Tag Archives: John Bignell

Bignell’s travels: back streets and backwaters

We’re back with some more of John Bignell’s pictures from a box he labelled “rural London”. Some of them are not all that rural as we will see but some of them fit that description exactly:

 

Wanstead Flats according to Bignell’s writing on the back, about as rural as you get, and very far from Bignell’s usual subject matter. I’m dating it at about…..

Bignell strayed an even greater distance from London on some occasions. This is from a box marked “Stansted”.

A distinctly rural view with a country lane and a modest church. On the back of the print it says Chickney so the church may be St Mary’s. The village is a few mile away from the airport in Essex.

This is from the same set, a colour picture of Thaxted, only 20 minutes or so by bus away from the same airport. Bignell may have been here as the first stirrings of protest against London’s third airport were beginning. (Or not. I confess to a lack of knowledge of airport history). The parish church at any rate has an impressive spire.

 

This grand house was in the same general area but Bignell wrote nothing on the back. Can any Essex experts help?

 

He liked the view so much he tried a black and white version.

 

The next two pictures are also way off Bignell’s usual patch  but still in London, in Leytonstone Village.

 

 

A luxuriant garden and an overgrown lane. The woman sits just inside for a better view of whatever goes by. Below,perhaps nearby a slightly more urban street in the same area. The chimney cleaner’s wife enters her house perhaps smiling at Bignell while an elegant young woman walks by.

 

I think Bignell was a city boy at heart. There are quite a few urban pictures in the box.

Some of them are related to pictures we’ve seen before like this playground in Clapham

We saw those girls here, playing balls games, while that running boy tires himself out.

The church, once you can see it clearly is Holy Trinity, Clapham Common, not as I originally thought.

Others are content to walk, as in these pictures of Ebury Mews West in the Pimlico area. This group walk or ride for work.

 

 

While this man in a suit strolls along, hands in pockets,  minding his own business.

 

I featured one of these atmospheric pictures in the post called Bignell’s world of the strange. But it’s worth looking at the whole series.

They depict an odd little enclave off a side street in Westminster, Carlton Mews, shadowed and lonely.

 

Do you dare enter?

 

 

“No thoroughfare”

 

 

“Turning prohibited.” There seems to be a way up to an elevated section, a little street above the mews area, a little dilapidated.

 

 

With a solitary figure walking by. As i noted before it would be a suitable setting for a supernatural story to begin. ” I went toa rotting mews in an old part of London where a book dealer claimed to have a copy of……”

 

Let’s not go there, it’s not Halloween.

After that gloomy spot we’re better off outside, somewhere like leafy Dulwich.

Behind a wall a pleasant old house basking in sunlight.

Postscript

Like those pictures of Wimbledon, this week’s pictures simply show Bignell on the move, capturing moments in little corners of London. It’s something we all try to do from time to time, with mixed results, especially in these digital days when you can just point and shoot. Bignell needed to do most of the composition before he took the picture, so he got it right more often than an amateur would. But photography is a democratic art form and we all score a few goals by pressing the button at the right moment. Controlling the moment is the thing.

Postscript to the postscript

I’ve had more information on the Leytonstone Village pictures identifying the pub as the North Star, still a going concern. Further information on the area in this conservation area document:

https://branding.walthamforest.gov.uk/Documents/conservation-area-browning-road.pdf

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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”.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And then there are the drain pipes.

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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…

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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..

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…and large.

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Three underground chambers used for parking.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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