Category Archives: John Bignell

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.

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,

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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

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.

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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

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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.


Christmas Days : Bignell – a childhood in the 50s

I often turn to Bignell at short notice when I’m not sure what’s coming next on the blog. There are so many striking images in our collection that even a random selection works. I’ve been working on a full length post with a particular theme, looking through the collection for suitable pictures but scanning any that appealed to me. In the course of this I came across enough images for one of these short posts. Most of these pictures come from the 1950s when Bignell was first making a name for himself, and they all feature children.

on-chelsea-bridge-1954

If you’re not familiar with Chelsea Bridge you might think they were doing something dangerous, but they’re not. The parapet is pretty wide at this point.  The picture is dated 1954. Battersea Power Station, in the background is still under construction. (It was built in two phases, one in the 1930s and one after the war. Here Station B is still awaiting the completion of one of its chimneys.)

The boys in this picture are in mild peril of falling off. I admire them for the sheer silliness of what they’re doing.

battersea-bridge-steps-1956

The dog is clearly amused. This is 1956, and another of Chelsea’s bridges, Battersea.

Speaking of Battersea, what about the Festival Gardens in 1954, a remnant of the Festival of Britain which lingered on for many years although I think this feature had gone by the first time I went to Battersea Park.

festival-gardens-1954-01-copy

A quiet spot for mothers to take young children, with the possibility of water- based play for older ones. There was a paddling pool not far from this spot but on this particular day you could get your feet a little bit wet if you fancied that. No danger.

The duo below are doing nothing risky either , in 1959.

chips

Although they’re clearly starving.

In another part of Chelsea in the same year, a more decorous pastime.

victor-sylvesters-dance-studio-gaumont-cinema-kings-road-1959

The girls are having to dance with each other at Victor Silvester’s Dance Studio at the Gaumont Cinema, in the King’s Road. This is the rock’n’roll era, so are they jiving? (I’m no dance expert)

I recently attended the premiere (at the gate Cinema) of a film called Two Potato, an exploration of urban play made by pupils at Colville School in conjunction with Digital Works, a regular partner of the Local Studies library. You can  see it here:

http://www.onepotato.org.uk/film.html

(Full disclosure: I’m among the people who get thanked in the credits.) There’s usually a Q and A after the film in which someone asks the film makers if they would rather have lived in the days depicted in photos by Bignell and others, when kids apparently wandered the streets looking for odd things to do, as in today’s pictures. Rather than the screen dominated lives of modern children. I always like it when someone says no. I enjoyed my 1960s childhood, which did involve a certain amount of wandering around unaccompanied by adults, but in my opinion there’s nothing wrong with modern childhood. There’s more Lego for one thing.

 

Monkeys

Today’s monkeys in the archives are working on a private project.

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Quentin and Vinnie are doing the searching while Steve keeps a look out.

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See you tomorrow.

 


Bignell at work

I’ve been having trouble with the post I was going to do this week. I had the pictures I wanted to use but I couldn’t find the right way to write about them. I came into work on a Saturday and while I was waiting for the computer to finish the things it likes to do when I log in the cursor alighted on a folder of pictures by John Bignell, a not quite random selection of images which showed people doing various forms of work. So almost immediately I decided not to force the other post into existence but to let Bignell take the reins. We haven’t had a Bignell post for a while so why ever not?

As always with Bignell he moves from the world of art and artists in which he had many friends to a more ordinary world of shops and street stalls where he appeared to be equally welcome. Here is the sculptor, Loris Rey at work in his studio in 1959.

loris-rey-01

We’re lucky to know the date of that picture. In others you have to infer from the picture itself when it might have been taken. In this case the late 1950s or early 1960s is as close as you can get.

milk

An old school  milk float with a perky horse pulling milk, a man and a dog. You can imagine Bignell wandering the streets setting up pictures like that as he came across people he might have known, or struck up an acquaintance with, but on other occasions it looks like he was invited.

 

operating-room-02

Everything looks clean and modern in this picture but it has an undeniably period feel to it. It’s sparse compared to a modern operating theatre.

Back on the streets, a rare colour picture taken in the old World’s End area.

 

seafood-stall

Sea food al fresco. The St John’s Church Hall visible in the back ground and the green grocer’s stall we’ve seen before.

This is another street stall much further east along the King’s Road.

 

fruit-and-veg-stall

The three people posing for the picture look eminently recognizable (if anyone knows them?)

Not far away from that location, a flower stall.

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Thank you Madam, says Bignell. The lady herself is clearly not quite sure what he’s doing, and why she’s in the picture.

Bignell also went into shops. Here a grocer slices meat.

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And Loris Rey works on something else.

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Here is a shop which is possibly devoted to Japanese goods, complete with a kimono-clad member of staff.

japanese-maybe

Bignell was forever popping into art shops and small galleries.

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Framing work done here. Half a notice on the subject is visible in the door.

Art supplies available here. The picture below may be at Green and Stone, the long established shop on the King’s Road.

Bignell was in  butchers.

butcher

And fish shops

fish-shop

A 1970s look to that picture – the woman’s hair (and the guy with his back to us whose hair is getting good in the back as Frank Zappa used to say). And see the slogan – “Go to work on an egg”.

More hair in this picture where Bignell looks in a a barbers (“well groomed hair”).

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And a classy looking florists.

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The Pottery. Anyone remember that one?

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Bignell even looked at used car lots. This one was where the new fire station on the corner of Dovehouse Street was built.

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Finally, some actors at work.

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I wonder what she made of it all?

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Postscript

I know sometimes a Bignell post can seem like a random selection, but there’s always something interesting there, even in the most throwaway  sort of pictures.

crossing-the-street

Note the little figure of the girl in leg braces, a charity coin box, in the background. Those used to be everywhere. The two women are crossing to the south side of the King’s Road possibly near Glebe Place (E A Fownes is now My Old Dutch).

Have fun identifying some of these locations.

Next week there will be another guest blogger for Halloween so I make no guarantee about factual accuracy.


The Times of Chelsea – magic, mystics, motoring and maxis

The Times of Chelsea was a small magazine which ran from 1973-1975. It contained a mixture of Chelsea subject matter – news stories to do with planning or conservation, features on local residents, pieces about local history and what you might call general interest – motoring, restaurants and fashion. The photographer John Bignell was the picture editor, so it was also full of his work. (That alone makes it useful for local history – Bignell didn’t always label his pictures and the Times can sometimes help with that.)

You might find an interview with the then still famous best selling author Dennis Wheatley:

Wheatley may 1973

Wheatley issues his normal warning about the dangers of black magic in this piece, while at the same time impressionable young persons like myself were reading his supernatural novels, not to mention many far more subversive works such as Richard Cavendish’s the Black Arts and the famous partwork Man, Myth and Magic. Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast (who Wheatley may have had in mind for Mocata, the villain in “The Devil rides out”) was another Chelsea resident, like Hester Marsden-Smedley, the wife of the Mayor of Chelsea who wrote many articles for the Times on local history and reported in one that she found Crowley “fascinating but not frightening“. (She found another local resident far more repellent in a piece remembering William Joyce’s short period of membership of the local Conservative Party).

In the film of the Devil rides out, Mocata was played by Charles Gray (of Ennismore Gardens) profiled in the Times in an article called “Elegant baddie”, and photographed by Bignell.

Charles Gray 01 jb355

Another brief resident was Colin Wilson, famous for the 1950s classic of new existentialism  the Outsider, but more importantly for me also the author of another blockbuster survey of the uncanny valley, “The Occult”. If you’ll allow to ramble off on a tangent I met him around this time in the Village Bookshop in Regent Street and he turned out to be friendly and tolerant towards a fanboy. (At the time I took it for granted that the shop had a large occult section – many bookshops did then, but I’ve since read that the owner was a bit of an aficionado of the subject, and actually sent the young Iain Sinclair on some psycho-geographical missions – told in the book length interview with Sinclair by Kevin Jackson, “The Verbals”)

Wilson was also a friend of another subject of an article in the Times of Chelsea, local artist Regis de Cachard (or Count Regis de Bouvier de Cachard de Montmeran, to give him his full name and title).

Regis 01 feb 1973 (2)

We’ve met him before of course. The article notes that  Wilson was intending to write a book about him. That would have been interesting. De Cachard, it says in the article, was currently concentrating on mythological subjects, and he announces his intention to paint 100 pictures on Old Testament themes, one a week for two years

There might be a motoring feature, like this one which also relates to a previous topic on the blog.

Capri mar 1975

You also find some interesting photos, like this one under the headline “End of the Essoldo”.

 

essoldo 02 jul 1974

As it happens we now know the Essoldo was not the last incarnation of this building as a cinema, but its time as the venue for the stage show of the Rocky Horror Show may have been the height of its fame. (Yes there’s an anecdote: a friend of my wife worked as an usherette during the show and got her a ticket, at the end of a row. My wife, a teenager at the time, watched the show in a state of apprehension that she might be pulled onto the stage by the fun-loving cast)

John Bignell provided some celebrity pictures like this one.

Ryan O'Neal jb125

Ryan O’Neal, seen here admiring a pendant belonging to Lorenzo Berni, owner of “the Beauchamp Place rendezvous San Lorenzo”. He “does quite a lot of the cooking himself in between chatting to customers like Mick and Bianca Jagger…and Bill Gibb”

The mention of the designer Bill Gibb brings us to another of the frequent subjects for features in the Times, fashion, often connected to local shops. Chelsea in the early 70s would have been a key location for London fashion of course but the thing I noticed most is that the commonest clothing items being featured in the Times were kaftans, maxi-dresses and nightdresses. Like this one:

bianca buscaglia 02 jun 1974

“Hand made in Yugoslavia” for Bianca Busaglia. They were everywhere. Now, I’ve looked at fashion in old photographs before as you know. (Sambourne, Hawarden etc). And I was living in London from 1973. I hadn’t remembered that this was the era of the maxi skirt and dress. But it was.

variations march 1973

By my recollection, in this period fashions, especially in areas like hemlines ,were pretty much dictated by the big fashion designers who were followed by high street shops. This style dictatorship seemed to come to an end in the late 70s with punk, after which women started wearing pretty much what they wanted. (Okay, a bit of a generalisation I know, but broadly true, like the thing with the colour black – I can remember a time when black was only worn to funerals and you couldn’t buy a black car without a special order. After the 70s you couldn’t get away from black, and still can’t. )

But back to the Times. Is this a nightie?

in pod 02 feb-mar 1974

No, it’s a maternity dress from a shop called In Pod, perfectly in tune with current styles. Check out the shoes by the way. Spot on for this period.

This one though…

night owls 02 jul 1974

That is a nightie, from a shop called Night Owls in the Fulham Road. (At number 50, next to where there was a branch of Gapp’s – see this post. It closed a few short years ago.). We’re glad it’s a nightie and not another maternity dress – she’s smoking, something people used to do back then.

There was also some publicity for the larger shops:

Print skirt may 1973

Modern readers will no doubt appreciate the prices of these items. Below, I don’t know if the smooth gentleman in the striped shirt is giving good customer service to the lady wearing some early boho chic, or if he’s another model working in the modern boutique Elle (of Sloane Square)

elle jun 1975

This is a whole page on a shop called Joseph, at 33 King’s Road. My wife had a raincoat like that.

Joseph 01 feb 1975

In the interests of historical accuracy I went to the costume and fashion collection at Chelsea Library to look at copies of Vogue from 1973 to 1975, the Times of Chelsea years and yes, there were many pictures of much the same sort of outfits, some even more extravagant, and of course colourful. There was a kind of soft focus extravagance about this period exemplified by the fashions of the Biba shop which reached its peak in Kensington and Chelsea at the same time.

One more striking outfit:

fashion-p26-april-1975-zoom-copy

Finally another mention of Chelsea Library in the Times. My old boss:

toc nov 1973 Meara

I hope she won’t mind this small tribute. (Nite: customers of Chelsea Library were eventually reconciled to the merger with Kensington. As a Chelsea resident I can see the advantages.)

The maxi has been back with us for some time. I saw many examples on the way home today. (A very warm Wednesday afternoon). Dennis Wheatley, Charles Gray, Colin Wilson, Regis de Cachard and the Ford Capri are unfortunately gone, though not forgotten. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Patricai Meara (later Pratt).

Postscript

It was a bit of a ramble this week, but magazines are sometimes like that. I’m not deliberately intending to turn the postscript over to obituaries but I couldn’t help but note the passing of Richard Neville, the editor of another small magazine, the “underground” periodical, Oz. I was too young, and too far from London to be a regular reader, but the Oz obscenity trial was a sensation of the time and I do remember the controversy and the taking of sides. I was firmly behind the three editors, Neville, Felix Dennis (the  millionaire publisher and poet who died in 2014 ) and Jim Anderson. I remember reading a book by Tony Palmer, the Trials of Oz, which portrayed the trail as a knockabout yarn. I couldn’t wait to get to London.

 

 


Sarah Raphael – a session with Bignell

The name of Sarah Raphael was familiar to me before I first looked at this week’s photographs but I have to admit I didn’t know a great deal about her. I had some inkling that she had died comparatively young but I don’t know where that came from. To summarise: she was born in 1960 and became known as a painter of portraits, landscapes and abstract pictures. She was married with three children. She died in 2001 aged 41. The people who have written about her including Clive James, William Boyd and her father Frederic Raphael agree that she was a significant artist. Had she lived we would know a lot more about her.

And at some point she met John Bignell. I’ve scanned a couple of regular sized prints from our Bignell collection but also isolated a few more from a contact sheet as I did once before with Regis de Bouvier de Cachard. This gives us a record of one photo session with Bignell. I don’t know if this was one of Bignell’s magazine or newspaper assignments or if she was one of his artistic acquaintances. (There were quite a few of those.) But they are fascinating pictures of an artist .

Sarah Raphael 01

There won’t be a lot of commentary from  me this week. Sometimes the pictures speak for themselves. Here she sits on a stool in an elegant room looking at one of her pictures.

There are some variants of this pose.

Sarah Raphael 01a

They seem to have tried out quite a few poses showing Ms Raphael at work, putting brush to canvas.

Sarah Raphael 03

In her studio (or just a pleasantly untidy room nearby).

Sarah Raphael 04

Sarah Raphael 3 from contact sheet - Copy

Using a mirror to create a picture within a picture effect.

Sarah Raphael 07

Or using the mirrors (and some plates?) as props.

Sarah Raphael 01c

Taking a break.

Sarah Raphael 09

If you’ve never encountered her work you can see in the photographs that the painting has a slightly surreal feel to it.

Sarah Raphael 02

See how that tower in the painting has moved from right to left as Bignell set up the shots.

I found some similar images in her illustrations to a book by her father, “The Hidden I” (Thames and Hudson 1990) which demonstrate the same qualities.

00002 - Copy

Perhaps Bignell was trying to capture some of the same playfulness in his pictures of the artist.

00001 - Copy

She was also influences by pop art and comics.

Strip Page 1

Sarah_Raphael_Strip_page_5_1997_en

[Strip Page 1 and Page 5]

And could work in the space between landscape and abstract art as in one of her Australian paintings.

Gibber Desert Constellation II

[Gibber desert Constellation II]

But I promised as little commentary as possible, and no attempt at art criticism so let’s just remember a talented artist at work being photographed by a talented photographer.

Sarah Raphael 06

Postscript

You can see more of Sarah Raphael’s work at http://www.clivejames.com/gallery/painting/sarah-raphael

As hinted at last week I’m doing what you might call quirky posts at the moment. I did consider trying to assemble some of Bignell’s odder images into a post called Weird Bignell but I’ve already used some of the best. I also looked through the run of a short lived 1970s periodical called the Times of Chelsea for which he was the picture editor and got a few ideas for later. I never did find the reason for this particular session, but I’m glad to have found the pictures and been to use them on the blog.

It’s possibly not of general interest but the total number of page views on the blog recently passed three quarters of a million. I was quite pleased anyway.

Finally, after the recent sad news of the death of Muhammed Ali, here he is in a couple of Bignell pictures.

Mohammed Ali - Cassius Clay_jb_241

Mohammed Ali - Cassius Clay_jb_242

The Greatest of all time.


Bignell and women – models, friends and strangers

Like many working photographers in his heyday, the 1950s and 1960s John Bignell took photographs of women as portraits, for newspapers, for fashion shoots, in street photography, in “art” photos, individual commissions and even what we now euphemistically call glamour photography.  For this post I’ve been looking through some of the lightly categorized boxes of prints we have (“London”, “unidentified people”, “identified people”) to try and find some of his less well known work. Some of these images are finished pieces of work, some look like he was just playing around. All of them I hope are intriguing in their own way or evocative of a particular time.

Bignell - models getting ready

This is an example. Three young women, possibly models, getting ready for a fashion shoot or a show, which Bignell thought was worth printing.

This one is an outdoor shot.

Woman by riverI can’t quite place the background, but near a river, the woman possibly on a boat. Whover the lady is, it’s a good picture of her.

The contact sheet below has a recognizeable background.

Contact sheet 03

The houseboats near Battersea Bridge, with the Battersea shore in the distance. I assume that Bignell was following her around taking pictures for a magazine pr newspaper article but I don’t know who she is. As with all these unknowns I hope someone who reads this post will have some ideas. If it’s someone you know or used to know it could be a pleasant surprise.

I do know this lady:

Contact sheet 02 Thea Holme

It’s Thea Holme, who wrote a history of Chelsea published in 1972. The book is now out of print but available through second hand dealers. I still consult it from time to time. Again, the contact prints look like they are going to accompany an article. Several show the writer “at work” writing or researching.

There are portraits in the boxes of prints with nothing on the back but a date or an enigmatic note.

woman 1955

This one just says 1955. A woman very much of that decade as the next one is not.

woman

There is some quality of familiarity in some of these pictures which makes me think that Bignell was good at making his subjects relax. I feel that he knew them, so therefore I must know them, and their identities are just out of reach.

This is one out of a trio of pictures.

Woman hat grass 001

I’ve just called them “Woman hat grass”.

Woman hat grass 003

Bignell liked to work with props. Here’s another hat picture.

37110-22

The same woman? The same hat definitely.

This is another kind of prop.

Iris Polkiakova 01 1957 328

There are several shots of Irina Polkiakova, publicity pictures from 1957 for a burlesque performer. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post Bignell knew Paul Raymond, who put on burlesque shows at the Chelsea Palace and at his own Raymond Revue bar in Soho. Bignell has left us quite a few examples of his glamour work, although these are almost innocuous by modern standards.

Dorothy Insull 03 1959 339

Dorothy Insull in 1959. It’s interesting that Bignell has often noted the names of his models in this kind of work. Presumably he thought he would never need to remember the names of the women he knew socially. Some of the erotic pictures simply seem odd now – a nude woman sitting at a typewriter, a naked woman in a doorway picking up a milk bottle – some of them obviously tongue in cheek – a naked woman holding a slip or a nightdress in one hand, a box of the washing powder Omo (older readers may remember this product) in the other, with the caption “brighter than white” on the back. I’ve refrained from posting those last three because we’re no longer so casual about these matters, or as innocent as people were in Bignell’s time. However, I will show you one of his arty nudes. Look away now if easily offended.

Nude model in garden with sundial

That one might also fit into a set of weird/esoteric Bignell images.

As might the last two images, of a woman Bignell hasn’t named but I feel we should know.

Woman in studio 02

My colleague Tim has pointed out that the woman looks like one or both of the women in the painting. Could this be a photograph of an artist’s model and the painting of her? In the second image she adopts a model’s pose.

Woman in studio 01

Possibly the pose of the male figure in the background. Is he another picture of her?

Surely someone knows who she is? I’ll leave that one with you. I’ll just note as I have before that Bignell hasn’t made it easy for us in terms of date, names and places. Fortunately the pictures themselves are always worth examination.

Postscript

I was preoccupied with medical matters again this week so  I returned to Bignell who can always be relied upon to provide images which don’t need a great deal of commentary.

Postscript to the Postscript

The comment from London Remembers below points out that the woman and sundial picture is reversed which I hadn’t noticed. I tried flipping it and thought it looked better that way. But why?

Nude model in garden with sundial - Copy - Copy

Any thoughts on the location?

Postscript to the postscript to the postscript (Feb 2017)

A researcher has been looking at some of Bignell’s pictures and as a result I can now say that the woman with the sundial was called Gerda Ronn.  Bignell took many pictures of her including one in which she is fully clothed. The sundial picture probably dates from 1954. Quite a different era in terms of attitudes to outdoor nudity.


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