, and probably wouldn’t have complained about the “feather beds”.

 

Also listed is “the red room in the garden

That would be one for the 18th century version of World of Interiors.

When writing this post I’ve relied heavily on an article on Walpole House written by the late David Le Lay for the Chelsea Society Annual Report in 2013. David and I spent an hour or so one afternoon examining prints of the Royal Hospital looking for a glimpse of the House on the western side. This print by Maurer seems to offer a view.

You can see the summer house again, on the extreme right, and to the left a single storey building with a row of windows which might be the Orangery.  The house itself could be behind that. A close -up helps a little.

But let’s not worry too much about the elusive house. According to an early volume of the Survey of London the house couldn’t be seen from the river.

With the garden buildings in mind let’s turn at last to Marianne Rush.

She calls this the “Green House”, not a glass house as we would think of today, although some doubts creep in here. The building in the pictures looks a little like the Orangery, which still exists. But the architect, Vanburgh,  favoured round headed windows. At any rate it was a building containing many plants and fruit trees, with paintings and objects, and space for entertaining.

According to Thomas Faulkner in his History of Chelsea (1829) “Lady Walpole took great delight in improving these gardens and spared no expense in procuring natural and artificial curiosities from foreign parts. Her grotto exited much of the attention of the curious at that time.” 

“During the King’s absence in Germany one summer Queen Caroline frequently honoured Lady Walpole with a visit, and dined in the green-house, which was laid out with choice flowers and plants, and hung with some of the fine paintings which were afterwards removed by the Earl of Orford.”

In August 1729 the Walpoles entertained the Queen and several other dukes and princesses. ” A kitchen was built on purpose in the stable yards…with above 20 places for fires etc. The Fruit for the Dessert was collected for a week previous from all Quarter of the Town…there were several Barges of fine Musick playing all the Time. After which they returned to the Green House where the illustrious company were entertained with a Ball and afterwards supp’d in the same place.” According to the Monthly Chronicles, quoted by Alfred Beaver in his book Memorials of Old Chelsea. An exaggerated account? Well you wouldn’t get all that in here:

It’s not clear whether Marianne ever actually saw some of the buildings she painted but she seems to have been quite careful in her work and if she never actually saw the Ranelagh Rotunda for example she would have been familiar with it from prints and engravings. We give her the benefit of the doubt.

The grotto is a little more problematic. Here is Marianne’s painting. Look carefully.

Is that something like a Hindu deity beside the urns? Maybe not.

As David Le Lay and others who have written about it (I also looked at an article in a 2004 periodical called Follies) have said, it’s not quite clear where the grotto actually was. There are some half-buried arches on the grounds but they don’t look much like Rush’s picture and it’s hard to imagine the grotto in its heyday when it was much celebrated and compared favourably with Queen Caroline’s own grotto. There were even some verses in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1734.

[Scan from Faulkner, which was clearer and didn’t obscure the name W-lp-le.]

 

 

And rival Grotto Caroline.” Decorating your grotto with shells was a bit of a thing back then. I looked at an article in Country Life for 1944 (February, when there was still some time before D-Day to think about grottos) showing some examples, which mentions Lady Walpole’s grotto, but of course had no pictures.

There are no signs of any shell decorations in Rush’s interior.

So perhaps this view is speculative, or just imaginary, although Rush did like that trope of 18th century water-colourists, the empty room.

The summer house too looks  quite deserted, apart from that bust. She’s taken care with that glimpse of the view outside and the light entering the small room. Can I  see a hint of the windmill on the south bank?

Rush’s view of the exterior is a useful point at which to stop, as it provides the opposite point of view from our first picture, and does seem to look like other views of the summer house. There’s the windmill again. (There really was one – it appears in several prints.)

Marianne got this one right so perhaps she knew more than us. But. as I’ve found, an aura of mystery still clings to her and her paintings. And I like that, as you’ve probably realised.

Postscript

I have used the Rush pictures before in one or two of the imaginative posts I used to write when I started the blog so it’s good to get back to seeing them as views of reality. When they were first acquired by the library in the 1920s it was because they provided a valuable look at a whole series of buildings which no longer existed. I am still very taken with their visionary qualities though, and it seems quite appropriate that we’re not quite sure about Lady Walpole’s grotto. We were high on word count and low on pictures this week so I’m going to find a furnished summer house and lie down now. Oh, and I don’t think I’ve ever had to say this but as this is a complicated business I should add that any errors are mine and are not attributable to any of the sources I’ve used.

This post is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Marianne Rush herself and David Le Lay, a friend of Chelsea.


May Queens of Whitelands – the players

Last year’s May Queen post was set in 1906, at the psychological peak of the festival in terms of ceremony, costume and seriousness. After the Great War, the College and the students were in a different world. The role of women in society had changed, although arguably as teachers the graduates of the college were already professionals who were well regarded in the field of education. Fashions had changed, reflected in the more subdued robes of the post war queens. This is Queen Janet and her chamberlains in 1919. Shoe lovers can get a look in at last.

And attitudes had changed. I noted in an earlier post that I could detect an air of not quite taking the ceremonies and theatrical performances which accompanied the May Queen Festival quite as seriously as before. I think I can see a lot more fun in some of the pictures from the postwar period, which is why this post will concentrate not on the queens but the players in the various theatrical performances which were part of the May Queen Festival in Whitelands’ last decade in their original home in the King’s Road.

Some of the performances called for classical costumes such as this one:

(It looks like the grass needs mowing.)

And here are some more traditional figures from folklore, dancing for the Queen and her subjects in the quadrangle.

Now for some urns. Careful now,ladies.

A little bit of pagan worship possibly.

In earlier years there had been a Rose Queen celebration in June for the pupils of local schools, so they obviously had younger girls on hand for performances

So that’s not weird at all.

(This may relate to a play performed that year, “A red rose in the city of lilies” written by two of the students. Or not)

On other occasions there was medieval fun. Anyone for the stocks?

More of that here

A whole troupe of characters from the middle ages to celebrate “the birth of English Song”.

Do you see the nun? The students had form in this area of course (see 1908) which was continued in 1922.

Who had all these nun costumes available for hire? I can’t imagine an Anglican establishment having nun’s habits hanging about the place in case of a sudden counter-Reformation. Of course nuns used to be a more common sight in London. Chelsea and Kensington both had several convents.

Once again (see this post on the Chelsea Historical Pageant) I was reminded less of 1923, more of the 1970s when I could have imagined this picture on the rear cover of an album by an up and coming folk rock group.

Could they have imagined walking out of the front door of the college onto a King’s Road 50 years later, barely raising an eyebrow?

As this was Chelsea, the Tudor period can’t be forgotten, particularly Sir Thomas More  and his family.

And they kept coming back to the Greeks. Is that a satyr? Yes, the god Pan no less, in pursuit of the nymph Syrinx

Here he is again.

With some horned children. Fauns, probably.

There were really quite a lot of pictures of theatrical performances in this third album of pictures, and some of them look a bit odd now. They might even have seemed odd then.

Amusingly so of course. As regular readers will have realised, I’m a great fan of fancy dress and amateur dramatics from the past.

Go on ladies, push. But why?

Other periods in history were not ignored. From 1925, an Elizabethan group.

The lawn was better kept in the later years. An 18th century group.

And still, the classics. Below, the masque, Achilles in Scyros, in which Odysseus, disguised as a peddler searches for Achilles who is playing the part of a maiden at the court of King Scyros (“a strong tall maiden” apparently, in the Shakespearean tradition of a woman playing a man playing a woman.)

Although sometimes it was a non-traditional view of classical themes as Mercury arrives in a cloche hat.

May Day in 1929 “ the wildest May morning since – no one was sure Since when, but everyone was sure there had never been a colder one.. Green blazers were everywhere covering white frocks and thick coats hid the creations of the staff”. Nevertheless, the show went on with some 17th century music.

And some revels, taking us back to the roots of the festival in Old England. A few merrie (men).

1930 was the year the College moved to a new purpose built building in Putney. We might come to that period in a future post. All I can say by way of a spoiler is that the fun continued.

But to return to the Queens I picked this 1929 picture of Queen Irene and Queen Enid in a casual pose on the throne, because they look like they’re enjoying themselves.

 

The distressing coda to Whitelands College’s time in Chelsea was that the building was bought by the British Union of Fascists and renamed Black House. (You couldn’t make it up). I found a picture in History Today magazine of Moseley and some of his polo-necked henchman doing that walking towards the camera thing against a familiar background. What a —— (choose your own expletive).

 

Much satirized, even at the time, Moseley’s basket of deplorables were a blot on the landscape for only a brief period of time. The former college building was demolished in 1937 and the current large apartment block called Whitelands House built on the site.

The College itself carries on to this day, as does the May Monarch Festival. So the “ceremony of innocence” is not drowned in this case.

Unfortunately there’s not as much of this sort of thing these days.

Or this for that matter.

Postscript

I found I’ve used a couple of these pictures before but at that point I hadn’t seen the actual May Queen scrapbooks kept at the Whitelands archive. So that’s one reason for using them again.

The latest May Monarch will be crowned on May 13th. My good wishes to her/him and the College.


The secret life of postcards 6

As this is the sixth outing for this series of posts let’s start with something different.

This is another aspect of the secret life of postcards – the writing on the back. JH (?) is sending the 1906 version of an instant message. With two deliveries a day in some places it could be fairly close to instant. “Monday’s coming too fast for me now. Had a ripping time this year. Plenty to see. Very hot here today.”

Quicker by telegraph of course but you probably wouldn’t use a telegram for such an inconsequential message. And you wouldn’t get the picture along with it.

A coloured version of a photo of St Luke’s Church in Sydney Street. More from JH later.

One of my great pleasures with picture postcards is the details, where you might see a lively street scene, the early numbers of Kensington High Street with an unexpected close up of a thoughtful young man.

You can see another view of two of the same buildings below, the London and County Bank (“pungently Burgundian” according to the Survey of London, one of my favourites of their pithy descriptions – I was once asked if it had ever been a church. Built as a bank I’m afraid, but you can’t help speculating about a little know Cathar sect which somehow made it to London and was the scene of some sinister events..well I can’t anyway once the suggestion arises)

Next to the bank was Madame Kate Ker-Lane’s  court dress emporium.

You can see the ornate lettering  better in close up.

 

And is that Madame Kate at the window on the left? The presence of the two policemen indicates that some event was happening that day and a procession might be about to pass by.

Off the high street, a little way up Campden Hill a more ordinary scene. Campden Hill Court, on Holland Street. Flats are available…

 

 

A flower cart, a woman pushing a pram and a lamp post. The photo crops down into a nice composition.

 

 

Close by is Airlie Gardens. Looking up at the glassed in room above the porch (a conservatory?) you would like to see another figure looking down at the photographer.

 

 

There is the hint of someone or something at that window but you can’t really be sure. It could just be some kind of ornament.

 

 

But that pile of cases must have a story to tell. Someone moving in? Or out? Or off on a trip?

For the start of a journey you might go down to the station, the entrance to the arcade just where it is today.

Plenty of travellers on their way in or out, or pausing at the entrance.

 

Here are some local travellers in Church Street, taking the bus.

 

A crowded upper deck.

 

 

If all the modes of transport were crowded with people, you could stroll to Kensington Gardens.

 

 

A trio of friends taking a leisurely walk near the fountains.

 

 

As well as zooming in on postcards you can also zoom out.

Below, a woman strides out on a quiet street, a typical day in Kensington.

 

 

Look at the wider picture though and you can see she is in Philbeach Gardens. The metal spire of St Cuthbert’s Church rises above the houses, and a section of the Great Wheel at the Earls Court Exhibition.

 

 

While we’re in that neck of the woods what about this unlikely view in the Cromwell Road area?

 

 

A motley group of people stand in the middle of an apparently deserted road. On the back of the card a message for a younger relative of the sender.

 

Master Paddie Law, of Oswestry gets the distressing news that HM(WM?) has been digging in his garden

Shall we get back to our friend JH?

Here is another of those coloured postcards he favoured, showing the statue of Carlyle in the gardens by the embankment on Cheyne Walk, with a curious young boy looking at the photographer.

 

What did JH have to say?

 

 

“Having a fine time. Better than doing sheets(?) all over London every day. Just what Richardson would like over at Putney seeing the crews practice”. For the University Boat Race I assume. A pleasant way to spend an afternoon in suburban London, at the end of which you can send a postcard to Mr Joyce in Brighton.

I can’t remember the last time I sent a postcard, although I can recall the pleasure of receiving some inconsequential words from a friend. No need to overdo the comparison but this was definitely a form of Edwardian social media.

Postscript

The point of this series is the details found in the pictures themselves, but if it is possible to see the message on the back (some of the postcards are glued down unfortunately) it’s always worth having a look.

 


Cheyne Walk: heading west 1970

I was looking for a picture of 120 Cheyne Walk, where Arthur Ransome lived for a while in the period he describes in his book Bohemia in London. Number 120 is right on the edge of the World’s End Estate in a short terrace of 19th century houses between Blantyre Street and the smaller, older and more famous house next to it where JMW Turner had his last home.

That section of Cheyne Walk, from the Old Church to Cremorne Road traditionally took you from the grandest and most affluent part of the street into a much lowlier part of Chelsea as you enter Lots Road. When I looked at John Rogers’s  1970 photographs I naturally thought here’s a blog post. So here you are.

It’s an area that’s very familiar to me. My mother-in-law lived in Milmans Street, and my wife and I spent the early years of our marriage in a flat in Beaufort Street, so I’ve walked along this part of the embankment, crossed both bridges, caught buses north and south on many occasions. A bit arbitrarily I’ve decided to start here:

We’re right by Chelsea Old Church. You can see the Sloane Monument and the houses nearby which feature in a photograph by James Hedderly, as do many of today’s locations. There is the drinking fountain monument to George Sparkes (if the East India Comapny) and the 1969 statue of Thomas More (“Scholar, Statesman, Saint” as it says on the plinth.)

And there is the Old Church itself, reconstructed after the war, following severe damage during an air raid in 1941.

Next to it is Roper’s Garden, a sunken garden also built on the site of buildings destroyed in the air raid. I have sat in it many times. The small block of flats is called Roper’s Orchard. Margaret Roper was the married name of one of Thomas More’s daughters. The statue in the garden is called Awakening and is by Gilbert Ledward, who was born in Chelsea.

The sheltered seats at the top of the stairs were a pleasant spot to shelter if the rain caught you on your way home from Battersea Park.

In the background you can see part of Crosby Hall, an ancient building which formerly stood in Bishopsgate in the City of London which was disassembled and reassembled in Chelsea in the 1910.

When I lived nearby Crosby Hall and its attendant buildings were used as a hall of residence. The hall was rented out for ceremonies and wedding receptions. This pictures shows the open front onto Cheyne Walk. In 1989 the building was acquired as a private residence by Christopher Moran who built a pastiche of a Tudor palace around it so you can’t see this view any more.

Across the river in Battersea there have been considerable changes as well. many of the buildings visible in the distance are no longer there.

The photographer John Rogers has captured a pretty quiet moment on the road.

This iron structure sits in the small green space where Battersea Bridge meets Cheyne Walk and Beaufort Street.

 

Belle Vue House, on the right is on the opposite corner. There is a well know Hedderly photograph showing the same corner more than a hundred years earlier.

 

 

This is the view looking west, on a February morning in 1970, the same day as almost all the other pictures this week.

 

 

You can just about make out this quizzical bird looking east. He sits on the gatepost of another ancient residence, Lindsey House.

 

 

Lindsey House is another ancient house (built 1674), subdivided in the 18th century. The various parts of it have been home to the artists Whistler and John Martin and the engineers Marc and Isembard Kingdom Brunel.

 

 

We’re going to move past the end of Milmans Street as I’ve covered it before.

Moving west, this collection of houses curves away from the main road and leads north into Riley Street. Car spotters can start here although I’m sure no one will be able to identify the car under cover on the left.

 

 

These should be pretty obvious though.

This is the point where Munro Terrace curves away to become Riley Street. (once upon a time Davis Place became World’s End Passage) , with Apollo Place hiding behind the main road.

Apollo Place (partly visible on the right in the picture below) was once the home of Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran. On more than one occasion when I was at Chelsea Library teenage girls would ask to consult the electoral register to locate him. (When I worked at Brompton Library I would see groups of teenage girls gathered outside the home of another Duran Duran member in Gilston Road, off Fulham Road).

The building on the corner used to be a pub (or at least a “beer retailer” as listed in the 1899 Kelly’s directory. The 1888 edition lists The Queen’s Arms at this number, along with a “fried fish shop”)

 

Next to it was another more long lasting pub, the King’s Arms.

 

An apocryphal story is told about a local celebrity buying one of these two pubs and closing it down because of the noise. I won’t name the person concerned because I don’t know if this is in any way true. Many pubs in Chelsea have closed since 1971 for a variety of reasons.

Closeby, the building below is the house of JMW Turner (have a look at it here)

Or for comparison:

 

A picture from the late 1940s I think.

Now go back to the first picture in the blog to see the taller buildings next to these as we move west. Those still survive but the ones in the final two pictures have gone.

 

 

This is the corner of Luna Street (have a look at Luna Street another others here). You can see the street name, just about, and the word “shed” referring of course to one end of the Chelsea Football ground, and the group of fans associated with it. The final picture shows what remained of the terrace around number 132 as Cheyne Walk becomes Ashburnham Road.

 

 

Marked by an advertisement for Carlsberg Special Brew. Close to this point is the end of Lots Road which we’ve looked at before. I’ve touched on the houseboats in another post but we may come there again in the future.

Postscript

This was a light post in terms of text and commentary but I know many of you will enjoy the pictures and don’t need much comment from me. I welcome any comments, corrections or reminiscences from readers. I’m a little late posting this week because of some last minute fact checking and link creating. I’m off now to see if I can find a 19th century photograph of the King’s Arms which I have in my mind but I don’t think I’ve ever scanned it.

A little later….. I found it and will scan it soon.I also discovered that you can just see the King’s Arms and the Queen’s Arms side by side in one of my early Hedderly posts. (the 6th picture.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Water: Bignell’s travels

I seem to have Bignell on my mind at the moment. I assembled a set of pictures for a recent post mostly taken in Wimbledon which I thought were very pleasant and evocative and I didn’t realise they were part of a larger group of pictures. Someone has been doing some Bignell related research at the library and I went looking for negatives only to find that some of the stacks of yellow photograph boxes contained prints, among which was a set Bignell called “Rural London”. He had evidently roamed around looking for parts of London which looked like the countryside, mostly in west London but occasionally going as far as Leytonstone and Wanstead. Actually I think he got sidetracked a bit because some of the pictures look decidedly urban to me. I decided to start by looking at the views featuring the river, or streams and ponds, because I like waterscapes .(See this post).

Some of them link up with some of the individual pictures I’ve used on the blog. Like this one:

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I think we saw some of these boys before, playing about on the river, where the houseboats are moored west of Battersea Bridge.

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If you look at the south shore you can just see St Mary’s Church. The thing I always remember about it is that William Blake married Catherine Boucher here in 1782.

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Here it is at high tide one of the few surviving buildings from this era. A slightly different view below shows all the giant lettering on the Silver Bell Flour Mill. You can see another view of the church and the former surrounding buildings in this Bernard Selwyn post.

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If we follow the path further along along the south side of the Thames you come here, another industrial stretch of building at Mortlake gives way to a tree covered path, now part of the Thames Walk.

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The path as I recall it from walking part of the Thames Path when my son was younger gets quite narrow as you make your way to Kew.

Let’s take a watery detour south back to the Wimbledon of that recent post. I feel we’ve seen some of these people before.

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Engaged in that traditional pastime of messing about at the edge of a body of water on a warm summer day.

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In this picture the mother of some of the party attempts to move them for a pleasant stroll, although not everyone is convince that’s a good idea.

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In any case for a casual picture Bignell has produced a marvelously evocative picture of that lazy summer day.

While I’m on the subject of detours a quick verbal sidetrack into the question of dating. I said in the Wimbledon post that the pictures were taken in 1970 while Bignell was living in Tedworth Square (he lived there roughly from 1963-1975). Most of the pictures are stamped on the back with that address. But some of them are also stamped with his previous address in Trafalgar Studios in Manresa Road. (He was there until 1962. The purpose built artists’ studios Trafalgar Studios and Wentworth Studios were demolished in the 1960s). So we have quite a long span for the possible dates of these pictures from 1958 to 1975. Some of them look to be on the early side of that, judging by the clothes or the hairstyles. For others it’s difficult to tell.

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Barnes Bridge, with a pleasure cruiser, another timeless scene. From this point there are a lot of pleasure craft on the river.

Like here at Richmond.

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And here with that other traditional feature, a ferry.

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In the next two pictures the hairstyles provide a clue to the date.

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Surely the reason why he took two pictures. The woman and the girl  both have striking holiday hairdos.

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Any hair experts who could put a date to the picture would be very welcome.

Let’s leave the riverside suburbs for now and get back to what I think is the Serpentine on another summer day.

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I’ll come back again to Bignell’s travels on another occasion. If anyone has any thoughts on dates or locations please leave a comment.

Postscript

The post I was going to write this week is not quite ready as I’m getting some informed input so forgive me for returning to Bignell so soon. However I’m sure you’ve found these pictures interesting as I have, and the post did prompt me to doing some research on Bignell’s various addresses which was long overdue.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

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Or by water.

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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?)

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Wading through shallow water

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

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Taking a few minor risks

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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

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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.

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A vintage piece of playground equipment from the same day.

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

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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.

Postscript to the postscript – from the department of Corrections

I’ve been delving deeper into the Bignell collection recently looking for some specific negatives but along the way I came across a box of pictures I hadn’t seen before which contained other pictures from the same sessions as the ones in this post. So it is now clear that the final picture is not of St Luke’s playground but features a playground next to a church in Clapham. When you look closer this is pretty obvious. Oops. (Substitute a stronger expletive if you wish.)

On the plus side, we now have a set of pictures which Bignell kept together under the theme of “rural London” some of which you can expect to see soon.

 


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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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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.


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