Category Archives: John Bignell

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.

 

 

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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.


The dead magpie, and other garden mysteries

A couple of weeks ago, sitting on the bench I thought I saw  through the trees at the opposite edge of the garden the distinctive black and white colouring of a magpie. It had been weeks since I last saw one, well before the hot spell. That one had been dead. I took several photos of the corpse like a corvid CSI, marvelling at the blue green colours in the black feathers. Had a cat got lucky? There was one prowling around in the distance looking suspicious. But then cats always look as if they’re up to no good. It’s a predator thing. The magpie was stiff, so was probably not a recent kill.

DSC_5515

I wondered if the crows had something to do with it. They had been the exclusive masters of the garden before the magpies came. During the spring I had often counted magpies and recited that familiar rhyme to myself, once getting as far as seven. After the death the magpies disappeared just as if they couldn’t stand to be where their fellow had died. Two of the crows strutted around as if the magpie spring had never happened.

DSC_5704

DSC_5534

Of course the magpies could have just moved on somewhere else as the weather got hotter. I hadn’t seen any of the green birds (feral parakeets, now natives of west London) for a while either. The wood pigeons carried on regardless with their usual business. These are not your standard London pigeons – the rats with wings. The wood pigeon is cleaner, sleeker, a bit larger, with a longer and more curved beak. A lot more middle class than the standard winged urban scavenger. They prefer big gardens and tall trees as found in a large communal garden.

DSC_5535

The garden is a large rectangle with housing blocks on the two long sides surrounded on three sides by more blocks. A single tower faces the main road. There was bomb damage during the war and many of the old late Victorian apartment blocks were replaced with modern versions in the 1970s. A single detached house (a forgotten building if ever there was one) was demolished in the 60s to make way for the tower.

The garden is what remains of a large estate which is called a Park on early maps. The trees are tall, as tall as the blocks except for some recent plantings (a big tree went down in October 1987) and an old mulberry tree thought to be the remains of a failed 18th century silk production scheme. (Every mulberry tree in Chelsea is attributed to the same venture – apparently one of the reasons the plan failed is that the trees were the wrong kind of mulberry and turned out to be repugnant to silk worms).

There is some evidence of former landscaping in the form of half-buried stone borders.

DSC_5525

And then there are the drain pipes.

DSC_5537DSC_5712

Three of the large trees have drain pipes embedded in them, almost absorbed into the bark. Why do trees need drain pipes?

Now about that forgotten building…

1963

This single mansion built in 1884 was demolished in 1965 although I think these photographs were taken in the winter of 1963, possibly by John Bignell.

There’s some snow on the ground

That tree is still there. It all looks a bit Dickensian.

On the main road a couple of pedestrians trudge through the slush.

It was a fairly grand residence.

Elm Park House before demolition 1963 Bignell 001

Another feature of the modern garden is the occasional feature which indicate what lies below, small..

DSC_5523

…and large.

DSC_5544

Three underground chambers used for parking.

DSC_5695

Hot water pipes run through them meaning  that snow never lingers too long in the garden.

Long ago when the garden was a Park another house sat among the trees.

Old Park House Warton Park

It was painted by our old friend Marianne Rush.[link] [link]

Postscript

This is another summer vacation post so there wasn’t much research involved. Those pictures which may or may not have been taken by John Bignell have not been seen much. The colour pictures are by me.

I hope David Brady will like this post.


Manufactured in Chelsea

I was looking through some old proof sheets for John Bignell’s book Chelsea seen from its earliest days (enlarged edition 1987 but now out of print), in which Bignell contrasted his own photographs with equivalents from an earlier era. I decided to use some of the old photographs in a post but couldn’t think of a unifying theme. Then we got an email enquiry about the effect of that “structured” reality TV show set in Chelsea on the real borough. (Short answer: none at all probably.) And so I had a title for a random selection of images of Chelsea as it was in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The first image is probably the oldest. We begin as Chelsea itself did on the riverside.

The Old Swan

This is the Old Swan Tavern, before the Embankment, at low tide I would assume judging from how far back the photographer is standing from the river steps and the obliging patrons. I think this is a James Hedderly photograph. The Old Swan lay at the end of Swan Walk near the Physic Garden. This of course was not the original Old Swan but I don’t want to make things too complicated (for myself) at the moment. There are some paintings of the Old Swan in this post.

I’m following a winding path through Chelsea east to west, south to north taking in high and low society. This entails a few leaps back and forth in time. This picture is a distinctly post embankment view of Lombard Terrace, which lay to the west of the Old Church.

Lombard Terrace

The distinctive art nouveau buildings on the left are 72-74 Cheyne Walk, designed by C R Ashbee. They were built on the site of Maunder’s fish shop, a building painted by many, including Whistler which is appropriate as number 74 was  the last house in which he lived. The building was demolished by 1927 and the fight to save some of the remaining houses was one of the causes around which the Chelsea Society was formed. Whatever was left was destroyed along with the Old Church in an air raid in 1941.

The picture below shows part of the original Lombard Terrace with Mr Spell’s Post Office and store on the corner of Danvers Street. I think that’s Mr Spell and his daughter standing in the doorway. This is another picture by James Hedderly.

Cheyne Walk - Hedderly

I’d quite forgotten this picture so I was quite struck by this view looking north from Battersea Bridge up Beaufort Street.

Beaufort Street

Belle Vue House on the left remains and the terrace of tall houses beyond, but on the right all the old houses of Duke Street have gone.

We’re not quite finished with Cheyne Walk. Let’s take a walk past the King’s Head to the pleasingly named Aquatic public house.

Cheyne Walk - Turner's House

The three boys are just about to reach the house with the balcony rail on the roof line, where JMW Turner lived. We saw a picture of it by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd in a previous post.

If we turn back back and go up Beaufort Street we can cross the King’s Road into a quiet cul-de-sac called The Vale, where William and Evelyn de Morgan lived.

The Vale

The Vale now intersects with Elm Park Road but at this time it was a dead end, just a pleasant residential enclave. (That man Whistler lived at mumber 1) Here is an interior from number 4:

2 the vale

We don’t know who the lady is, but she looks quite comfortable.

We go back to the main road for a couple of pictures

Kings Road

A horse bus on the King’s Road, at the corner of Sydney Street, pretty much where the Old Town Hall (and Chelsea Library of course) are today. The King’s Road still had many purely residential houses along this stretch.

We can take a short detour down nearby Oakley Street to take a look at one of its famous residents.

Dr Phene

The good Dr Phene strikes a pose outside the house in which he never actually lived. He only had to go across the road to his actual house. Read more in this post. It’s a fact that I’ve never been able to use on the blog, but another local resident I’ve written about, Margaret Morris once took a party of local residents on a tour of the house. I don’t suppose the two of them ever met but I’d like to imagine they did.

Speaking of my personal obsessions here’s another one, a photograph showing the teacher training establishment Whitelands College, home of the May Queens. Behind those walls lay a unique story, which I have covered here and here. (You can probably expect another one in April). Readers of History Today (February issue) can see a rather disturbing photograph of the college quadrangle a few years after the Staff and students moved to Putney.

Whtelands College

I promised you a bit of high life so here is a picture of the King’s Dinner held in Burton’s Court in 1902 as part of the celebrations for the coronation of Edward VII. The idea was that the poor of Chelsea would be served by charitable members of high society.

Coronation

The lady in white is clearly doing her best but apparently the whole affair was a bit of a disaster, with not enough food, general bad behaviour and insulting language used against the lady volunteers, some of whom had to flee the scene.

By contrast there was a servants’ dinner at Chelsea Town Hall (organised by the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants), where 40 ladies served the maids.This was a smaller and much more civilised affair

Servants' dinner

And everyone went home with a gift bag.

The Chelsea Flower Show was always a big social event, attended by the highest in the land.

Queen Alexandra at the Chelsea Flower Show

Queen Alexandra in 1913 accompanied by some important men.

But let’s go back to ordinary life. This is the street market in Marlborough Street.

Marlborough Road

The shoppers of 1900 look pretty smart.

Finally a picture in another Chelsea street, Upper Cheyne Row showing a horse drawn fire engine.

80

Is there something wrong here? I’ll leave that thought with you.

Postscript

I think I must have set some kind of record for the number of hyperlinks I’ve inserted into this post, so just ignore them if they irritate you. I balked at linking to all the Hedderly posts. Why not try the search box?

And I’ve had to rush through some of the background detail so fact checking is welcome. Next week I’ll go back to a much smaller area.

 

 


Fiction in Kensington and Chelsea 3: Offshore

When I do these posts about fiction set in Kensington and Chelsea I’m normally scrabbling around for pictures to go with the text but this post came about because there were plenty of pictures of the specific location.

Chelsea Reach houseboats 1975 Bignell

A view of the houseboats at Chelsea Reach, with both Battersea and Albert Bridges in the background (even the distant chimneys of Battersea Power Station). A quinessentially Chelsea view from 1975. Chelsea reach was one of the subjects of James Hedderly’s early photography, and the location of the Greaves Boatyard, where the artist Walter Greaves painted and got some mentoring from one of his customers James McNeil Whistler. By the time John Bignell took this photograph the boating on the Reach was all residential.

The writer Penelope Fitzgerald had gone by then  but the experience of living on one of the boats had left its mark and she used the enclave of houseboats as the setting for her Booker-winning novel Offshore.

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This is the cover of the first hardback edition, a view which would be quite familiar to readers of this blog as it shows the main landmark looking in the other direction, Lots Road Power Station.

Chelsea Reach 1960s jb334 - Copy

I’ve cropped this Bignell picture to show the whole sweep of the view looking west as the river curves towards Wandsworth. The houseboats are just visible on the right.

In real life Fitzgerald lived in the last boat along which was called Grace, nearest the offices of the Chelsea Boat Company. She lived there with her semi-estranged husband and their two daughters – there was also a son, away at boarding school. He was not surprised apparently to not find himself depicted in the book. The heroine Nenna James lives with her daughters Martha and Tilda in a fictional boat also called Grace – her husband in in Stoke Newington, a far away part of London in the early sixties.

The houseboats would eventually become fashionable and sought after locations but for the author and her fictional alter ego they were quite grim. This was a time in Fitzgeralds’s life when she had very little money.

Houseboats

At low tide, the boats sat on the smelly Thames mud the and residents weren’t supposed to use the toilets. At high tide they were afloat, not always a comfortable position:

At that moment Lord Jim was disturbed from stem to stern by an unmistakeable lurch….she seemed to shake herself gently, and rose. The tide had lifted her.

Cheyne Walk - looking east, riverside 1972

On every barge on the Reach a very faint ominous tap, no louder than the door of a cupboard shutting, would be followed by louder ones from every strake, timber and weatherboard, a fusillade of thunderous creaking, and even groans that seemed human.

Cheyne Walk - looking east, riverside 1972 (2)

These two pictures taken by John Rogers in 1972 depict that sense of being cut off by water. The passing vehicles on Cheyne Walk might have little sense of the little world on the water beside them.

Cheyne Walk - looking west from Riley Street 1970 KS 1946

Fitzgerald depicts a dislocated, melancholy community on the houseboats, shrouded in fog, both literal and metaphoric, which Bignell does justice to in this picture:

Chelsea Reach in fog Bignell 94

For the two girls Martha and Tilda the foreshore at low tide is a kind of playground.

houseboats and goose 1968 jb213

Not wanting to compete with local children from Partisan Street (Dartrey Street) for  coins, medal and lugworms they go on expeditions across the bridge to the other side of the river. On one occasion they go with a handcart to scavenge the wreck of a Thames barge. They look for tiles in the mud.

Tilda lay full length on a baulk of timber…..far beyond the point at which the mud became treacherous..she stood poised on the handlebars of a sunken bicycle.

She retrieves two tiles which turn out to be by de Morgan. They take them to an antique dealer at a shop called Le Bourgeous Gentilhomme where they get three pounds, a decent sum for two young girls in 1961.

Bignell depicts some equally dangerous play on the river.

Chelsea Reach 1960s Bignell 81

Near the end of the novel the small family have a visitor, a teenage boy from Vienna called Heinrich. The girls take him to the King’s Road, up Partisan Street – a rough place..the refuge of crippled and deformed humanity – which Tilda no longer fears, past the Moravian burial ground where they tell him the urban myth about the Moravians being interred in a standing position, “so on Judgement Day they can rise straight upward.” (Not true by the way – every so often I have to deny it). The King’s Road is already like a gypsy encampment, another life compared to their impoverished life on the barge.

Nenna and her daughters eventually go to live with her sister in Canada. In the last chapter a storm hits the river and two of the other characters find their boat slipping its moorings and heading into the river, as good a way to end as any.

I haven’t found a picture of stormy weather on the river but here’s one of Bignell’s elegant views looking east.

Albert Bridge (2)

Fitzgerald turned her experience of comparative poverty into a sucessful book. In 1979 she won the Booker Prize against the odds. (There’s a fascinating account of the TV coverage in Hermione Lee’s excellent 2013 biography of Fitzgerald). So for her at least her life on the houseboats at Chelsea Reach turned out well.

I once saw the actress Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan!) disembarking from one of the houseboats in the more fashionable 1980s. That would be another story.

Battersea Bridge - looking east from Cheyne Walk 1970 KS 1926

Postscript

The photographs were by John Bignell and John Rogers, both mainstays of the blog. Thanks particularly to John Rogers for his many contributions to the Local Studies collection.


Christmas Days: snow and ice

We should really have turned to something seasonal by now. Do you remember the winter of 1963?

Campden Hill Road 1963 (snow) - Copy

I suspect it’s a case of you had to be there. This picture is from that January in Campden Hill Road, looking south down the hill and it looks cold and treacherous underfoot, but we’ve all seen snow before. I was seven years old then and I don’t remember the cold. But I do remember my mother taking me to walk on a frozen river.

The river Dee in Chester is not a particularly deep river. I’ve waded in it and (in summer) swum in it, even rowed on it. But only in that particular winter could you walk on it, and see people skating on it. So that’s why I remember the cold days of 1963.

frozendee63bw

This was further down river, in the city. We were at Dee Banks. But it gives you some idea.

I don’t think the Thames froze in Central London in 1963 although I’ve found picture of places like Windsor with people walking on the river. And while I was looking at Kensington Gardens last week I found this images of a crowd gathered on the forzen Serpentine.

Kensington Gardens skating 712.5 KEN-Jh K61-1174.

And John Bignell liked a snow scene, whether it was sliding on  Wimbledon Common:

Wimbledon Common frozen pond - Copy

Or getting more serious:
Wimbledon Common skating - Copy

Look at that bench in the background, just dropped through the ice, making the skater’s job a little harder.

If that looks too risky you could always try some serious snow balling in Tedworth Square.

Snow in Tedworth Square 1959 - Copy
That was in 1959 according to the man himself.

It hasn’t been a white Christmas although according to the forecasts, some of us might get snow tomorrow. There won’t be any in tomorrow’s post though.

I hope you all had a happy Christmas Day whether you were with family or friends or both. See you tomorrow.

Source of the Dee picture: http://www.chesterwalls.info/river3.html

 


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