Tag Archives: John Bignell

The Chelsea Murders: fiction in Kensington and Chelsea 2

Lionel Davidson was a famous writer in his day, although not much mentioned these days. Many of his books are still in print though. He was big in the 60s. He wrote what you might call international thrillers -The Night of Wenceslas (1960) set in cold war Czechoslovakia, The Rose of Tibet (1962) set in India and Tibet and A long way to Shiloh (1966) set in Israel and Jordan. They were all bestsellers. The paperbacks were published by Penguin which made them look serious, like Len Deighton novels. (People sometimes forget now how innovative and influential Deighton was with books such as the Ipcress File and Billion Dollar Brain). Davidson himself is a literary ancestor of the modern authors of spy novels and techo-thrillers.

Chelsea Murders 01 - Copy (2)

The covers of his books from the 60s and 70s tell their own story:

LionelDavidson covers

In the centre a classic Penguin crime cover – green for crime. On the left a later Penguin edition typical of the early 70s – the arty but somewhat gratuitous notion of a map projected on a naked body was used on a series of Davidson novels. On the right the semi-surreal hardback cover for the Sun Chemist also typical of books from Jonathan Cape

In 1978 Cape published another Davidson crime thriller (with a tasteful cover ) in another exotic setting – The Chelsea Murders.

Chelsea Murders 01 - Copy - Copy

The novel begins with a lone woman who is surprised by a grotesquely masked man and killed. But she is not the first victim.

Unknown woman from JB2 02

Previously another woman was murdered in Jubilee Place, and a man in Bywater Street.

Jubilee Place 17817 23

The police begin to wonder if  a maniac is killing people in Chelsea.

I have read that Davidson never visited Chelsea before writing the book and employed researchers to get the local colour. He lived in Israel by this time so his own knowledge of London may be a little out of date – for example there’s no mention in the book of the punk scene which would have been well established by 1978.

There are some scenes set in Chelsea Library. In the book it’s the reference library at the old Chelsea Library in Manresa Road (well before my time although I have been in the old reference libary with its dark curving shelves and balcony). Here it is in a picture from the 50s 0r early 60s:

Manresa Road- ref - Copy

Several characters visit the library where Brenda the library assistant supplies information about famous local residents to a police detective. Mason notices her shelving – “Very nice bird,(he) thought. Victorian looking, yellow hair, parted in the middle; something a bit classical happened to it at the back.” Artie Johnson who will become one of the suspects notices Brenda in the first few pages of the and notes that she had “the look of a Pre-Raphaelite chick.”

Unfortunately for the police Brenda also tells Mary Mooney, an ambitious young reporter following the case (and are there any other kinds of journalists in thrillers?), and some of the suspects. One of those two women ends up in the killer’s sights but I won’t give away which one.

The exterior of the 1890s building, which you can still see today in Manresa Road:

Library exterior - Copy

When ITV did an adaptation of the book, those scenes were filmed in the new Chelsea Library at Chelsea Old Town Hall. I was already working for the Libraries then, and several years later I was reference librarian there, so whatever Davidson’s personal experience of Chelsea was, I feel like this is a book set more or less  in my own habitat.

There are some characters familiar from the 60s and 70s:

Filming under Battersea Bridge 1970 jb63b - Copy

A group of former art students who are making a film. Two of them and their mentor, a sleazy academic become the main suspects in the series of murders in which it seems that the killer is choosing his victims by their initials which match the names of some of those famous residents.

Rossetti VAW

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (hence the painting on the cover of the book) is the first of the series which also features James McNeill Whistler, Algernon Swinburne, Leigh Hunt, AA Milne, W S Gilbert and even Oscar Wilde.

DGR was a woman murdered and dumped in the river. Ogden Wu, the owner of a slightly seedy shop selling denim in all its forms like in this market off the King’s Road is one of the later victims:

Chelsea Village Market 1970 - Copy

One of the desperate film makers works for Wu and finds himself even more deeply embroiled in the investigation after his boss’s death.

The police fixate on the suspects fairly early on. They trail them around, create a card index for the case (no mention of a computer in the book), even consult a reference book at the library to trace the provenance of a poem.

As you might expect they spend some time in one of the famous Chelsea pubs of thr era.

Chelsea Potter

Some of the language in the book has dated in a way which modern readers might find distasteful. The character Artie Johnson, the producer of the film is described (by a tabloid journalist ) as “a spade..a real one, all black” and Mooney thinks of him as “a long black cat, his golliwog smile in place under his beehive” (afro, presumably). That’s a phrase you couldn’t use (and wouldn’t want to) these days, but in 1978 casual racism was still prevalent in life as well as literature. The author was not of course necessarily endorsing the attitudes of his characters. Thrillers from previous eras exhibit many archaic attutudes whether it’s the off putting right wing opinions of Dennis Wheatley or the less offensive 1930s mannerisms of Michael Innes. The modern reader has to tread carefully when reading and the modern blogger when recommending books.

In fact I’m not sure whether I’d actually recommend the Chelsea Murders to anyone who wasn’t interested in the Chelsea setting. The local colour is the thing. It’s not quite the 1978 I remember, but then Chelsea in those days probably still contained pockets of previous eras.

Also, the serial killer genre has moved on since 1978 for better or worse. Davidson’s book is also a traditional whodunnit and the two genres don’t work very well together. The motivation of the killer is rather perfunctory and  you get the impression that he is simply play acting.

Although, like the Chelsea Murders, that can sometimes be effective:

Satan triumphant 1958 - Copy

And there is a decent twist at the end.


The last picture is unmistakeably one of John Bignell’s arty but playful images, called Satan triumphant (1958). As with many of his pictures there’s no hint as to why it was taken. Some of the other pictures in this post are also by Bignell.

I’ve been tinkering with this post for weeks and reading the book in installments (I hate being obliged to read a book even when it was my own idea) so I’m glad to finally put it to bed. I hope it was worth the effort.

Bignell’s people

This week we’re back with the skilled eye of John Bignell and if there is a theme to this collection it’s “ordinary” people going about their lives barely realising that a photographer can take a moment of that daily life and turn it into something permanent.

World's End c1958 jb46

A group of men standing outside a pub  in 1958 waiting for it to open, bantering with each other. A regular activity that by time, memory and the photographer’s art becomes emblematic of all the men who have ever waited outside a pub.

Peter Jones  JB3 vmbp0125

A pair of women look  into a  window at the Peter Jones store on a quiet morning.

Demolition in Manresa-Kings Road c1955 JB296

A lone man hacks away at a wall. Dangerous work, perched on top of a crumbling building that you yourself are making more hazardous to stand on. Did Bignell see the poster for the 1958 film The Last Days of Pompeii? A classical case of destruction echoing the destruction of a building in Manresa Road? The star of the film was former bodybuilder Steve Reeves, the hero of many sword and sandal epics. Reeves played Hercules on several occasions. Is it stretching a point to say that the man above the poster is engaged in a Herculean labour? Probably. You can find lots of fascinating and possibly unintentional details in photographs just like when you walk down a familiar street and notice some telling detail in a building or a shopfront.

Magrie's forge Dovehouse Street c1951 jb122

In Magrie’s forge in 1951 a moment of high concentration

Man on bench in Dovehouse Street jb45

Not far away on Dovehouse Street a man resting on a bench looking for all the world like he’s using a mobile phone. Except that it’s  still the 1950s. One of those poses we always had ready for when the relevant technology emerged. As if I had been blogging in 1966. Speaking of the sixties:

Royal Avenue opposite Crapper's 1960s jb89

Royal Avenue: a trio consult a map or a guide book, a couple of genuine hippies, a woman surprised or a bit shocked at something she sees. But not at that dog behind her and what he’s doing. There used to be a sign forbidding “illegal dog fouling” in Royal Avenue. It’s one of those phrases that fascinates me because it can be read a number of different ways, like “hot bread shop” or “building alarmed”. Perhaps it’s me.

King's Road jb29

I’m not entirely sure where this street market was. My first thought was that it was opposite Royal Avenue. Before they built the mini shopping mall there was an open area like this with a Sainsburys and a Boots (and a shoe shop?). The mall was built in the late 80s or early 90s with a big Virgin shop at its heart, But I wonder about the building behind it, a residential block not really visible on this picture. Any suggestions?

Couple JB4

Back on the King’s Road, a cool looking girl and a man with big ears.

King's Road c1961 jb62

A collector for the British Red Cross meets up with one of those end of the world guys you used to see on London streets. I’m not sure what the earnest young man (who looks like a young version of Michael Gove) is saying. Is it an impromptu theological discussion, or is he resolving a dispute? We may never know.

King's RoadWellington Square jb24

Not far away geographically but in the previous decade a couple pose for the camera in Wellington Square.

Below, a picture Bignell has set up:

St Pancras rail strike day

A pensive child in a near deserted St Pancras Station. Bignell’s writing on the back of the print says “rail strike day”, which explains the quietness of the scene. The girl is cooperatively looking away from the camera, probably at one of her parents. Perhaps the photograph was a welcome distraction from the tedium of waiting for a train that might not come.

Victor Sylvester's - girls dancing

This picture of a Victor Sylvester dance class is not exactly set up but it’s a pleasing image of the girls having to dance with each other because you could never get the boys to go to these things.

The all girl sporting picture below is more unexpected:

Cricket at Duke of York's jb75

Cricket practice outside the Duke of York’s Headquarters.

Nearby, at the Royal Hospital:

Oak Apple Day Royal Hospital jb98

Oak Apple Day, according to Bignell’s note. A very effective picture – the two Pensioners standing at ease echoing the line of bandsmen. The conductor in the background provides the only sense of movement.

Finally, another puzzle.

Unknown shop front with bus reflection

Who are these four sixties people? Where was that shop? The bus, I’m told, doesn’t look much like a London bus. Again I’m happy to hear any ideas about people or location.


Hardly anything to add this week. Bignell’s book Chelsea Photographer can still be found from second hand dealers although prices vary considerably.


Bignell at the pub

Last week’s pictures took us back to a time when there were still dozen of pubs in Chelsea. It’s true that they were changing in the early 1970s. The Lord Nelson in the King’s Road changed its name to the Trafalgar and became a “pub-discotheque” with a fairground theme. (The opening ceremony in 1970 featured the then up and coming British film star Julie Ege and George Lazenby pulling the first pint)The nearby Six Bells (featured in this post) also underwent a transformation which might not be to modern tastes. But at least these pubs were still there. Those two pubs are two of the survivors.

Here’s the Six Bells in its 70s guise as the Bird’s Nest (zoom in on the name):

Six Bells

But this week’s post is not about the 1970s. The heyday of Chelsea pub life was in the 1950s and 1960s, and John Bignell can take us back there.

pub scene 1564

It’s a world of men wearing suits where all the cool kids (and everyone else) smoked.

When pubs were popular:

Kings Head and Eight Bells 1950 1840A

The food was minimal.

pub interior_jb_313

But the staff were friendly:

Freda - barmaid at the Potter jb92

[Freda, barmaid at the Chelsea Potter]

The conversation was good:

The Commercial later Chelsea potter 1955 jb207

[Also the Potter, in 1955 when it was still called the Commercial]

Young and old all went to the same establishments:

Chelsea pub interior 2562

[As is often the case with 1950s fashion, this couple could walk around today without attracting much commentbut you seldom see women with fur stoles over their shoulders]

And there were characters:

Stratford Johns_jb_344

[Stratford Johns, television actor, star of crime dramas Z-cars and Softly, Softly]

Landlady of Lord Nelson fac_rbkc_jb_95

[The landlady of the Lord Nelson before its transformation]

Gina Warr proprieter of the Gateways Club jb54

Gina Warr, not strictly speaking a pub landlady but the manager/co-owner of the Gateways Club in Bramerton Street, the legendary lesbian club. She was definitely a character.

Not to mention Bignell himself of course:

JB at the Six Bells jb205 (2)

He’s at the Six Bells, one of his favourite haunts, where he could pull a pint, or just get back to what he did best:

Six Bells garden 1954

An unusual view of the Six Bells garden, with some affluent looking Chelsea residents sitting in the sun.

My favourite of Bignell’s pub interiors though is this one:

Chelsea pub interior 2433

I’m not sure where it is – all there is on the back of the print is “Chelsea pub interior”, but it catches something not only about the period – the intense young man in the suit juggling with half empty glasses and the woman in dark glasses listening to the man next to her  – but also about pub life in general, the moments of quietness in the midst of a crowd of convivial drinkers.

This era was ending of course but there was something else starting.

Chelsea Potter 1960s

Back at the Chelsea Potter the 50s was giving way to the 60s. That’s another story of course.


I was preoccupied with medical matters again this week, so my apologies if this post looks like it was put together quickly from a vague idea I had at the back of my mind – it was. Regular readers will spot a couple of pictures I’ve used before, but they did fit the theme. Thanks to all the people who liked last week’s post (lots of you). I’ll be getting around to part 2 as soon as I can.

The picture of the Bird’s Nest is by John Rogers. All the others are by John Bignell.

Portrait of the artist as a young dude

I found the picture below in one of those protective sleeves we use for storing photographs and immediately thought I could use it on the blog. There was a contact sheet of pictures from the same photo shoot which were sufficiently large to scan and use as well.Annigoni at Chelsea Reach

It isn’t often I can make a post around a single image but this is one of those pictures. It has the slightly misty background of the river bed, the barges which look like abandoned warships, the mud, the metal detritus in the foreground on which sits the young artist sketching (or pretending to be sketching)  and looking very fifties-Italian in his sharp shoes and coat, a bit like a character in La Dolce Vita or one of those moody art films. Or maybe a little later in the sixties – early Mad Men perhaps.

I can’t claim to know what Bignell was thinking here. I imagine that this was a commission – follow the up and coming artist around and take some atmospheric pictures for a magazine feature. Copy (8) of Contact sheet

Looking east you see the proper houseboats, and the embankment wall, and that the artist wasn’t just pretending to sketch.

Copy (10) of Contact sheet

The background is almost disappearing into the mist and looks a little like the background a photographer would have seen a hundred years before.

Copy (3) of Contact sheet

This is a good shot of the shoes. A shoe historian could probably date the pictures from them. You can imagine the session proceeeding as Bignell tries different angles.

Copy (5) of Contact sheet

Take your coat off, you don’t want to get it muddy.

This was a favourite spot for Bignell, not too far from his studio. He loved pictures of the river especially on the transient zone of the foreshore.

Copy (12) of Contact sheet

Look at me now. Is that a better one, I hear him asking himself.

Copy (9) of Contact sheet

A bit of pose striking here, using the barge as a dramatic place to sit looking visionary. Is it my imagination or does he look a bit cold? Time to go indoors.

We’re back inside now in the artist’s makeshift studio.

Copy (2) of Contact sheet

Empty bottles, sketches on the floor, a telescope, the same misty scene outside  and the reflection in the mirror caught nicely by Bignell.

Copy of Contact sheet

Now just look out of the window. You could probably sequence these pictures the other way round and tell a story with the artist seeing the mist on the river and going out to make a sketch on the foreshore. So that’s the post nearly wrapped up.

Now, here’s the thing. On the back on the first photo is written “Annigonni?” And in the packet were some other pictures of an older man also labelled Annigonni in Bignell’s handwriting.

Here’s one of them. Annigonni is in Douglas Anderson’s studio in Glebe Place, cigarette in hand.

Annigoni in Douglas Andreson's studio Glebe Place 1965 or 1961

So I took it for granted that the pictures on the foreshore were of the young Annigonni. Bignell had evidently known Annigoni quite well and had many pictures and negatives of him.

My knowledge of Pietro Annigoni at that point was simply that he was an Italian artist who was well known for painting portraits, the most famous of which was his 1956 romantic painting of the young Queen Elizabeth wrapped in a dark cloak with a royal insignia on it.

There’s always a bit of fact checking to do when writing a blog. Due diligence you might say. And the more I found out about the life of Annigonni the more I began to wonder about that first photo. The pencilled “Annigonni?” on the back was looking more and more tentative.

According to Annigonni’s autobiography he didn’t come to London till he was 40, in 1950. Is the man in the picture that age, or up to ten years older? Probably not. And the self-portrait of Annigonni done in 1954 doesn’t look much like our artist on the foreshore.

Look again at Annigonni in a picture from the 1960s. Bignell has captured him looking thoughful and shrewd.Annigoni trafalgar studios, manresa stamp

But is this also him?

Copy (6) of Contact sheet

I’m inclined to think not.  Something about the hairline, and the eyes. I showed the pictures around the library and the verdict was unanimous. So the sharp looking young artist has to be reclassified as unknown. He’s in good company. There is a whole box labelled Bignell – Unidentified People downstairs in the archives room (on Bay X appropriately).

I still like the photos enough to write a post about them. Sometimes pictures speak for themselves. Sometimes you’d like them to say a little bit more.


I am of course open to suggestions as to the identity of the unknown artist. Or do you think it is Annigonni? This post was just about written when I began to have doubts and I didn’t want to waste it as next week’s isn’t written yet and I seem to be on a bit of a roll with posts about artists. It seems odd that I now have no idea who the young artist was but that is one of the traps of photography. Because a photographic  image is as near to permanent as we can make it we imagine it’s all we need. And the photographer thinks he won’t ever forget the identity of the person in the picture. But these crucial pieces of information do slip away like the people in an old family album who nobody recognizes now.

Postscript to the postscript- April 2015

We’re now sure that the young dude is Regis de Bouvier de Cachard. (See comments) Reader Bob King has sent this scan of one of his Chelsea pictures:

De Cachard's The Flower Barrow - Copy

The kids are alright – playing out in Chelsea

Everyone’s childhood should be a golden age of wonder and exploration. But as adults we often seem to think that our own young days were the truly magical times and that the current crop of kids aren’t having as good a time as we did. You often hear it said that today’s children lead circumscribed lives either in their bedrooms in front of a screen or being ferried from one organised activity to another. Perhaps it’s nostalgia but I do remember long afternoons going off with friends across fields, or along the canal, sometimes ending up in places my parents wouldn’t have liked. I was reminded of those days a few weeks ago when I included this John Bignell picture in a post.

002 Bignell Chelsea Reach 1965

A couple of boys in a precarious position on a half sunken wrecked barge at high tide with the river waters rising around them. Wouldn’t you have wanted to be with them? The Thames riverbed would have been a magnet for adventurous kids. This picture was taken nearly ten years before but the fun was much the same.

Chelsea Bridge - Battersea Bridge c1956 jb197 (2)

My childhood was largely spent in rural places, but post-war London, still full of bomb sites and damaged buildings had plenty of empty urban spaces ripe for exploration.

Boys playing at the back of Wentworth Studios (2)

A trio of boys playing at the back of Wentworth Studios in Manresa Road. Are they constructing a den underneath a fallen tree? Even quite young looking children got in on the act.

Children playing on Dovehouse Green demolition site 2398 jb_69

These kids from the 1950s and early 60s look exactly like you imagine they did in those Children’s Film Foundation films that were made for the Saturday morning pictures. Each one a future Dennis Waterman.

Children playing on Dovehouse Green demolition site 1950 jb_96

This group posed for Bignell during demolition at Dovehouse Green.

If a demolition site wasn’t available you could still find plenty to do in the street in those days when traffic was lighter, playing football.

world's end c1956 jb82

Or just hanging around.

world's end 1960s jb201

A couple of teenagers in the background anticipating future pleasures with grown-up toys.

Some of the grown up toys got discarded like this abandoned car.

car sabateurs c1960 jb50

Or these unattended roadworks.

balletic pause jb212

This picture looks a little later than the other and the kids a little more middle class. Don’t imagine playing in the street was an activity confined to Chelsea’s mean streets as this classic Bignell view of Tite Street shows.

baseball in tite street 1955 jb79

You’ve mostly seen gangs of boys so far. But the girsl knew how to have fun too. This group have crashed a jumble sale.

jumble sale 43a

Note the Tip Top Annual held by one girl. This group were actively taking the mickey out of adult life.

Jumble sale a2

Of course everyone grows up and starts to rehearse for adult life. The fun goes indoors.

Victor Sylvester's - girls dancing

The girls are usually in the lead when it comes to dancing. But the boys get there in the end.

Youth Club World's End JB135a


The photographs are by John Bignell of course. Like all great photographers part of his talent is the ability to be in the right place at the right time to catch those moments. Not to mention the ability to make people want to have their picture taken. This process used to be a lot easier than it is today when a random image can make its way round the world before the photographer even gets home and people are wary of a camera being pointed at them. I’m not complaining about the ease of digital photography. But the old processes of developing and printing film gave photographers like Bignell the time to think about their work and select the best.

Bignell didn’t always date his pictures so I can’t give you dates on most of these, but they span a period from about 1955 to 1965, a good  time to be young in Chelsea.1965 was the year the first album by the Who was released, including the song The Kids are alright. If anyone reading this recognizes themselves or someone they know please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.

100th post: Bignell meets Hedderly

100 is a special number so it deserves a special post.  I can’t actually arrange a time travelling meeting between the two Chelsea photographers John Bignell and James Hedderly but I can bring them together in another way.

John Bignell was not only a photographer but a student of photographic history. He wrote a visual history of Chelsea, “Chelsea seen from its earliest days” (1987). And he owned a collection of Hedderly photographs. On one occasion as you’ll see he recreated a Hedderly picture. But as a Chelsea photographer he literally went over the same ground as Hedderly and you can see echoes of his predessessor , conscious or unconscious, in his work.

Here’s an example. In the picture below Hedderly is looking east along Cheyne Walk in the pre-embankment days. The road is roughly paved and narrow. The wooden fence on the right marks the river’s  bank. On the left you can just see the edge of the King’s Head and Eight Bells public house. The image has faded over the years so the white misty background beyond the trees may be deceptive. It will have gotten more mysterious as the print has aged so we may have lost some detail but you can get the quiet atmosphere of riverside Chelsea in the 1860s.

001 Hedderly - H36 Cheyne Walk by King's Head

Nearly a century or so later in 1950 Bignell took this picture.

001 Bignell - Kings Head and Six Bells 1950 1840A

The foliage is lusher, there’s a garden on the right beyond which is a very much wider Cheyne Walk. The buildings in the background have changed with the exception of that one with the ornamental porch. The lampost looks very similar too although it may have been replaced with one which looked the same. You see a little more of the pub. And of course there is a small crowd of pub-goers who have spilled out of the bar onto the street. The men look about as casual as Chelsea  men got in 1950, the women slightly more so. In contrast to the 1860s picture only a couple of them are paying the slightest attention to the photographer. I wonder if the man in the double-breasted jacket is bringing a drink for Bignell.

The two pictures fit together remarkably well. This is not so obvious in the next pair.

003 Hedderly St Lukes

This is one of Hedderly’s rare north of the King’s Road pictures, possibly a commission. It shows the “new church” St Luke’s in Sydney Street. The church would have been thirty or so years old in this picture. The churchyard to the left looks well populated.  But the church, surrounded by trees, is still in a suburban setting.

The view by Bignell shows the urban setting of the late 1950s.

003 Bignell - St Luke's Church JB5 box

The trees are still there but London has caught up with the church and surrounded it. In the background you can see one of the domes of South Kensington. In the foreground however is another building Heddderly would have seen at some point in his life, the Chelsea Workhouse. It wasn’t a workhouse in Bignell’s day but you can see the forbidding nature of the place.

Both photographers were fond of riverside views.

002 Hedderly - H01 boats - bridge in background

I’ve featured Hedderly’s pictures of Chelsea Reach and the area by the Greaves boatyard in another post. This is an image I’ve never used before. You can tell the direction of the picture from the just visible view  of old Battersea Bridge in the distance.

002 Bignell Chelsea Reach 1965

Bignell’s 1965 view shows the current Battersea Bridge being crossed by four buses. The suspension towers of Albert Bridge can also be seen, with Battersea Power station in the distance, a couple of the chimneys visibly smoking.  The crucial difference in the hundred years between the pictures is the use being made of Chelsea Reach. The sailing barges are gone, replaced by houseboats, and the men at work have been supplanted by a pair of daredevils playing around on a nearly sunken barge at high tide. It probably looks more dangerous than it was. Bignell is certainly standing by quietly with his camera, apparently unconcerned. But their mothers wouldn’t have been too happy.

This image is one of Hedderly’s best photographs:

004 Hedderly CM1003 Trees of Cremorne

This is a view taken from the tower of Chelsea Old Church. It shows the tangle of closely-packed houses and wharves between Cheyne Walk and Beaufort Street before the embankment. Beyond are the larger house of Lindsey Row and the trees of Cremorne Gardens. Bignell owned a print of this picture and made an enlargement of it. I was examining it this morning imagining myself walking along Lombard Street towards Johnson’s Coal Office and then into Duke Street past the Adam and Eve Tavern. You could cross Beaufort Street and walk along the riverside to the wharf at Cremorne where the boats brought pleasure seekers to the Gardens all the way from London. Is one of those buildings visible in the distance Ashburnham House?

Bignell was so fascinated by this picture that in 1978 he too climbed the tower of Chelsea Old Church (though not of course the same tower, but a meticulously restored copy of the one Hedderly climbed) and took his own picture.

004 Bignell - Chelsea Riverside JB335

From this vantage point Bignell saw the sunken garden named after Sir Thomas More’s daughter Margaret Roper, the four lanes of Cheyne Walk which now pass right through where the old houses and taverns stood, and part of the old river too. He saw Crosby Hall, transplanted from the City in the1920s and where the pleasure gardens were, the towers of the World’s End Estate. You could barely make out the industrial landscape beyond the gardens in the 1860s picture, just a few chimneys. In 1978 Lots Road Power Station was still generating power and still had two of its chimneys.

Hedderly took a companion picture from the Church which he joined to the first to make a panoramic view. This is  part of it:

005 Hedderly Old Battersea Bridge

Almost the whole length of the old bridge, and the industrial zone on the Battersea side of the river.  Bignell didn’t try to get the whole view in again but his second shot takes in more of the bridge and the area west of the Power Station. Lots Road’s younger cousin Fulham Power Station with its four in line chimneys is on the left of the picture.005 Bignell - Chelsea Reach late 60s jb334

Bignell had a great reverence for Hedderly’s work and must have felt a connection between them. It’s unlikely that James Hedderly ever imagined the possiblity of that link or realised the great attention which would be paid to his work in the future. What would he have said or thought if he could have seen Bignell’s work and glimpsed some of the sights he would see and the technical possiblities that were to come?

Bignell - Albert Bridge at night 1951

[Night view of Albert Bridge 1951]


The 100th post on the Library Time Machine, a point I must have thought was possible when I started but I couldn’t have imagined how I would get here. The answer of course is just find some pictures every week and write something about them. Sometimes the ideas run three or four posts ahead, sometimes they stretch no further than next week (or less on a few occasions).

The other thing I imagined was that I would run out of ideas. It’s true that a lot of the big topics have been covered but only a few of them have been done so thoroughly that I could never go back there again. So we might visit Cremorne Gardens again one of these days or take another look at Marianne Rush or William Burgess. There are even a few unseen Linley Sambourne pictures knocking about on the hard drive. And judging by the continuing popularity of the Duchess of Devonshire’s Costume Ball we’ll almost certainly be going there again . I’ve probably done all I could on Walmer Road and Hurstway Street but there are plenty of other streets to walk down in the past and the present. One or two artists you haven’t seen yet. And yet more forgotten buildings and secret places. So all other things being equal it is just about possible that we might get as far as 200 posts in another eighteen months.

The conclusion is that there really is no end to history even in a small (but significant) part of one city, in one country, on one world.

Bignell and the Goddess

temple 01


“All saints revile her and all noble men

Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean

In scorn of which we sailed to find her

In distant regions likeliest to hold

Her whom we desired above all things to know

Sister of the mirage and the echo


aphrodite 06 (2)


It was a virtue not to stay,

To go our headstrong and heroic way

Seeking her out at the volcano’s head

Among pack ice, or where the track had faded

Beyond the cavern of the seven sleepers:

Whose broad high brow was white as any leper’s,

Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips,

Whose hair curled honey coloured to white hips.


Aphrodite 01

Green sap of spring in the young wood astir

Will celebrate with green the Mother,

And every song-bird shout awhile for her:


Aphrodite 02


But we are gifted, even in November,

Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense

Of her nakedly worn magnificence

We forget cruelty and past betrayal

Careless of where the next  bright bolt may fall.”


aphrodite 07 (2)


I read the White Goddess: a historical grammar of poetic myth by Robert Graves from which this poem comes sometime in the 1970s after a couple of false starts. It seemed at the time to be a very difficult book to understand. It was one of those books you sometimes read, especially when you’re young which give you the feeling of a revelation about to occur. (The revelation itself may be real or imaginary – other examples for me have been been the Carlos Castaneda books and Philip K Dick’s Valis. You’re only young once.)

It’s connected in my mind with books on the occult I read in the same period – Richard Cavendish’s the Black Arts and Colin Wilson’s the Occult. The weekly encyclopedia of the occult Man, Myth and Magic also comes into it, with it’s iconic cover image of an elemental by Austin Osman Spare. Into that mix you can add films like Jason and the Argonauts and the 1981 Clash of the Titans. (Although neither were directed by the stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen you think of them as his films.) These days I would add that strange film Incense for the Damned based on the novel Doctors wear scarlet by Simon Raven which was made in 1970 but which I only saw a few years ago.


Aphrodite 05


Graves’s idiosyncratic exploration of the mythology of the Goddess came to mind when I saw these pictures taken by John Bignell around 1984. As with many Bignell projects the reason for the existence of these pictures of a modern woman dressed as an ancient goddess was not immediately clear, to me at any rate. The box of negatives is labelled simply Aphrodisias. This was the location. Aprodisias is an ancient Greek city in southern Turkey.




The Stadium, one of the best preserved of its kind. In this picture the site has yet to be cleaned up and looks rather more wild and overgrown than it does today.

The city had a marble quarry nearby and hence a large number of statues and inscribed stones.


temple 03 (2)


I went through all the prints from this session until I finally found a handwritten note by Bignell on on the back of one of them. This revealed the name of the model and possibly why Bignell went to Turkey in 1984 to take what he calls “the Aphrodite series” .  I don’t think I should reveal this information in a blog post so for the moment I shall protect the human identity of the Goddess.

Bignell preferred to take photographs in black and white so these colour images are as unusual as the setting.  But  they have the right atmosphere of heat and blinding light and the exotic figure of a woman pretending (perhaps) to be a goddess.


Aphrodite 03a - Copy


aphrodite 08

Is this the same picture? Look again, at the mouth of the goddess slightly open in this version of the image.


Aphrodite 03 - Copy

And look a third time, this time at her feet.


Aphrodite 03b foot

The toes of the Goddess can be seen peeping out from under her robes.

Aphrodisias is about 60 miles from the coast so I’m not sure whether this picture was taken on the same day but it comes from the same box and has the feel of a lazy end to the day’s work.


sea at dusk


The sun sets on one of those timeless landscapes. The Goddess has packed up her robes and returned to the home of the Gods. Bignell brings some of the magic back to London.


Bignell’s world: the photographer at work

 I was going to do another post in my Interiors series this week. There were a couple of other ideas bubbling under as well but Tuesday rolled round and none of those ideas were quite ready so I turned to our old friend John Bignell. I looked for a selection of photographs that would show some of the range of his work. Bignell photographed the famous and the obscure, the artistic and the ordinary. As a jobbing photographer he worked to order but he also worked for himself.

 He did fashion shoots like this one:


A model (unknown to me but I’m open to suggestions) in a Chelsea street.

Then there were catalogue jobs.

catalogue shoot 02

I think this was part of a tryout rather than the finished work but Bignell thought the series was worth keeping.

He was also out covering feature stories like this one at Battersea Park Fun Fair:

Battersea Park fun fair2

That’s the Caterpillar they’re getting out of according to my wife who rode on it in its final days.

Here’s another feature, where he followed his friend Paul Raymond to Clacton. The Raymond showgirls pose for some publicity pictures.

Raymond girls at Clacton 27

When he was bored with the glamorous jobs he sought out more authentic subject matter.

Woman in Dovehouse Green fac_rbkc_jb_80p

A woman feeding birds in Dovehouse Green – behind her is the Miller monument which is still there in the centre of the green which was landscaped in 1978.

Chelsea Library Manresa Road

A boy demonstrating the power of reading outside the first Chelsea Library in Manresa Road. Bignell may have set this picture up but it still looks spontaneous.

This one is somewhere in Chelsea too I think.

Fish shop - Coley jb1

Is the girl shocked at the price of coley, or worried that she might have to eat it? (Some people used to think that coley is just for cats.)

Sometimes Bignell concentrated on landscape:

St mary's Church Battersea from Lots Road JB5 box

St Mary’s Church, Battersea reflected perfectly in the shallow water at low tide.

This pair of images contrasts night and day:

Kings Rd from P Jones at night JB3 box

Kings Rd from P Jones JB3 box

Looking down the King’s Road from the roof of Peter Jones department store. (Bignell had a bit of a knack for getting to the top of buildings with a good view.)

And then there was just hanging out with the bohemian crowd, as in this party at David Rawnsley’s Pottery in 1960.

Party at David Rawnsley's Chelsea Pottery c1960 jb 210

Lucette de Fongere jb329

This lady is Lucette de Fougere, about whom I also know nothing apart from her name. As with all the Bignell posts I would appreciate any further information.

This is another carefully posed picture:

Regin de Cerchard and wife 1955 jb39

It features  Regis de Cerchard and his wife who is pretending to examine a painting of Chelsea Reach and Lot’s Road Power Station. Bignell had many friends  among the art and antique dealers of Chelsea. That was 1955.  Fifteen years later he had other artistic friends.

Filming under Battersea Bridge 1970 jb63c

Once again all I can tell you is the caption: filming under Battersea Bridge.

My final picture this week is one of my favourites, taken in Woolworth’s in Victoria in 1959.

Woolworth's Victoria 1959

I think this is one picture which wasn’t staged. As he so often did Bignell had the photographer’s instinct to take the picture at exactly the right moment.

JB at the jazz club

John Bignell was sometimes a little unhelpful to posterity when it came to identifying pictures. You might get a penciled note on the back of a print or a short phrase on a batch of negatives. Sometimes you have to ask someone if you can find someone to ask or just make an educated guess. I started this post with a handful of photos of people dancing to a jazz band and they looked like they were having a good time.Dancing at the Six bells 03 - Copy

The room doesn’t look like a club, more like a gallery or some curtained off room in a municipal building but by comparing details of the ceiling and wallpaper with a picture that was labelled I came to the conclusion that all the photos were taken in the same place – an upstairs room at the Six Bells pub in the King’s Road.


The trees visible through the window are still there. The Six Bells still exists too as part of the Henry J Beans chain of bars but there’s no jazz upstairs these days. These pictures were taken about 1959. Jazz was still popular then, more popular than rock’n’roll in some circles. Across the road there were plenty of students at Chelsea College and Chelsea School of Art all eager to drink and dance. As I’ve said before (see the Art School Dance ) the 50s was the decade when people started to have serious fun again after years of wartime danger and post-war austerity. The students and others in these pictures had grown up in “interesting” times and they were ready to party. An even bigger party was waiting for them in the next decade but they didn’t know that yet.

Dancing at the Six Bells 01

They were still conventionally dressed but starting to loosen up. Look at the women in the centre of the picture with her head thrown back. Or this group:


The band is the Mike Martin Band. They’re in a formal pose in the picture by the window but in the others they’re looking far more abandoned and have been joined by their vocalist Pat Adams who can be seen better in the picture below with his back to the audience.

RBKC-521 - Copy

The band played a form of jazz called mainstream which lay somewhere between the New Orleans style trad jazz and the newer styles.

Six Bells jazzRBKC-525 - Copy

The club at the Six Bells was run for several years by musician and cartoonist Wally Fawkes. As well as being a musical associate of George Chisholm and George Melly, Fawkes is also known as the creator of the cartoon strip Flook.


Flook, a talking animal whose exact nature I was never able to fathom had a series of satirical adventures scripted by Melly, Barry Took, Humphrey Lyttelton and others which was featured in the Daily Mail when it was still a broadsheet.

Six Bells

There are some later photos from 1966 or 1967 featuring Henry “Red” Allen, a famous American trumpet player.

Red Allen 1908-1967 with Alex Welsh Band 1960s

As was often the practice he is playing with a “local” group, the Alex Welsh Band.

Red Allen 04

You can see from the background that some effort had been made to alter the decor of the room. Did Fawkes create the illustrations himself?

Sadly, Red Allen died soon after his British tour in 1967. The club itself didn’t last much longer despite the nights devoted to blues and other more popular forms of music. But it had a good run. You can find some memories of the club at: http://www.sandybrownjazz.co.uk/forumsixbells.html

And we can also remember through John Bignell’s photographs the nights of music and dancing in an upstairs room at a Chelsea pub.

RBKC-524 - Copy

Is that the woman we saw dancing on the left of the first picture, with Pat Adams taking a breather in the background underneath a strange looking painting? Once again Bignell demonstrates his talent for picking a good moment.


I scanned most of the pictures myself, some from negatives. A couple of the others I had to convert from TIFFs which adds to the slightly grainy or overexposed look to some of the images. Also Bignell was working in a dimly lit smoke filled room. But I like them anyway.

I found the picture of Flook online but I can’t remember where. Sorry to the owner.

Postscript to the postscript

As well as writing this blog I also do a few pieces for the K&C Libraries blog. Here’s my latest one: http://rbkclibraries.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/empty-spaces-part-2-the-writing-on-the-floor/

They let me do my own photography.

John Bignell and the celebrities: fame in the sixties

Some of you may not have heard of John Bignell. I googled his name when I was preparing to write this and you don’t find much – lots of results about his book Chelsea Photographer and the inevitable reference to the picture he took of Claudie Delbarre a few days before she was murdered. (See the King’s Road Blues post if you want see the picture) But there’s very much more to John Bignell. He did street photography, news, fashion, art even a bit of glamour. He documented bohemian life in Chelsea from the 50s to the 80s. And like many London photographers in the 60s he snapped his share of the celebrities of the day.

Celebrity itself was a little different then of course.

A young David Hockney, sitting with the widow of Igor Stravinsky.

A couple of other shots in art galleries:

Claire Bloom and Rod Steiger in 1961 according to Bignell’s notes, then married (his fourth marriage, her third, and final one) The man on the left is David Tomlinson but I don’t think it’s the actor from Mary Poppins. (or is it?)

The man with the prominent nose is L S Lowry sharing an amusing story with an unknown gentleman and the already ubiquitous Richard Attenborough.

Another high class occasion:

Derek Nimmo (ask some old person if you don’t know) officiating at some formal occasion puzzling over an illegible note with Lady Limerick. This could be a literary occasion. There’s an impressive collection of old books in the background.

Bignell must have been on good terms with his subjects. He often took pictures in their own homes.

Chelsea resident, film and TV actor Harry Fowler, with his wife Kay. Mr Fowler who died earlier this year made an appearance in the short lived BBC2 Chelsea-based soap opera World’s End, which I’ve already referred to in a previous post.

This is one of my favourites among Bignell’s celebrity photos:

Charles Gray, another local, looking like a man who knows how to have a good time. He had a long career in acting, playing one version of the James Bond villain Blofeld (in Diamonds are Forever), at least three versions of Mycroft Holmes, on film and TV, and most memorably for me Mocata, the villain in the Hammer adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out.

Another classy interior:

A fairly young Ned Sherrin striking a pose while sitting down, possibly in the flat in Chelsea where he lived for many years.

Bignell found many of his subjects on the streets of Chelsea.

Ryan O’Neal examining a shop keeper’s pendant in a slightly disconcerting manner.

Sammy Davis Jr making his way down the King’s Road, possibly on his way here:

You can see him on the balcony. Has the crowd gathered for him, or is this a normal Chelsea Saturday afternoon back in the 60s?

You’ve seen a lot of male celebrities so far so here are a couple of famous women:

Jayne Mansfield with her daughter Jayne Marie at Victor Silvester’s dance studio on the King’s Road. Jayne Marie is unmistakeable I think. I got carried away with the caption Jayne Mansfield and daughter, thinking the daughter was Mariska Hargitay, star of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit but it turned out to be Ms Mansfield’s first daughter. I can see the family resemblance though.

Just a little way down the King’s Road was the Chelsea Palace. Here Bignell took this excellent picture of another famous blonde actress.

Diana Dors in the dressing room with a man named Michael Keaton who looks very pleased to be on the receiving end of Ms Dors’s attention.

This post has been an introduction to John Bignell. I’ll be coming back to him again over the coming months to try and show you the full range of his work. But for now here’s the man himself behind the bar of the Six Bells.

And here’s a puzzle for you. Who on earth are these guys?

Are they an actual group, or just some likely looking hipsters Bignell gathered together for the picture, which is simply called Love is all you need?

So if anyone has any ideas please let me know. We’ve already eliminated Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch by the way.

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