82 x 56 inches. Oil pastel, pencil. 2017.
Poem to a drawing
Are we walking down a corridor in the National Portrait gallery?
Walls lined with the great and good who have killed and conquered.
This is all rather tiring and I am looking for somewhere to sit.
Commotion in a room ahead, left or right?
A gust of wind blows us into the Euro wing.
We see a mother and child with candle and umbrella.
A man checks his flies are zipped.
Above his head, a tricolour ink roller in suspended animation.
On the ground, footprints of Prussian blue.
Centre stage, chaise lounge.
What is going on? Can we sit here?
Maybe in the next room, next to a woman and her copy of J. G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition.
In front of a painting of the British Prime Minister getting fruity with the American President.
Is that Robert Rauschenberg trapped in twine from a plumb bob?
He appears to be pointing backwards and forward, one hand to 1974, the other, 2019.
Can we trust an artist to TELL US EVERYTHING about this space within space
That has spilled out from a box labelled Highland Shortbread?
Where can I sit?
My legs are killing me.
Notes to myself
This was sketched immediately after visiting the excellent Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at Tate Modern and during the United Kingdom government's formal notification of withdrawal from the European Union. This was also the week when The Daily Mail newspaper on March 28th featured a photo of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon with the trivialising head line: “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”. On the same day, a new 12-sided £1 coin became legal tender across the UK.
Pondering all these matters, I started to sketch a scene using Robert Rauschenberg as an enigmatic muse. His free and easy approach to materials, for example, building an umbrella or fan into a painted surface, had me thinking about how to use everyday objects as part of my art practice. I turned to a biscuit tin in my studio. I don't know why I started to collect objects in a biscuit tin or how long they have accumulated (more than a decade now), but this box with random objects ranging from coins, fuses, tea coaster, plumb bob, pencil emblazoned with "Tell me everything," was raided for inspiration and incorporated into the drawing. This was my equivalent to Rauschenberg's "combine" although I have made no concession to three dimensionality. There is added irony in that the box has a culinary connection with Scotland; a nation destined to have a falling out with the English over the issue of falling out of Europe. All these objects and related ideas came tumbling out of the box and into the composition.
Some other allusions for the cultural critic to register:
A New World Order
Pastel drawing, 60x81", 2016
The Grand Christmas Comic Pantomine
At the mythic Elephant and Castle Theatre
Boxing Day, December 26th, 1876
Trump and Farage;
And the Knight that fought and gained the day
Donnie Trump ------- performed by Miss Marie Henderson
A powerful and scheming knight in love with Nigella and himself
Nigella Farage ------- performed by Mr Walter Grisdale
Mistress from Ing - Land who whip lashes her Euro body politic
Hilaricious Clinton ------- performed by Miss Clara Griffith
Deposed Queen trapped in the world wide web
Theresa Maypole ------ performed by Mr Watty Bruton
The titular head of state who is forever Brexiting, stage right.
A production on a grand scale with thrilling scenes:
Donnie and Nigella riding the headless horse of the apocalypse;
Hilaricious hanging onto the tale of the headless horse;
And Theresa, trying to exit stage right, but being trampled under horse hoof.
All told, a magical transformation.
This new world order has to be seen to be believed!
Trump and Farage has been expressly sketched for this theatre by Constance Graf.
1. Pantomine is a type of musical comedy performed in the United Kingdom, generally during the Christmas festive period. It has gender-bending roles and a story loosely based on a fairy or folk tale.
2. Henderson, Griffith, Grisdale and Bruton formed the cast of the Elephant and Castle Theatre company in London between 1875-1880. Marie Henderson was also the directress of the company.
3. If you want to sample a pantomime, here is a link to Valentine and Orson. This text was written in 1877 by Charles Merion and is his third adaption of the medieval romance tale about twin brothers abandoned at birth, one raised in the royal court and the other in the woods. Another version was the first play performed at the Elephant and Castle Theatre when that was opened for business in 1872. The theatre building is now the Coronet Club and this is due for demolition in early 2018 as part of the regeneration of the Elephant and Castle area.
What would you do?
Imagine your neighbour Heinrich Boll had left you a spare key and instruction to water the house plants while he boarded an aeroplane to collect a Nobel prize. Would you steal inspiration from the draft in his typewriter? Or Max Opuls had entrusted you, his dear friend, to retrieve a roll of film from his house; the one the censors didn't see in La Ronde. Would you leer at the said negative being held up to a bright light source? Kathe Kollwitz had to nip out to buy some milk and bread. Mischievous thought of adding a smiley face of ink to the desolate image in the printing press?
The aforesaid fantasies were inspired after listening to an interview Holgar Czukay gave in the early 1990s on the Radio 3 programme, Mixing It. He recounted how as a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1968, he sweet talked the secretary and gained access to Herr Aladdin's electronic cave. Holgar was able to record his debut album, Canaxis 5, with the studios impressive tape recorders looping together his interest in Musique Concrete and ethnographic folk recordings.
Not all studios live up to their profession. In point of fact, given the relative poverty of artists, they invariably have to beg a shed, borrow a broom cupboard or steal a loft. I have only had one bonafide studio. This was once a 1960s council flat (bedroom, living room and a kitchen) and came with the responsibility to practice community art. An author might build a studio around the typewriter on an heir loomed desk or a poet might dream on a hammock in the garden. Maybe virtual studios will one day be the norm for web based artists. The creation of an avatar, perhaps even adopting the identity of the Germanic artists I have already listed.
Expanding on this chain of thought -what about that elusive key to the artist's mind?
Script for This-That by Jacob Barua. Printed on continuous feed paper, Warwick University science block.
I am navigating back to 1989 and the University of Warwick. My fellow Film and Literature student, Jacob Barua, has handed me a film script and declared emphatically: you are the only person in the universe who can play this! I hesitated. Had never acted before. And then there was the troubled central character in the drama who seemed all too recognisable; forever on the edge of everything, nothing, relationships, art, politics. This begged the following question: Jacob are you taking the piss out of me or yourself? For a short period of time we seemed to swap identities. Jacob’s intense cinematic vision became one with my suited and booted persona.
Jacob was going to use this short film to catapult him into the prestigious Lodz film school. But it was no plain sailing. No film production on this dramatic scale had been undertaken at the university where theory ruled the day. It meant sniffing out equipment and resources. After two weeks of filming, a mere two days were spend in the edit suite, using equipment for the very first time. I recall a few expletives. We had set the date of screening, one day after the final day of editing. A key animation sequence shot on 8 mm film only arrived on the day of the screening and had to be added post-haste, post end-credits. Thankfully this has now been re-edited into its proper place in the dreaming body of the film.
We finally have the keys to the digital edit suite.
It's only now after 26 years and working together again on restoring the fading VHS tapes, that we’ve got a new grasp on the importance of this film for us. Let me leave the final words to Jacob Baura who was recently interviewed about his Warwick experience. What on heaven or hell was he thinking about when he made This-That?
"The reason I wanted to become a filmmaker, did not have that much to do with film per se. I had always been enthralled by Art itself in all it's aspects. I had been a poet, a musician, a painter, photographer, amateur actor, but probably loved literature most of all. Somewhat like a brat with his hand in a jar full of goodies, I did not want to let go of any of the Arts and decided that there was was only one vessel that encompassed all of them. The only way, in which I did not have to discard any, but instead fuse them, was through the glowing medium of film.
I arrived in Warwick...by mistake. One of my obsessions when it comes to the written word is History. Right until today I often wonder whether I am a self made historian expressing myself and researching through film. Warwick conjured in my mind the mystery and glory of medieval times. I was convinced that the University of Warwick was located somewhere within the town of Warwick. In those pre-internet days, a major source of information were brochures. And the university's were filled with images of Warwick Castle and the old cobble stone streets. That was enough for me to decide, given that it was simultaneously the only university offering such a broad course encompassing foremost literature and then film. I got off the train in the quaint railway station only to be horrifyingly informed that the university was far away in some fields between Coventry, Leamington Spa and Kenilworth!
I found the course at the university to be exhilirating in it's scope - exactly tailored to my needs. Great lecturers and given the small size of our department, an opportunity to bond with colleagues. The university also happened to probably have the largest independent Art Centre outside London, at the time. There was everything ranging from a philharmonic orchestra to to a cinema with plush seats and a sterling screen, to one of the best equipped professional theaters anywhere in England. Here I was active as a member of the Warwick Drama Society, taking on delicious roles for the duration of my studies. Besides, the university was a beehive of political activity, of all manner of shades. Of course I was aghast that the most prominent ones were for naive fellow travellers of all manner of totalitarian off shots. However the jewel of this mini-city was a massive library, with a salivating wealth of books that was beyond belief.
This-That was the result of a deep inner need to encompass my entire experience as a student who had lived in different countries, cultural and political systems. At the same time I set to creating a time capsule to be sent into the future. All Myths were after all created by somebody, even if that was thousands of years back - so why not make one too, there and then, to be flung into an unfathomable distance? My inspiration for the main character was essential to creating a core, and this was based, at least in terms of the visuals on a readily available 'blueprint'. For I used Warwick's most enigmatic and unique real life student - Constantine Gras. He did not fit into any preconception - as he neither had the persona of a typical student, nor even one from any 'civilian' from our contemporary milieu. Here was Someone who seemed to have been historically misplaced, from a 'wrong' age. Like a potter I used him as my clay, to impose onto him a narrative, which I knew would jar when combined with his persona. So here was a man creating himself i.e. Constantine, whom in turn I was creating further. Layers of creation.
One of the overarching themes is the struggle that each human has to undertake to find a space of comfort, to be able to be oneself, while struggling against the dominant societal forces. By comfort I do not at all refer to a personal one, but that of the Other. For the most crucial single question ever spoken for me, which forever thunders across all ages is; "Am I my brother's keeper?" We live in a world circumscribed by political correctness. The moment you challenge the narrative of the day, you are deemed fit for condemnation and rejection. In the case of the film, the character not only isn't ascribing to Modernity and the race to keep up with fashions both external and internal, but occupies a realm that defies the obligatory 'standards'. He is still both a reflection of the Ancient, Romantic and Future ages. Whether we like it or not from the beginnings of History, politics impinge on almost everything in life. That is why the culmination of the film is congealed within the incongruous figure of a young pyjama clad student who dares to take on the Rulers of the World. The selfish manipulators - the Daeduluses vs the selfless dreamers - the Icuruses. If I were to try to draw a circle; Sleep - Pyjama - Dream - the Impossible - Courage - Death - Eternity - Sleep.
The reception of the film, I will admit, was heart breaking. An outright regurgitating by the audience. Particularly so - when not even our lecturers or collegues could grasp or extract any meaning out of it. But this should have been expected, as it was intentionally put together in such a way as to defy conventional modes of film-making. And again, it was indeed a film made for Another age. But which one? Time will still tell.
I have no regrets about the film as it was then, and in it's curent slightly re-edited form. It turned out prescient. You are Alone among people. To be fulfilled you have to metaphorically fly, even if demise is the price to be paid. There is no escaping Newton's and other more serious Laws.
But just like there was no relevant message in the film for the audience at the time, there similarly isn't any for those today. There are plenty of other better sources, dear audience member, if you are in need of a message. This is not a cerebral feast but mainly a sensory experience.
Once I got there, one of the most satisfying experiences at the Lodz Film School was when all students were herded into a cinema, and made to watch the film by Piotr Wojciechowski; he was a Filmmaker, Scriptwriter, Catholic Philosopher but most of all a living legend as a novel writer ("Skull within a skull", "Is it worth to have a Soul" and others). He immediately took to the film. In his laudatory lecture after the film, he said he felt it had the feel of T.S. Elliot's " The Waste Land". He was the first ever viewer to fully comprehend the ambitions of this film. At the Lodz Film School I carried on with the 'tradition' of making This-Thatian films. With no pretence at all. Poland's greatest ever fimmaker, and it's Chancellor Wojciech Has, would always chide other lecturers for being baffled by my films - telling them that they were wrong to search for conventional meanings in my short films. For him they were "Intricate riddles"
I don't really have any wise tips for aspiring filmmakers. Rather warnings, in that it is going to be a lonely, cruel, and ungrateful journey, except for the very, very lucky few. Well, take heart - at least there's going to be one worthwhile viewer of your creation - Yourself.
Having been trained on 35mm makes a filmmaker by far more disciplined and honed to the workings of a film. The Digital Age has its own advantages. But the downsides are greater. More self indulgence and turning an important medium of Art into a toy.
I have been a gardener for a long time now. There's at least one massive film within me waiting to happen. Then I intend to go back to my gardening.
It's this and that, after all."
If you want to experience This-That, the film is screening on:
10th September 2016 around 7.30pm
Muse Gallery, 269 Portobello Road, W11, London
Portobello Film Festival
Full venue and programme details.
It is with great sadness that I have just received news of the recent passing away of Victor F Perkins. He co-founded the film department at Warwick in 1978 and made a decisive contribution to the acceptance of film as an art form worthy of deep study. I have fond memories of him hunched over the Steenbeck undertaking a close textual analysis of In A Lonely Place with 2-3 students; a more kinetic Victor was found over at the Student Union playing his favourite pinball machine; delivering those impassioned lectures where he poured his intelligence into the vessel of a film; seeing so much nuance in terms of decor and edit, so much so, that I seem to recall, at the end of one lecture, Jacob asked: is it really possible that the film maker meant all this?
Victor bough a copy of This-That in 1989 for the university archive. It was always a pleasure to meet up with him over the decades since I graduated. Alas he missed the screening of the remastered film at the university in March 2016, but I was touched when he specially came in to see me and we had a good chin wag about life: how he was adjusting after a recent stroke, his desire to learn the German language, his concern about the corporate development of education and his cluttered honorary office in the department which he really should tidy up. I told him that we had dedicated the film to our old lecturers who had inspired the young to fly. Victor had a rueful smile.
I've been working on Lancaster West estate for well over a year now. My commitment extended beyond the commission I had from the TMO (who manage the Royal Borough's housing stock) to make a mural for the new community room and a short film documenting the regeneration of Grenfell Tower. At the beginning, I was naturally regarded with a degree of skepticism. Why do we need an artist on the estate? But after attending numerous residents meetings and putting on art events in lift lobbies and during fun days, I earned my stripes in the community. During my tenure, I've had an opportunity to strike up many friendships across the estate. I offered them an accessible and sociable art. In return, several of them have entrusted me to render their remarkable life-affirming experiences and energising humour. More of these residents to follow. But first let's talk about regeneration and architecture and conclude by weaving both of these back into the beating heart and soul of Lancaster West.
As of writing, Grenfell Tower improvement works is well nigh complete. After a £10 million regeneration, nine new flats have been created and offer affordable rents in an area where property prices average over £1 million and one bedroom flats on nearby More West are over £500,000. Each flat in Grenfell has had double glazing installed and a boiler for direct control of heating and hot water. The building has been thermally insulated with a new layer of cladding, although I miss the former design. The nursery and Dale boxing club also come back into vastly improved spaces and facilities.
This upgrade to the fabric of a building is important in the context of how the council plan to regenerate this part of North Kensington. Silchester Estate, which is just across the road from Lancaster West, is currently being considered for regeneration. The initial options produced by the council were described as "nuclear" by estate residents. At a recent meeting in the town hall, several residents had the opportunity of making powerful statements to the council about the lack of consultation and the potential impacts of wholesale regeneration on the community and environment. The council listened and voted to explore the options in more detail. They also make a commitment to factor in the possibility of maintenance and infill. It is good to see how local residents are campaigning with a witty strap line (Gradual Change - In Due Course) that might have been culled from the insight of a former architect of Lancaster West, Derek Latham. He developed his ethos of urban renewal on a gradual basis after witnessing the impact of "slum clearance" in North Kensington during the 1960s and 70s.
Previous blogs have featured interviews with Derek Latham and Peter Deakins, both of whom worked on the early stage design of Lancaster West estate. I can now present a complete documentary record of all the architects involved and their experiences, hopes and frustrations. One major issue was why the estate was never designed to its initial masterplan. This sense of fragmentation is perhaps the root cause for many of the challenges still being faced on the estate and which are being addressed by the newly formed Lancaster West Resident Association and the Grenfell Compact.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting retired architect Nigel Whitbread and showed him around the estate. He lead the team who designed and built Grenfell Tower. It was the first time in over 40 years that he stepped foot inside the tower and enjoyed visiting a residents flat and those stunning views. What's interesting about Nigel's story is that he is a local boy through and through and not many local people seem to be aware of his role in the development of the area.
We are also going to hear from Ken Price about the design of the finger blocks, the three low rise housing units that radiate out from Grenfell tower.
Clifford Wearden is the design godfather of Lancaster West estate. I suspect his career path was adversely affected by the way the development panned out and not being the consultant responsible for all the later, much revised, stages. Chatting to his widow, Pauline Wearden, I was surprised to learn that, Clifford, like most other architects involved in the project disliked tower blocks. Grenfell tower was only included to maximise housing density levels; Nigel is an exception to this prickly high rise rule of thumb. This perhaps explains why Clifford in later life would drive over the elevated Westway and look across at the five tower blocks and declaim to his family that Grenfell tower exists no more and has been demolished for a new development. This is a poignant case of not wanting to see the concrete from the stone!
I was born in Kenton near Harrow. My parents had a grocer’s on St Helen’s Gardens in North Kensington. We moved as a family to this area in 1949 to be nearer the shop. I read quite recently Alan Johnson’s biography, This Boy. He is a Labour MP and former Home Secretary and interestingly was born in 1949. However his life and the poverty he lived through was in a different world, although just a mile away as the crow flies. He didn’t enjoy the family life that I enjoyed nor did he appear to enjoy his time at Sloane grammar school which I had done earlier.
When I was going to leave Sloane, I didn’t know what I was going to do. One day I had an interview at an architect’s office. My eyes were opened. I liked the idea of drawing boards and doing something that I never understood to exist. The first firm that I worked for was Clifford Tee and Gale and that’s where I did my apprenticeship. I went one day a week plus night school to the Hammersmith School of Art and Building. Subsequent to this I became a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
I knew through delivering groceries that there was an architect who lived near my father’s shop. I told my parents this and my mother said she would speak to the wife of the architect who was also a partner in the practice. I went for an interview and got the job. This was at Douglas Stephen and Partners and this was probably the most influential time in my career. It was only a small practice but doing important things and at the forefront of design influenced by Le Corbusier and other modernists. It was there that I worked with architects from the Architectural Association and the Regent Street Polytechnic: Kenneth Frampton who was the Technical Editor of the journal Architectural Design; and Elia Zenghelis and Bob Maxwell who both spent most of their careers in the teaching world. It was actually like going to a club and we were doing terrific work.
Later on, I went to work with Clifford Wearden on Lancaster West. At that time his office was a two storey building in his back garden. It was a huge job for a small group. It was unusual for councils to use private architects in those days. Clifford was a serious architect but had a flair about him. He’d been in the Fleet Air Arm and had a lovely Alvis car which was a convertible as I recall. He did have a very bad habit whilst he was driving of turning his head and facing me whenever he was speaking which I always felt a bit disarming. I found this quirkiness an attractive aspect in somebody who was very precise in most things he did.
The whole scheme had been well prepared and thought out by the time I joined to lead the team in designing the tower. The design is a very simple and straightforward concept. You have a central core containing the lift, staircase and the vertical risers for the services and then you have external perimeter columns. The services are connected to the central boiler and pump which powered the whole development and this is located in the basement of the tower block. This basement is about 4 meters deep and in addition has 2 meters of concrete at its base. This foundation holds up the tower block and in situ concrete columns and slabs and pre-cast beams all tie the building together. Ronan Point, the tower that partially collapsed in 1968, had been built like a pack of cards. Grenfell tower was a totally different form of construction and from what I can see could last another 100 years.
Grenfell tower is a flexible building although designed for flats. You could take away all those internal partitions and open it up if that’s what you wanted to do in the future, This was unusual in terms of residential tower blocks. I also don’t know of any other council built tower block in London or anywhere else in England that also has the central core and six flats per floor rather than four flats which is typically done on the London County Council or Greater London Council plans. We were wanting to put our own identity on this. The GLC built Silchester estate and I had nothing against that but this was so different in many ways. While a lot of brick had been used in LCC and GLC buildings, we thought that putting bricks one on top of the other for twenty storeys was a crazy thing to do. We used insulated pre-cast concrete beams as external walls, lifted up and put into place with cranes and they were so much more quicker.
In an architects mind, they want towers to be an elegant form rather than stumpy. This was a challenge and was why I introduced as many vertical elements within the fenestration as I could. The only thing I could play with was the windows and the infill between the windows. I treated it like a curtain wall, to get the rhythm of a curtain wall. We lost some of this verticality in the recent re-cladding but it’s not the end of the world. And the building is now better insulated as we had different standards then.
The floor plans were based on Parker Morris Standards which they used at that time and sadly have gone now. These were very good standards for storage and the way furniture had to be included in the plans. It was delightful to hear that residents thought flat arrangements worked well and I saw the views recently which I always thought were terrific. I wouldn’t have minded living in a tower block myself. Tower blocks were criticized for not being suited to people or a lot of families were being forced into it and they were feeling more and more remote from the street and meeting other people. But there is another side to this and it always seemed to me that if American’s can live in tower blocks, why can’t the English?
This is the first and only tower block I designed. This was also the first social housing I ever worked on. No social housing has been built since this and I’m very much against knocking things down unnecessarily. I had heard that there had been problems a few years ago with the heating and it was no good and talk of the whole block having to come down. And I thought, if my heating goes wrong, I don’t want to pull my house down.
It’s a great shame that the basic concept for the whole of Lancaster West to have a first floor deck for people, shops and offices and parking underneath wasn’t seen through for whatever reason. This means that there remains a basic flaw. Clifford Wearden and Associates only built Stage 1 and the remaining parts were built by other architects. I don’t think the designers are to blame because there was a requirement that it was designed to have cars for every flat. We’ve all seen things have changed dramatically since then and now cars can’t be accommodated everywhere.
After Clifford Wearden, I worked for Aukett Associates and I was there for 30 years until retirement. Recently I’ve become involved with my local residents association and committees in drawing up the St Quintin and Woodlands Neighbourhood Plan. We included the Imperial West site over in Hammersmith and Fulham because that was already impacting on our conservation area. Hammersmith wouldn’t agree to this but we continued developing the plans liasing with RBKC and residents. The Neighbourhood Plan includes objectives around shopping, housing, offices and conservation. We have also identified 3 existing unbuilt spaces which are now designated as local green space and cannot be built on. Latimer Road is included in the plan and we think that could be redeveloped to improve the area and have more housing put on top of the business units. We have to have housing somewhere. That’s where you could do it. But don’t build on our green spaces. The Localism Act which the Conservative government introduced is a very powerful tool actually. Residents are able to influence the way their area is developed.
Ken Price was lead architect responsible for the team who designed and built the finger block units (Testerton, Barandon and Hurstway) which formed stage 1 of the building project.
My origins are in Derby in the Midlands. I went to the School of Architecture in Nottingham which at that that time was part of the college of art and is now part of the university. I worked for a short time in Derby and then I was offered a job to work in North Africa in Tunisia. I went there for 3-4 years. I came back and worked in Nottingham for a while with some ex-students who had set up practice there and and then changed jobs in and around London. After Lancaster West, I worked with Casson Conder partnership and was job architect on the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington. Subsequently I set up my on my own and did small scale projects, mostly interior work and retired a few years ago.
Clifford Wearden won the Lancaster Road West development in Kensington. After a bit of a hiatus, the commission was confirmed for what was called stage one and he asked me to go and lead the team as project architect for the finger blocks. I worked for him and Kensington and Chelsea to develop the original masterplan which predecessors had worked on.
Clifford was extremely good at handing over and saying - look this is the problem, you solve it and refer to me if there is still a problem. He was very generous although he had the overall view and concept. I know that he was very sad that the development became a little bit like the Barbican. It was a grander scheme and there could well have been more productive elements which just didn’t arise. I wasn't involved in those preliminary stages of development, so I can’t speak too much about how that evolved. But I was aware that the Silchester Baths on the site became listed and affected the masterplan.
I briefly saw the housing in the area before or after it was all painted white because there was the famous or infamous film, Leo the Last. Was it black or white? Why did I think it was painted white. The director was John Boorman. I think I must have seen it just before they did that and probably immediately after. After it was cleared there was no real evidence of life or to how it was. I don’t even know what the state of the dwellings were like and whether they were totally without facilities.
At that time there were a number of schemes underway to deal with the housing issue, alongside the problem of car ownership .One could describe it as the deck system when cars were kept down below and freeing up the ground level or the raised ground level for pedestrian use and housing. It was part of the brief to provide that amount of parking and it did subsidise some of the other elements.
My predecessor had sketched in a basic outline of the finger blocks. I took that on and developed up the detail of the individual housing units and the spaces between. I suppose we were interested in the intricacies of locking together volumes of accommodation in order to maximise the space of each dwelling. Also providing, to a degree, some private outside balcony or roof terrace on the top areas so there was an opportunity for people to have their own little bit of outside space as well as the bigger outside. I still have a small model of the finger block that was made by a friend of mine, a model maker. It shows the different accommodation elements by colouring. It was really a demonstration to the council on the mix of the different elements.
Community garden between Barandon and Testerton Walk. A constant source of artistic inspiration for Constantine Gras and featuring as the backdrop for several of his films: Vision of Paradise.
The landscaping was dealt with by Michael Brown (landscape architect, 1923-1996). Clifford was very determined to ensure that the landscape was taken on and he persuaded RBKC to employ him. I think one of the essential elements in the concept was this endeavour to provide as much open green space as possible by concentrating the housing units. The density was probably what was expected or required by local authorities at that time. The estate was designed to try and retain that as much as possible and the tower blocks were an element in that because you’ve got a concentrated stacking of accommodation which again added to the freeing up of groundscape. Although there were a number of tower blocks around at Silchester I don’t think any of us would have chosen to have incorporated the tower block but it must have contributed to this density issue and freed up the amount of green space that was enabled.
I think the estate was built to a good standard. We persuaded a brick manufacturer called Ockley to make bricks especially for the estate which weren’t available. It was just at the start of the introduction of metrication and it seemed to me, in particular, that it would be rather nice to make life easier in measurement terms to have bricks that fitted the metric. So they are specially made, 30 centimetre long bricks. We wanted to use brick as the main element in order to connect perhaps with the past more than you would have done with clip on panels. It does survive time rather better than a lot of materials. I still imagine they look pretty good. They were very nice brick manufacturers.
I knew there was a hiccup in the construction process but I couldn’t quite remember what it was. (The contractor, A.E.Symns went into receivership in 1975 at the very end of the construction of phase one). I can’t think of a building site where that didn’t arise especially as the construction was over such a long period. There were industrial dispute problems (three day working week and building strike), but not hugely disruptive as far as I can remember. In those days it was very difficult to get contractors to keep the site clean. Now because of health and safety issues, I think building sites are much better managed.
It’s a shame they never built the planned shopping centre or offices. There was an expectation of community facilities including commerce and everything else in order to make the place work.
I don’t think there were any warnings flagged up that there might be vandalism. It certainly wasn’t in evidence as it was completed. I visited after it was fully occupied and there didn’t seem to be any evidence of vandalism then. We never got any feedback as a practice on you should’t have done this or that. Perhaps we could have foreseen some of the possible problems. At the time disability access wasn’t an issue. It should have been but it wasn’t. Now that wouldn’t be allowed. You have to provide much more facilities. Unless the facilities are provided people will abuse what’s there and definitely need alternatives.
Maintenance has been the problem in almost every area of social housing that was built at that time and subsequently. it’s one thing to realise and provide housing for umpteen people, but then to not maintain the estates or keep them going. It was very short sighted. That’s why social authority housing has all but disappeared because nobody is prepared to take on the long term issues.
It was a product of its time in the way it dealt with a big housing issue, sub-standard housing. And hoping to provide the mix of urban renewal, accommodation, green spaces for enjoyment, kids playing and all the rest. This was just one of a number of schemes which were resolved in different ways but the deck idea was a sort of constant thing throughout. Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Estate, which is due for demolition now, was one of the background influences on the concept of Lancaster West. There was also a reference perhaps to the Lillington Gardens estate just off Vauxhall Bridge Road. That’s a famous development by Darbourne and Darke which I think still survives very well.
Ideas of large scale redevelopment and housing tend to go through different phases of acceptability or relevance and it’s very difficult to look back and say that was the right decision to make. In some cases it was the only option either because of financing or government pressure or politics. But I would have thought that if the masterplan was completed it would have provided a better result than has eventually arisen. But it’s very difficult in hindsight ever to say.
Pauline Wearden whose husband was the lead architect for Lancaster West estate masterplan and building stage 1.
Clifford was born in Preston, Lancashire in 1920 to working class parents. His father was a plumber and his mother was in retail with a profitable cafe. Clifford was his mother’s golden boy and she paid for him to go to university. There were no architects in the family. It just came thorough Clifford. Clifford studied architecture at the University of Liverpool from 1938-40 and 1946-48. He was very fortunate because that was a prestigious university in those days turning out many famous architects and Rhode Scholars.
When war broke out, he immediately volunteered. He had a lovely war, mostly cocktail parties. No. No, He did have a lot of tragedy and he saw his best friend shot down. Clifford was a pilot in Air Command. He had travelled as a student on what they call the Tour and he’d been to all the classic places but during the war he also saw some exotic places.
From 1949-54, Clifford was chief-partner for Sir Basil Spence. This was when they got the commission for rebuilding Coventry Cathedral and Clifford was given the job of preserving the ruins. He was very proud of that.
I don’t know what brought him to London. But he had no home and went to International House Hostel. He lived in a hostel for years. He didn’t have anywhere stable until he bought his top-floor flat in Argyll Road, Kensington. Then he came across this derelict house on Homer Street, Marylebone. They were a row of 6 Georgian houses in that street and the property owner wanted him to do up the other houses as well. So he worked on those and then bought one of them. That was probably one of of his first jobs alone. By the time I came on the scene in 1965, Peter Deakin was there and Derek Latham was a student. Clifford built an office at the back of the house. A very nice studio designed by him which was contemporary which might have looked strange at the back of a Georgian house. This is where the master plan for Lancaster West was prepared. Eventually the practice had to relocate premises as there were twelve in number. It was like I married twelve men because they were always in our house.
Clifford came home one day and he said they are blowing up one of the houses in North Kensington. And we said - what! And he took us all in the car at night. The director was just about to film the house being set on fire and demolished. They had all the safety people and security and police vans. We had to creep through the security set up. Nobody had invited us but we said we wanted to see it. They had built a false house to make a cul de sac and when you looked it was completely false, but it didn’t look it. So we were exactly there for the big bang. The children were thrilled. I can remember seeing big cameras, arc lights, just like you dream for an outdoor film set in the dark. It was typical of Clifford to have the children up. He didn’t want them to miss anything. However, I don’t think Clifford ever saw the finished film, Leo the Last. He wasn’t particularly interested in films.
Lancaster West was his first very big job. But he got into the mould very easily. He more or less expected it working with Sir Basil Spence and being up there with all the old Liverpool people. He was very much an architect’s architect and he felt that his time was coming.
Some architects don’t like meeting their public, but he was very good at that. I think he listened to them. One of his ethos things at university was social housing. So he felt very strongly about it. Of course, affordable housing it’s called now. I think he’d be absolutely disgraced by some of the policies such as right to buy. However, I don’t think he was a socialist. I don’t even know his politics but he was fairly traditional in many ways.
We married in 1969 and you took over your husband’s life or it took over you. He was doing very well in 1969 but of course it’s a hand to mouth existence. Your only as good as your next job and the 70s were quite stressful and then in the 80’s the work fell away. We had to economise and got rid of a car. We were trying to think of other ways to save money. It’s very difficult when you’ve been having a certain lifestyle and it worried him terribly. He used to worry about what might happen and I always felt that was a terrific waste of time. He lost quite a lot of sleep over some jobs.
Clifford believed that the tower block at Lancaster West was demolished. We drove past it on the Westway. He said it’s no more. And I remember saying to him, that we should have gone to see it come down. In the family we all thought it had gone but one day my son said it was still there. I think he would have been relieved, quite honestly, if it came down. He didn’t want it built. He didn’t want to be in this era of tower blocks. He felt very strongly about vertical living. It wasn’t right. So I don’t think he took any pride in it, except that it was not a bad building and it did work.
I’ve never really appreciated that Lancaster West was landscaped or intended to be. In the model of the estate that my son has hanging from the wall in his house, there are little trees made by Ken Price. And they always put trees in as their panacea for making it look homely. But it did look good in the end and not as desolate as it might have been. I’m afraid to say that driving past on the Westway is the nearest I’ve ever got to seeing the estate. I’ll have to go. The best way is to walk around, I imagine.
I'm going to end this essay with a few extracts from residents who live on Lancaster West estate. We are not now talking about perspectives and plans or so many housing units that can be redeveloped. We are talking about homes. People who have planted roots, raised their family and want to retire with peace and dignity. These flats and houses that were designed and built in the 1960s and 70s are now home to a diverse range of people who want to live in one of the richest boroughs in the universe. They deserve to have the final word. One hopes that in 10 or 20 or 40 years time, that they are still living in the area, as the new kids on the block are contemplating how to buy into the next cycle of housing redevelopment.
Christine Richer, resident of Hurstway Walk:
My mother was an African-Welsh woman and my father was black African American. They met after the war in the West End. Two weeks after my 18th birthday, I came to London and I landed in St Stephen’s Gardens in North Kensington. Massive, one room bedsit with the kitchen in the corner and the mice. The mice were hell. That was my first living in a big city.
I came to the estate in the 70’s. Funny story. The first day I came here to meet the electrician and the gas people. No one turned up. I end up sleeping on the floor. And I had the most vivid dream of my life. I wake up in this dream watching my coffin being carried down the stairs. I saw these two shapes and they were my daughters. But it was very pleasant. I thought this is my place. My place on earth. I’ll live here till I die. As a child, I moved a lot.
In Grenfell Tower there was a really nice club, like a residents social club and my partner at the time was on the Committee. That was my first introduction to the estate. It was full of different people who knew each other from the neighbourhood: Moroccans, Africans, blacks, whites, Portuguese, Spanish. I think with my involvement in the resident association and Estate Management Board, when the children were young, they have learnt a sense of community. They would always come and help me if I say I’m doing something with the R.A. Volunteer themselves, wash dishes.
The garden down there was very important to me and the kids. They spent their formative years down there with or without me. We had family parties, barbecues. That living space outside there meant a lot to me.
I do believe that we are going to get knocked down as all this gentrification is happening all around us. And we are not a Victorian block which is a beautiful thing. We are a 1970s fling them up, fling them down block. I don’t know where I’ll end up. That’s the biggest concern for me. That makes me stay awake at night. That makes me cry. If they could build another block, 4 or 5 streets away, where I knew I was going to be rehoused. It could be Manchester.
All my close friends who live on the estate, only about 3 are here. Everyone’s gone. It’s a changed community. I haven’t always loved all the neighbours. But the neighbours that I have liked and I’ve made friends with, we’ve loved living here. The old families who brought up their kids and their kids have grown up and moved away. It’s been a home to a lot of people.
Edward Daffarn, resident of Grenfell Tower:
I’ve lived in Grenfell Tower for over 15 years now but I’ve lived in North Kensington, Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill Gate, my whole life. I found education was quite a therapy. I became a social worker for about 7 years. And then sadly my mum, got motor neuron. so I gave up work to look after her. I haven’t got back into social work. But what I have got involved with is housing issues on Lancaster West and in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
The stuff that we’ve been doing on Lancaster West started as a result of the Academy being imposed which was 5-6 years ago. When we first started there was virtually no community groups around. Five years later there's a lot of community activism because of what’s been happening in housing. Westway 23, Focus E15 Mothers, The Guinness Trust down in Brixton, Our West Hendon, Sweets Way and all the radical housing network. There’s all these different struggles.
On the 24th June, this year, 2015, the council passed a motion in the full council meeting saying that they were going to go ahead with the destruction of all low density social housing in North Kensington. Low density means this, They’ve been built nicely, giving people some space inside and with some green residential amenity outside. Trees and green space for their children to play in. Low density housing. It’s not anything else. It’s just nice estates.
It will be interesting to see what will happen to Silchester. Because sooner or later, one community is going to say, and it only needs one or two inside that community to lead the rest - just to say - your going to knock our houses down - oh yeah! Oh yeah! Let’s see about that. North Kensington has a good history of not just taking these things lying down and when people finally wake up and realise what is going on, maybe the council will get a bit of a shock.
They call Lancaster West the forgotten estate. And it hasn’t been called the forgotten estate for the last couple of years. It’s been called the forgotten estate ever since I’ve been on here. If it had been maintained properly, Grenfell Tower and the finger blocks are quite beautiful. Particularly if you live here. I don’t know the architect that designed them but they have architectural merit. I don’t know how you say you love your home. You love your home.
If we remember what happened in 1974-75 by the signs, Get us Out Of this Hell, then maybe the Grenfell Action Group blog, the protest that we did going up to Holland Park Opera, the procession of Westway 23 along the Westway, will be things that in 25 or 30 years, people would look back and say, when they took away the stables, the Westway Stables, when they took away the children’s centre, didn’t people say anything. And they get on the computer. Look I found this Grenfell Action Group. Yeah they did something, And they did this demo. That will inspire the next generation of people who would care about their community.
Clare Dewing, resident of Talbot Grove House:
My parents were squatting in and around the area. Mum became pregnant with me and said right Paul, get us a flat now. My first steps were actually in the flat that I live in right now which I share with my mum. When my mum walked into an empty house, she put me down. I stood up and apparently I ran just clean straight across the room and those were my first ever steps.
Growing up on the estate, we were told never to leave the estate because I’ve always viewed the estate as two halves. My half which is Talbot Grove house, Verity Close and the other half, the finger blocks and Grenfell. So when we were a bit naughty, we used to go on the other half and do knock down ginger and stuff like that. I did probably knock on Christine’s door.
About 1993-4, I was quite naughty and I’d be going to clubs, sneaking out. Mum and Dad wouldn’t know and my friend would say she’s staying at my house and I’d say she was staying at her house. Teenagers you know. I do remember it being quite scary trying to sneak back into Ladbroke Grove and we got mugged a couple of times, got followed a couple of times. But in recent years, I do feel the safety has improved. There used to be crackheads on every corner, all along Portobello. But that kind of edginess gave it a vibrancy which unfortunately, I think, it’s almost gone.
About 5 years ago unfortunately my dad became ill and I moved back to my parents house to look after my dad. We’d always known that my mum’s memory wasn’t too good. But it was only after my dad died that we managed to get her to have a full proper diagnosis that it was early on-set dementia. Mum’s going well. I think the progression of her dementia has slowed and I think that’s down to a combination of exercise, good food, good stimulation.
I wanted to join the R.A. because it got me to kind of flex my muscles again in using organisational skills in a different way and and just giving back to the community that’s helped me out so much over these last few years.
Kensington and Chelsea are an amazing borough to live in especially the way that they look after the older population. I also had a bout of depression as well and the services that were available to me are not available to some of the people that I’ve spoken to. So I feel that the support is there and that’s why I’m really surprised about the state of the housing here. It doesn’t marry with my experience of all these other services.
I think Kensington and Chelsea need to be aware that if they just sell all the properties off and make it into a million plus houses, that what draws people here, what draws people to Notting Hill, what draws people to Portobello, would just be gone. It is that mix of culture that drew people here in the first place. That made it trendy. That made it hip and cool to hang out on an evening. It’s just going to turn into Kensington High Street and be replaced by Cafe Nero’s and shoe shops and places you can’t actually afford to shop in or buy food in.
What we are trying to do as a RA here is to lay the foundations now. We're trying to get ourselves prepared and ready so that when the regeneration does come that we are ready and we've got some ideas together. Hopefully we can influence them which would be great.
On Saturday 14 April, 2007, the sun set over the resplendent fields of a Northumbrian landscape. The master and mistress of the land were not at home. Sir Humphrey was away for the weekend and Lady Humphrey will not stay on her own in the twelfth century castle. Chillingham is reputed to be haunted.
The grace of night was disturbed by the master's son and two grandsons. Mounted on mechanical steeds, they powered their way around an obstacle course acting very much as their great forebears must have done: familial possession of land and land that possesses in return. With all this expansive and expensive land, one imagines there is very little breathing space for poor old ghosts who are obliterated by the 250cc combustion engine of a quad bike.
As the boys raced into the distance, fifty or so cars arrive for a charity fundraising do. Chillingham Castle has long since opened its doors to the paying public. The event this evening is a Fright Night raising money for Diabetes UK. Before a tour of the ground and building and to get the blood sugars active, we were shown a film about the paranormal.
David Wells then took centre stage and stressed the need for individuals to make up their own mind. There is more to heaven and earth, than is dreamt of in our philosophy. Once upon a time, I wanted to believe, but I have long since given up on ghosts. Or have they given up on me?
During the night and early hours of the morning, we flashed our torches across the damp walls and floors and furniture. In total, I attended six vigils. The guides tried their best to summon forth spirits: please, move the curtain; or blow out the candle; or knock; make us a sign that you are here; please, please!
The pleading voice echoed around the room. The room gave nothing back to me.
Do any of you feel cold air currents passing through the dining room?
At the end of our vigil, there was a successful attempt to merge mind with matter. Eight pairs of sweaty palms were placed on a small table. Was this an ancient ghost, not so steady on their feet and needing to use four legs and eight palms as a crutch?
Thousands of photographic images were taken by a third eye bugling to peer into the unknown. Maybe we were too polite and the ghosts got fed up with us "flashing" before taking a photograph in the pitch darkness. "Prepare yourself, I'm going to flash." "Cheese everyone." I cheesily flashed and then watched others as they examined their digital images. Could this be an orb? An imprint or expression of dead souls?
I have to confess. The photographs you now peruse were made by the analogue devil. One who resurrects the dead with chemicals. The only ghosts present were the ones crafted with exposures of more than half a second.
There is a corridor sized gallery at the V&A that I am forever drawn to. Literally, in the sense that I love sketching here. It's the Sacred Silver & Stained Glass collection in room 83. During my tenure as the museum's community artist in residence, I used stained glass to meditate on contemporary housing issues. Nathaniel Westlake's magisterial panel at the V&A, Vision of Beatrice, inspired an installation and artist film.
The Westlake stained glass panel was made for a V&A exhibition in 1864 and was possibly conceived in the house that Westlake had built for him in the heart of North Kensington. The house is still standing at 1-2 Whitchurch Road opposite the Lancaster West estate and embodies the complex history of social change from the extremes of Victorian affluence and poverty to modern day regeneration and gentrification. This listed building would be a multi-millionaires paradise but has been converted into six bedrooms by St Mungo's and is a hostel for those needing support into housing and work. The house was situated just across the road from my artist studio which itself was a former council flat about to be redeveloped into More West.
During my residency, I recorded an interview with Terry Bloxham who is a ceramic and glass specialist at the V&A with responsibility for the stained glass collection. I wanted to understand more about the context in which Westlake had made his stained glass panel and Terry quite rightly took me back in time. I was surprised by how the past would resonate so strongly with the way we live today: the forging of nation states; how religion can violently divide and spiritually unite; and the evolving technological and economic context to the making of art.
Here is an edited transcript of our coversation:
Terry Bloxham: Why Westlake? Why that panel?
Constantine Gras: Why that panel? I didn’t know anything about it until I started my V&A Community Artist residency. I’m based in a studio in North Kensington that is part of an estate, the Silchester Estate. It’s part of a new housing development taking place on the estate. In the run up to my residency, I cycled around the borough, looked at listed buildings and I came across a house, just across the road from where my studio is. It’s the house that was built for Nathaniel Westlake.
TB: Oh. Who be he?
CG: It’s a bit of a juxtaposition from the estates. You suddenly see this listed building that was built in 1863. It was built by his friend and architect, John Francis Bentley, who later went on to design Westminster Cathedral. And they were both converts to Catholicism and collaborated on St Francis of Assisi church on Pottery Lane in North Kensington. But I was interested in this grand looking house near an estate and that's now run as a sort of hostel. It’s had a bit of a checkered history as this area of North Kensington has. Poverty and slums. Now property that is valued in the millions.
TB: Where is North Kensington?
CG: This part is opposite Latimer Road tube station.
TB: I think I know. Basically Notting Hill west.
CG: That’s right.
TB: I know that neighbourhood. There’s a great reggae shop. Hopefully it’s still there.
CG: So that’s how I came across Westlake. As an artist with a studio in the same area, albeit in a different century, I’m very interested in predecessors and making connections with them. And to discover that the V&A museum has a work of art that has a connection to the very streets in which I'm working. I’m also interested in a film that was also made in the local area and this is called Leo The Last. It was made in 1969 by John Boorman on the site of Lancaster West estate just prior to it being built. It’s about an aristocratic person who moves into the area and he gets radicalised by his interaction with the West Indian community. Some memorable imagery in the film involves looking through a telescope and also patterned glass in a pub that distorts the point of view. I suppose at one level, I wanted to explore or create a connection between film making and stained glass. In the sense of camera lenses and glass transmitting light and how they might be used for perception and analysing or documenting the world around you. Using fragments or a diverse range of media that can be pieced together to make a whole new work of art. And one not necessarily made just by the artist, but involving collaboration. Also I feel a little like that aristocratic character in the film. The artist as an outsider who comes into an area and interacts with the community and how this might radicalise either them or the community or not as the case may be. That is the type of thing I’m wanting to do in my community focused project work. I’m hoping to create a Westlake House at the V&A Museum, in addition to making an artist's film.
CG: Perhaps you can help me shed some light on Westlake and how and why he came to make this wonderful panel.
TB: Westlake in the nineteenth century, is, near enough, the culmination of a movement that we now call the Gothic revival. And the Gothic Revival was a reaction against eighteenth century stuff and we are going to be talking about that as we progress through time. This involved a revision in the theological understanding of Christianity and also the furnishings of Christian churches. And all throughout the gothic revival period, whether you are talking about stained glass or metalworking or textiles, all of the things that were used for church furnishings, they kept harping on, we must do it in the medieval manner. And that’s why you’ve got to understand the medieval manner in order to understand Westlake. That’s why we are starting here in the medieval period. We are looking at thirteenth century glass.
CG: Was this being commissioned by the church?
TB: Yes. it was church law that you had to have some sort of decorative, figurative work in the church, that illustrated the Saint to whom that church was dedicated. All images in churches were meant to be instructive. People always say it’s bibles for the poor. But that’s sort of an insult, because it’s calling them illiterate. And I prefer to look at it, not as an age of illiteracy, but as an age when you didn’t need to read and write. Only a few people did. In the middle ages,
TB: So here we are looking at a panel from the mid thirteenth century showing a scene of King Childebert being chastised by bishop Jermanus or Jermaine. It is telling you a story, an episode from the life of a real king. His name was Childebert. He’s in the middle of the sixth century and was one of the first kings in France. After the collapse of the Roman empire in the West you have all these so called barbarians moving in. You can tell my preferences lie with the so called barbarians. Various tribal groups as they were known: the Goths, the Gauls, the Francs, the Germanys, the Celts. The celts became the Brits. These groups are going to form our nation states. Clovis was one of these Frankish groups and from Frank we get France. This is where Childebert is descended from. In the panel, we have Childebert being chastised by bishop Jermanus, the first bishop of Paris. He is chastising the King because he had just been on a campaign to conquer the Spanish city of Saragossa. The bishop was upset about this because Saragossa was a christian city. Bishop Jermanus forced Childebert to build the first church in Paris as atonement for his sins and this church was dedicated to St Lawrence. This church was being rebuilt in the thirteenth century in the newish Gothic style and it was rededicated to Jermanus who by then had become a saint.
CG: Can you tell me about the designs used in stained glass and the process of making?
TB: Medieval decorated windows are composed of small, irregularly shaped pieces of coloured and clear glass. The idea was not to have big square panels of glass which they could make, about A4 sheet size. It was to make a sheet of glass, cut it into irregular shapes and move those shapes around to form a picture. And then those shapes are held together by lead. So it became known as a mosaic-type construction. When you think of a Roman mosaic floor, little pieces of tesserae arranged to make a picture shape. And then they are embedded into cement to form a solid picture. It’s the same thing with mosaic glass. The only painting that you have on it are the details that you can see in the hands and the face, the folds in the clothing. That’s just simple blacky-brown iron-based pigment which is fired onto the surface of the glass. Glass when made is clear. But in its molten state you can add colouring agents to it. Cobalt will make blue. Copper will make green and also red. Manganese will make a purply brown. Depending upon the intensity you can get this nice purply-brown robe or flesh colour. That is know as pot metal because you hold the liquid glass into a pot and add the metallic oxide. So you have clear glass and pot metal glass, cut into small irregularly shaped pieces, put together to make a nice, pretty little picture, all held together in this lead framework. And whatever paint you have was just an iron based pigment onto the surface of the glass to give you your details. That is mosaic glass made in the medieval manner. That is what Westlake is trying to achieve.
I have to introduce another element in the manufacturing of medieval glass. Something that was a big technological revolution. I mentioned earlier that properly speaking, it’s not stained glass, it’s decorated glass. And the reason why I say that is because stained means penetration of glass or staining glass. That doesn’t happen until the magic year of about 1300, probably in Normandy. Some bright spark discovered that putting silver into oxide of some form and then firing, what it did was to penetrate the upper levels of the glass and create this lovely lemony yellow to a burnt orange colour. And the reason why that was so revolutionary was it enabled you to have more than one colour on the sheet of glass. We looked at yellow glass and red glass and blue glass and green glass that is known as pot metal glass. That is clear glass that has been coloured. Coloured glass is more expensive than clear glass. Any time you have extra processes it’s going to increase the price. We do have those few surviving documents that give us prices for the middle ages. So we know that glass coloured all the way through was more expensive. Staining it is incredibly cheap to make relative to the older way and once it comes in, it doesn’t disappear.
When we get to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Europe is torn apart by different believers or practitioners of the Christian faith. In the middle ages, remember there is only the church. There is no protestant, no catholic. It is just the church. So you have to put yourself in a time when your world, your faith is being torn apart, is being questioned by people who are very learned and very persuasive. And in some cases also inciters of violent activities and feelings. We tend to blame the whole reformation on him, Martin Luther. He was pretty moderate. You also had people like Calvin and Zinger who were the militant side of the reformation. And there was a lot of destruction and a lot of change. But in Europe today, you will still find this part of Germany is Catholic, but that part is Protestant. But fortunately not fighting each other. England’s story is different and was more violent. Not so much people killing each other, but people destroying anything suggestive of religious imagery.
CG: You get a snapshot of those times at the recent iconoclasm exhibition at the Tate.
TB: Yes that was a good snapshot. And we also have documents from stain glass makers, petitioning the local leaders of the city, the principalities. Saying you are putting us out of business. We used to make a living making religious windows for churches and it was just no longer allowed. On the continent they started to turn their hands to other iconographic subject matter in stain glass making.
TB: What we are looking at now are products of Netherlandish workshops who mastered from the fifteenth century onwards, the art of very fine, but mass and cheap production of glass windows. These are simple pieces of cylinder glass, cut into a circular shape and solely painted. So its clear glass, in silver stain and black pigment. They are cheap. They are incredibly finely painted because this is the age of the printing press. So engravings were made and then they would be printed and they would be used as models for these stained glass workshops. So infect they’re copying exiting art works, unlike in the medieval period where they don’t have the benefit of mass produced engravings and stuff to copy.
This panel is the story of Sorgheloos which is a secular version of the old testament story of the prodigal son. This guy, Sorgheloos, goes out, he inherits a whole bunch of money, spends it on wine, women and song. And in the end, all he has left is an old woman, two starving animals and a bunch of straw to eat. So unlike the prodigal son he’s not welcome back with the fatted calf.
What also happens in the middle of the sixteenth century, these chemists as we would call them today, alchemists as they were known, developed more pigments that could be fired successfully into glass. In the medieval period it was just that blacky-brown iron based pigment. Now we have enamel colours. So we have the greens and all the shades. Red and all the shades. Blue and all the shades. And the yellows.
CG: It must have been a wonder to behold, a sort of technicolour movie.
TB: Yes it was. That’s why they were popular. Also coloured glass was expensive and enamel paints are cheaper than coloured glass. So we are now in the age of just simply painting on glass. Think of it as a transparent canvas. Because that is where we are going, painting on glass.
Let us jump forward to the middle of the eighteenth century. We have aristocrats interested in the gothic. Walpole made Strawberry Hill which was his idea of Gothic. And then In the early part of the nineteenth century we start getting academics in Oxford known as the Oxford movement. They were also called the Tractarians because they produced a lot of tracts. They are looking at medieval theology and seeing it or pre-reformation theology as a more pure form of the Christian faith. They are not advocating a return to catholicism but they are advocating breaking away from the corruption that crept into the English church in the eighteenth century. Shortly after, a complimentary, although at times, rival group, grows up in Cambridge known as the Cambridge Camden society, but also known as the Ecclesiastics when they are sitting in London. They were interested in pre-reformation theology, but more importantly in pre-reformation architecture and church furnishings. So you have in Oxford, the academics looking at theology. In Cambridge, they are looking at the physical structures of the furnishings. So we are at the beginning of the nineteenth century at that time when people are looking back to the medieval world and things done in the medieval manner. So this is where the Gothic Revival begins. Also in 1824 the Government passes what became known as the 600 churches act. Christianity had fallen into corruption in the eighteenth century. The church fabric itself, the buildings were neglected. There were a lot of people assigned as clerics in churches who just stayed in their country estates and took the money and they didn’t even maintain the churches. So the government steps in and makes a proclamation, effectively going, thou must build churches. Into this comes the great architects like Butterfield, Street, Pugin. So the very first half of the nineteenth century is what we know as the Gothic Revival. Church building, church furnishing going on and stained glass starts apace.
Also in the 1850s and 60s craftsmen were thinking why can't we do it like the medieval stained glass makers. They couldn't simply because medieval glass is mouth blown. So there is no evenness in its thickness. Each bit of glass that the medieval craftsman made, this bit is thin at one end, but it might be thicker at the other. So that when you put it into a window and light comes through that little bit of glass, the light will come through differently. It will be less bright in the thicker bit and more bright in the thinner bit. The medieval craftsmen knew that. That's what the Victorian stained glass makers were really trying to discover.
TB: Nathaniel Westlake was a freelance designer. You could make a living by doing that. He went around to companies like Powell’s who were probably the biggest manufacturer of windows at this time. He would show his portfolio of how good an artist he was. Also a portfolio of stained glass design that he could offer to them. And that is how he was making his living. But in about 1858-59, clearly by 1860, he had become involved with the stained glass firm of Lavers and Barraud.
In 1864 the V&A had an exhibition of stained glass and mosaics and one of the firms that submits things that were selected to be displayed was a panel made by Lavers and Barraud to the design by Nathaniel Westlake. So this is just made for an exhibition piece as far as anyone has ever been able to find out. It wasn’t actually a potential commission which a lot of exhibition pieces were. This just seems to be solely their own making and as it’s a design by Westlake, one makes that big assumption that it’s Westlake’s idea. The iconography of this panel was all in his head. We know that Westlake was friends with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood like many groups in Europe were interested in things medieval. They’re looking at more literary subjects. Morris and co were doing lots of things like George and the Dragon windows. Dante Alligheri, the writer of the famous Divine Comedy, from the early part of fourteenth century was big. There was a lot of interest in him.
The iconography of the Westlake panel is quite complicated. It is derived from Dante’s Divine Comedy. In this poem Dante was granted a trip through hell into purgatory and finally into paradise. It’s a wonderful story. Dante is lead by the Roman poet Virgil who to him represents reason and as Dante is going through hell and purgatory he is reflecting on his own life. He is working out his own sin. At the very end of purgatory, this person called Beatrice starts to be mentioned. Beatrice was a real person, Beatrice Portinali. It seems that Dante knew her when they were children in Florence. He was a member of one family and she was another. For whatever reason and remember Italy wasn’t a unified country, it was a bunch of city states and these city states had noble families fighting each other. So marriages were not love matches, they were political matches and Dante had fallen in love with this young Beatrice. Madly, head over heels, quite perversely. Like, get over it Dante. But he never did. But he couldn’t marry her. She married someone else. We don’t even know if she realized his devotion. But anyway she had to marry someone else and she died quite young. So he was stuck on her all this time.
Now when you read the Divine Comedy it becomes apparent that Beatrice is divine love. And divine love is the only way you can go through heaven. Reason cannot take you into heaven. So at the very end of purgatory, before he makes that last crossing of the river and going up into heaven, Dante is given a vision by a woman called Mathilda and her companions, often known as the three graces, but really faith, hope and love. They give Dante a vision of what is to come. And this is the first time that he realised that this woman, who he has always loved and is now dead, has become divine love. This vision of Beatrice is going to lead him into paradise. This is what is depicted in the panel designed by Westlake. Beatrice up there in that top left corner. Faith, hope and love are those three figures who are often referred to as the three graces. First personified in that form by Sandro Botticelli in the middle of the fifteenth century in the Primaevera painting. This is Dante kneeling at the front, eyes closed, given that vision of Beatrice. That moment when he realises that his love has become divine love and so will take him into heaven.
It’s done in the medieval manner. So we’ve got little pieces of glass just like in the medieval way, irregular shaped pieces carefully chosen. It’s not just take that one, put it there to make the picture, but trying to get the right balance of light coming through. By this time in the nineteenth century they are using the equivalent of light cables. So they can start to see the effect and so they can choose the glass, arrange the shape in order to maximise the light coming through.
So Westlake is the culmination of this late eighteenth century, first half of the nineteenth century, Gothic revival way of doing it in the medieval manner. He is a medieval craftsman. He is a medieval artist. Let’s put it that way. Lavers and Barraud are a workshop that operated in the same way as a medieval workshop would have done. You have a centre in which you had your designer, your painter, your glass maker, your lead worker, all in one institution producing the window and each one being prized for their skills. As the nineteenth century moves on the designer becomes more of an artist. You start to get into, what is known in the ceramic world, as art pottery. You might as well call it art stained glass.
Four film stills from Vision of Paradise, 2015. 30 minute, high definition video.
As a child during the 1970s, I would be consuming American popcorn movies at the ABC Edgware Road / Harrow Road. I recall When The North Wind Blows (man co-exists with tiger, 1974) and King Kong (men in conflict with giant ape, 1976).
Driving past the cinema and on another plane of reality was the author J G Ballard. Using the recently built Westway "motorway" from central London to his home in Shepperton, Ballard would pass the faded visage of the ABC with its local community displaced by slum clearance and road building. Further on he might spy the iconic Brutalist Trellick Tower and ponder the news headlines critiquing the social housing bloc that had degenerated into vandalism and tenant isolation. Nearing the West Cross interchange, perhaps Ballard has a vicarious thrill: hand caressing the steering wheel; foot poking the accelerator; car sliding and swerving, dangerously.
This type of imaginative journey across the Westway would inform the subject matter of Ballard's seminal trilogy: Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975).
Here's a quick summary for the uninitiated:
Crash postulates a new form of human sexuality, born from the collision of car on car. A film adaption was vividly directed by David Cronenberg in 1997 and initially banned by Westminster City Council.
Concrete Island is about an architect who crashes his Jaguar off the Westway and struggles to survive in a cocooned wasteland.This is slated to be a future Christian Bale film.
High Rise (my personal favourite) has a classic opening. The protagonist, is admiring the view from his balcony and tucking into the tasty morsel of dog. Forget co-existence or conflict with nature. Welcome conspicuous consumption of the canine variety. In 2015, High Rise will hit the cinema screens.
In these dystopian texts, Ballard is inverting the 1960s confidence in high rises and inner city motorways. These were seen at the time as progressive solutions to housing and transport needs.
The Guardian recently celebrated Ballard, five years on (after death). Seven writers articulated what was unique and memorable about his work. Many visual artists and film makers could also reference the impact of his writing. I first discovered Ballard in the early 1980s as a moody teen listening to Joy Division. I revisited Ballard in 2010 when devising Flood Light. This involved a film making guided tour under the Westway and a re-enactment from Concrete Island. I have also made a trio of short films about the urban environment of the area with Ballard as a guiding spirit.
At an art event recently, I met Ray, who during the 1970s lived in the twenty-floor high rise, Frinstead House, on the Silchester Estate. He may or may not have been turned on and tuned in. But he was definitely having apocalyptic visions of vehicles dropping out of the concrete sky. This was a nightmare that came true. Ray recounted, how one day, he witnessed a lorry crashing over the barrier and bursting into flames. He made a drawing of this incident (see image above).
On a related note, I recently read an archive letter written by Fred Vermorel and published in the Times in Nov 1978. Fred is now Associate Professor of Communication at The American University in London. Back in the day he was living at Frinstead House with his wife Judy. They could almost have been characters in the scary fictional High Rise of J. G. Ballard. This is what Fred wrote to the press:
"The noise is sickening. We live day and night with the unceasing thunder of motor vehicles, flat out and passing up and down the several slipways, and with the racket of passing trains (goods trains shunt through the night). All this noise hits our home directly. It is impossible to read, think or listen to music.
I must confess that the vandalism which is slowly eating away this particular estate elates rather than horrifies us. How else does one react? The GLC is dead to transfer requests and there are no effective ways of protest or redress. If to destroy these places is some sort of crime, to have built them is worse! All around us are squatters, living in “derelict” (GLC owned) property. Built by speculators at the turn of the century, these houses are shielded from road and rail lines, are solidly built on a human scale, and have gardens. We would gladly rent one. But they will shortly be demolished.
The GLC is still building unsheltered dwellings all along the Westway. With millions of pounds worth of expertise and materials, it is disseminating the suffering and environmental poverty I have described: factory farms for psychosis and barbarity.”
Fred and Judy Vermorel were being driven out of their senses, but successfully campaigned to be rehoused. However we should note, they still found time while at Frinstead House during 1978-79, to write the first book about the Sex Pistols and produce a punk song for the Cash Pussies.
During my forthcoming V&A Museum Community Artist in Residence, I hope to be based in a studio next to the high-rise, Frinstead House. I will definitely tap into the creative energy of Ballard and the DIY spirit of punk. Hopefully realise some long-term art projects that render and re-imagine the Westway and connect old residents in the high rises with new occupants of buildings currently being erected on the estate. I need to provide a counter-measure to the radicalism of Ballard and stereotypical perceptions about estate culture. Estates are not a car crash. Dig beneath the veneer and talk to people who have made this their home. There is a space here for high quality, multi-cultural and collaborative art.
The search for Marie Henderson
I'm on a quest to re-discover a Victorian actress. She was born in 1841 at Daventry and called Mary Henderson. Twenty years later she married in Liverpool and became Mary Geogheghan. Closing the chapter on her life, Marie Aubrey died in 1882 at Bethlem Hospital, London.
The woman that I'm bringing to life is Marie Henderson, the name she adopted for the stage. She can be fleetingly observed in numerous archive records, most notably the Era newspaper. I must be careful not to idolise or idealise.
Marie Henderson would have been familiar with adulation from stage struck girls in East End and Surrey: perhaps sensing in the actress, the potential for freedom of expression lacking in their lives. Also subject to the male Victorian gaze. One that often assumed an actress was grafted from the loin of the prostitute.
So what does our Marie Henderson look like? This is my overriding research aim. I naively believe that unearthing her photo will allow me to gauge her existential being. That the chemicals on the surface of paper will atomise her soul. Allow her to speak (without words) and contradict all that has hitherto been published about her: not much, disjointed, man talk. Surely she must have posed for a carte de visit, during the 1860s or more likely 1870s, when based in London and at the peak of her powers?
The photograph in the slideshow above was purchased from a collector and had me temporarily excited. Foolish boy! It soon transpired the photo was not my (excuse my possessivess) Marie Henderson. It is a contemporary actress with the exact stage name. The V&A Museum Collections identified the photo as Mrs George Rignold. Further research would reveal confusing correspondence in the Victorian press about the two ladies. Can the editor please tell me how Miss Marie Henderson can appear in two different theatre productions on the same night? Ode to social media. Marie Henderson would be forced to take out a notice in 1875: "Miss Henderson (the popular Surrey favourite, and late of Britannia, Princessâs, Adelphi, Astleyâs, Surrey, &c.) begs to state that she appears only at the above theatre nightly."
At the moment I am relatively free to imagine what Marie Henderson looks, thinks and sounds like. I can construct an image of an attractive lady perhaps powdered to hide a birth mark on her left cheek. Born into a working-class and itinerant background that revolved around the rapidly expanding world of Victorian theatre. Through talent, hard graft and networking skills, she would become one of the leading exponents of expressive acting that represented the best of melodrama; an equal of any actress to be found in fashionable West End. Her powerhouse performances would reduce audiences to tears. Even stiff-collared, middle class theatre critics were enraptured. Being of Irish or Scottish ethnic origin, our English rose has a thistle or shamrock at heart.
Let me describe her life in five acts. Distinct biographical phases that compress thousands of theatrical roles, first observed in childhood, later performed on the stage. Her life tells us much about Victorian society: the world of theatre, the role of women, commerce, ethnicity and politics. The key text for study is Tracy C Davis: Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture, 2002.
Act 1: The curtain rises to reveal a girl waiting in the wings. 1840's-1860s.
Although her early years are shrouded in mystery, we can trace her backwards from the 1861 census. Mary Henderson was born of Irish or Scottish parentage in 1841 at Daventry, Northamptonshire. Her parents or grandparents would have migrated to England, one or two generations before the impact of the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. I suspect her father was Thomas W. Henderson; comedian, actor and possibly theatre costume supplier. We might be observing him in legal transcripts from 1846, accused of stealing Â£50 during an amateur production of Julius Caesar at the Bower Saloon in London. Found not guilty, he would be dashing off to Dover for his next job. Mary would have followed her parents as they roamed England from one theatre engagement to another. Mary would start acting on the stage from early years; no Victorian qualms about using children as labour in the marketplace and a pattern Mary would later repeat with her two daughters. The financial insecurity of working in the profession might have made for a difficult childhood, but exposed her to a myriad of experiences that could be stored in the memory bank. Theatre engendered a lifestyle that was a little rough round the Christian edges of society. Above all, It offered space for an imaginative girl to play act.
Act 2: The apprentice years at the Royal Colosseum Theatre, Liverpool. 1861-1866.
Liverpool was at the height of its imperial and trading power. It was a magnet in the North for Irish and Scottish migrants, looking for work and better opportunities in the industrial cities; a port of call before further emigration to Australia or America. One can see the Henderson's arriving here for work; there is no mention of Mary's mother in the archives and one assumes separation or death.
The theatre listings for Liverpool provide an outline of Mary Henderson's early career on the stage; she would only adopt the name Marie when establishing herself in London. She has joined the Royal Colosseum repertory company in a building that was formerly a Unitarian chapel and ringed by a graveyard. Mary made an immediate impact in "sensation" dramas as the heroine who might be thrown by the villain from a rock into a pool of water; cue extras wriggling like waves under a blue tarpaulin sheet. She would be working at the theatre with her husband, Frederick Geogheghan. He was a violinist who composed and orchestrated music for several of her melodramas.
Irish melodrama, often with a political subtext, were extremely popular at this time. Mary would play the lead roles in many of these plays: Kathleen Mavourneen; Ireland As It Was; Norah Creina; The Whiteboys, Na Bouchaleen Bawn or Ireland in 98. To get a flavour, here is a link to a recent production of Colleen Bawn.
Mary Henderson's most celebrated role was as the ghost in the hit play from 1863 called The Widow and Orphans: Faith, Hope and Charity. This was the first of several spectral dramas that used mirrors to create haunting optical illusions. It was also named after its inventor, Professor Pepper's Ghost.
Here is a memorable summary of The Widow and Orphans from The Mercury Newspaper, 21st July, 1863:
"It is a domestic drama, with three murders, one suicide, two conflagrations, four robberies, one virtuous lawyer, 23 angels, and a ghost. There are three heroines in the piece, Faith, Hope and Charity - the first, an elderly lady, widow of a clergyman, and in straitened circumstances; and the other two, her daughters, pretty and poor, and of course models of perfection, as indicated by the label. The plot turns upon the possession of the lease of a house which Sir Gilbert Northlaw, a proud and scheming baronet, class representative of the bloated aristocracy, has acquired by fraud from the clerical widow."
Act 3: Leading member of Britannia theatre and freelance star, 1867-1874.
Mary Henderson moved down to London with her family in 1867 and joined the repertory company of the Britannia Theatre in Hotxon. The Sunday Times in Dec 1867 noticed the new kid on the block: âPossessed of a pleasing appearance, some command of passion and clear pronounciation, this lady is likely to become a very great favourite.â Sarah Lane, actress and proprietor of the Britannia was an important role model for the ambitious Mary (or should we now call her, Marie Henderson). There is a vivid portrait of the theatre in The Britannia Diaries: Selections from the Diaries of Frederick C. Wilton, 1863-75, Society for Theatre Research, 1992.
Health and family commitments permitting, Marie would be appearing in a new production every week; only rarely did a play run for several weeks. She was cast as the young heroine experiencing moral and emotional dilemmas. Occasionally she would flex her muscles and play Shakespeare. There was also scope for cross-dressing into male roles.
Here's a brief sample of character parts she performed at the Britannia during this period:
1. Ellen Morton in The Dark Side of the Metropolis; written by William Travers. The plot revolves around a country orphan who is lured to London for sex trafficking. "Miss Hendersonâs acting, which is always good, was in this case all the more striking and gratifying, as she had to depict maidenly purity remaining unsullied in the midst of hateful vice." Era newspaper, 17th May 1868.
2. Florence Ashton in The Pace That Kills, (or Fast Life and Noble Life), written by C H Hazelwood. On her wedding day, a former lover turns up and wrecks havoc. "Great praise is due to Miss Henderson for the able manner in which she represents both the affectionate gentleness and surprising energy of the young, lovely and tired wife. It seemed astonishing that one so apparently delicate should act with the power and impressiveness which she exhibited when representing Florence as excited with a determination to foil and punish the man who had wronged her." Era, 13th March, 1870.
In the archives we have a revealing account of the sacred and profane in Miss Marie Henderson.
On the 12th July, 1869 she has travelled with 400 people and the preacher Alfred Gliddon (running a temporary chapel service at the Britannia theatre on Sundays), on a train from Moorgate-street station to an orchard in Hayes. A procession of hymns, sermons, music, tea, cake, hams, bread and butter would follow. Marie Henderson was the icing. She made a speech to the assembled folk about the virtues of appreciation, comprehension and imitation; singing the praise of Mr Gliddon and the Christian ethic. She concluded by making a prophetic statement (and more of that prophecy later):
"We have a proverb which says that from a little mending cometh great ease. Many poor cast-down creatures may apply this to their morals as well as to their clothes. But I fear I am trespassing upon your time, and you will accuse me of making too great an elongation of my speech. My sex is reputed for fondness of talking, but you must forgive me. If ladies ever get into Parliament, whatever will the poor men do to keep pace with our tongues?"
This is the only time in the archive that Marie Henderson speaks in her own words, admittedly performing a theatrically inclined spiritual service.
Two weeks later we have accounts of rebellion, sexual shenanigans and inebriation. Frederick C Wilton notes in his diary for July 29th 1869, that Marie Henderson is refusing to play the role of Juliet (in Shakespeare) when a fellow actor (possibly a lover) is threatened with dismissal. On the following day, the diarist notes how Marie was performing on stage while under the influence and fell off a platform, blaming the carpenters for their shoddy work.
Marie Henderson as diva? Why not! By 1871 she is able to pull in a packed house in an abridged version of Hamlet (playing the role of the Prince of Denmark). I suspect she was getting itchy feet and wanting to play bigger (not necessarily better) parts. A desire to transcend the Britannia rep and launch herself as a freelance actress.
The re-opening of the Astley Amphitheatre (home to equestrian drama) in 1871 provided the opportunity for blockbuster roles, better pay and elevated status. In the space of a season she showcased her athleticism and physical charms. Marie was selected to play the Amazon Queen in The Last of the Race (or Warrior Women), fronting an army of 100 Amazon fighters dressed in feminised armour, or should that read amour. This was followed by the role of St. George in the big budget pantomime of Lady Godiva and no doubt testing the limits of censorship. Her concluding role at Astley's was in a revival of Mazeppa (or The Wild Horse of Tartary). An equestrian spectacle with real cataracts of water and a troupe of warring Arabs on a battle field. Centre stage we have Marie Henderson as Mazeppa. In Byron's original poem, Mazeppa is a male lover punished by being tied naked to a wild horse that gallops across the countryside. Sadly no photos of Marie, but check out the risquÃ© Ada Isaacs Menken as Mazeppa in 1864.
"Miss Henderson is an actress of considerable spirit, and possesses admirable elocutionary powers. Added to these qualifications we have the fact that she has a handsome figure, and we have said enough to assure our readers that in her they will find a very attractive, a very daring, and a very accomplished hero, who is likely to make the perilous journey and to brace the dangers of the plains of Tartary for many weeks to come in presence of thousands of ardent and applauding admirers."
Era: 10th March 1872.
Act 4: Boom, bust and ashes at the Elephant and Castle Theatre, 1875-1880.
The freelance years had given Marie the confidence and experience to call her own shots. The lease to the Elephant and Castle Theatre was taken in 1875 and she established herself as lead actress and directress. John Aubrey, her second husband, would run the business. Marie used her extensive contacts and build a top-notch repertory company with a rolling programme of star actors.
"The E&C Theatre appears to thrive under the direction of Miss Marie Henderson, who, in addition to talents, which are enthusiastically recognised on the Surrey side of the water, has evidently good ideas on the subject of management, and succeeds in attracting good audiences by giving them the dramatic fare suited to their taste." Era, 22/08/75.
Marie would mount several Irish melodramas: The Shinghawn (1875), Moyna-a-Roon (1875), The Banshee, Spirit of the Borcen (1876), Gra-Gal-Machree (1876) and Home Rule (1880). Critics would note the "pathetic" power of her acting and the close bond established with a predominantly working-class audience: "Here comes Eveleen (in The Banshee), as one walking in her sleep and soliloquising, the audience becoming almost literally spellbound. The vociferous cheers which rewarded the artist were thoroughly well deserved." Era, 12/03/76.
Marie Henderson would also make bold decisions about casting actors from ethnically diverse backgrounds. The Mexican and Afro-American tragedians, Don Edgardo and Samuel Morgan Smith, had successful runs at the Elephant and Castle playing in a range of classical and melodramatic roles.
"Mr Morgan Smith was called before the curtain and greeted with unstinted applause. We put aside the questions of race and training. What is good is good, whether we find it in a Hindoo, a Chinese of a native of Fiji. Happily such narrow prejudices have passed away, and we were glad to perceive the audience listening with attention and giving the performer fair play. There were no more interruptions than there would have been if a white man had appeared as Othello. We must not admit to compliment Mr Morgan Smith upon the tenderness and warmth of feeling displayed in the scenes with Desdemona, a part which, as played by Miss Marie Henderson received its due importance throughout the play." Era, 24/10/75.
British society and theatre in the 1870s would have a complex relationship with issues of race and ethnic identity. Racist stereotyping would be an accepted norm. This is illustrated by a wonderful write-up, cum send-up of The Wild Flower of the Prairie produced by Marie Henderson and Mr Frank Fuller in 1877:
"If cheers, and tears, and laughter are to be taken as indications of success, it was in every respect successful. What better elements of success we should like to know could be supplied for melodrama than the doings of a pretty Indian girl; a couple of villains who are ever ready to âdoâ if not to die; a lonely spot where a catatact comes bubbling and foaming; a hero who is bound hand and foot, and, after a terrible combat is left to die; a heroine who comes in the nick of time to rescue him; pistol shots; oaths; appeals to heaven; thunder and lighting; limelight; a war dance; Ha Haââs in abunance; a legacy of vengence; hate; revenge; curdling Indian blood; Spanish vengence; threats of visits from the grave; beetling brows; daggers; gunpowder; coloured faces; big boots; hoarse vehemence; a comical Negress; an Irishman who is persuaded to turn âNiggerâ in order to watch over the interests of his master; bludgeons; bleedings; blightings; blows and brooms; âCanons of Deathâ (that is the name found for one of the scenes); blood stained pages; noble sacrifices; fights for life; moments of peril; and striking denouments. All these are to be found in The Wild Flower of the Prairie." "Miss Marie Henderson, looking bewitchingly picturesque, created a profound impression as Lupah, the wild flower of the prairie. Everything this lady attempts is marked by great intelligence, much grace, and more than ordinary histrionic ability." Era, 16/09/77.
In March 1876, Mr and Mrs Aubrey, on a roll, took over the Royal Victoria Theatre (Old Vic). She was once again director and would rotate her appearances at both venues. The Royal Victoria initially started with Shakespeare, but would also add variety to the programme before homing in on the box-office pull of melodrama; but running both theatres was financially unsustainable.
A fire that completely destroyed the Elephant and Castle Theatre on March 26th, 1878 would downgrade the aspirational fortunes of the Aubreys. No lives were lost, but the scenery, dresses and fixtures were uninsured. The Royal Victoria had to be given up, A charitable relief fund was set up to support the Elephant repertory company. Marie Aubrey would return to productions at her old stomping ground, the Britannia. It would take more than a year, with escalating costs, to rebuild the Elephant and Castle Theatre. It opened on 31st May 1879 with a melodrama called Raised From The Ashes.
Several critics at the time saw the disastrous fire as the cause of Marie's mental health problems. During the following seasons, Marie Henderson would become an infrequent performer on the stage. Business was never the same. John Aubrey would appear in the London Bankruptcy Court in 1880 filing for a petition of liquidation. His liabilities were estimated at Â£2,600 and assets Â£300.
The Aubrey reign at the Elephant and Castle Theatre came to an end. On 22nd August 1880, Mr Aubrey fired his last salvo in the press. "I have to inform you that I am still in possession of the premises, and that a motion for an injunction to restrain Mr Hosford, the landlord, from interfering with my proprietorship is now pending in the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice." The court order was overturned on appeal and the theatre was opened by new management on 3rd October 1880.
Act 5: Paralysis of the Insane and last performance at Bethlem Hospital, 1881-1882.
The reputation and identity of Marie Henderson would now be fought out in the press and medical establishment.
Rev. F. Statham of St. Peter's Church, Walworth published a letter inviting charitable funds to support the actress.
"I take the liberty, through you of soliciting for the sufferer the sympathies of the Dramatic Profession generally. It is that of Miss Marie Henderson, the wife of Mr J. Aubrey, late lessee and manager of the E&C theatre. Through the loss of her wardrobe, etc, in the total destruction of that theatre by fire in the spring of 1878, and through more recent reverses, her mind received so severe a shock that she gradually lost her reason, and at the present time she is totally unable to resume her professional duties, and, in accordance with the doctorâs certificate, which, I append, there seems little chance of her ever being able to do so." Era, 26/03/81.
This would spark off a vicious correspondence in the press. A former actor at the Elephant and Castle, Walter Grisdale, who had a falling out with the Aubrey's, published a counter-response. Marie Henderson was not deserving of charity. He claimed that during the recent fire, money raised by public subscription wasn't adequately distributed to the actors and technicians, but lined the pockets of the Aubreys.
There was limited scientific understanding of the neurological complications of Marie's condition. The stigma of "madness" would frame discussion about mental health and brain disease.
H. H. B. Wilkinson: "Her view of ordinary things was defective and uncertain, owing to impairment of the reasoning faculty. She was, even at the period of which I speak, nothing more than a cipher in society." Era, 23/04/81.
Marie Henderson who once had complete mastery of hundreds of characters and voices in British melodrama, was now reduced to monosyllabic utterances: "yes" and "jolly" and "oh dear." We can poignantly recall that prophetic speech made to a crowd assembled in Hayes. The one concerning "morals" and "clothes" and a "fondness for talking." Her husband describes the delusions of his wife, thinking she was a great lady (possibly a character from one of her plays) and constantly dressing herself over and over. Instinctively, Marie held close to the theatrical costumes that once gave shape to her power of communication.
Money was eventually raised and she was sent to Bethlem (Bedlam) Hospital.
The medial records for Marie Henderson's stay at Bethlem tell the true story. She is finally diagnosed: Paralysis of the Insane. Full understanding and treatment of this disease, one caused by a sexually transmitted infection, syphilis, would only become available from 1910 and with advances in antibiotics.
Marie Aubrey died on 10th of April 1882. She is buried in an unmarked grave at Brompton Cemetery, grid reference AE/245.3/39.
On the 4th March 1877, onstage at the Elephant and Castle Theatre, an oil portrait was presented to Marie Henderson. The portrait of herself was inscribed with the following: "Presented to Miss Marie Henderson by a few friends and admirers of histrionic art.â Does that portrait still exist as a family heirloom? Perhaps gathering dust in an attic.
The Geoghegan's are rightfully proud of their family folk tree, but only reference their link with Henderson in passing.
I wonder if Marie Henderson once sang the ditties penned by her father-in-law, Joseph Bryan Geoghegan:
"Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg, hurroo, hurroo
Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg, hurroo, hurroo
Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg
Ye're an armless, boneless, chickenless egg
Ye'll have to be put with a bowl out to beg
Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye."
Marie Henderson. I re-invoke you in word and oil pastel and film.
Who would I cast to play you? You would have to be an unknown.
Humour me, as I imagine presenting a script to the magisterial Max Ophuls, my all-time fave film maker. He would do justice to a biopic based on Marie's life. I see his endlessly tracking camera following a lady in the fog as she crosses the busy roundabout at the Elephant and Castle, dodging, perilously, trams and horses. Gathering her pace. Tracking past iron railings and lamp posts. The shouting of costermongers selling fruit or oysters. She drops a programme sheet. Does not care. Breathlessly reaching the front door of the theatre. It is locked. There is a CLOSED TILL FURTHER NOTICE sign.
This could be 1927, 1935 or 1974. Previous blog entries have outlined how theatre becomes cinema and melodrama morphs into horror at the Elephant and Castle. The actor, Tod Slaughter, playing the stage and screen roles of Sweeney Todd has a blood line to Marie Henderson's heart of melodrama. Sheila Keith in British horror flicks has a related vein of passion.
The concept of "horror" may seem connected with world wars and cinema of the twentieth century. However, ladies and gentlemen. Before horror, let us feast on melodrama: with sensational plots, exciting scenic devices, brazen displays of flesh and emotion - all embodied in the life and times of our heroine, Marie Henderson.
A previous blog about 1970s British film culture and the horror genre was a point of entry for my art project.
Today, I'm going to freeze frame on performance and iconography in horror. Then rewind 100 years and connect with melodrama.
There is a site-specific location binding these themes: the Elephant and Castle Theatre, Cinema, Club. On one level, this is about the ghostly memory of a building that is currently the Coronet Club at 28 New Kent Road. Bringing it to life, I need to dip your toes in the archive and employ some creative sleight of hand.
Built in 1872, the Elephant and Castle Theatre closely followed the opening of the E&C station on the London, Chatham and Dover railway line; the theatre bulging around and under the arches of the railway line. Urbanisation coupled with increased shopping and entertainment attractions would lead to the area being called the "Piccadilly of South London." The theatre was established by maverick businessman, Edward Tyrell Smith; he's another story waiting to be told. He saw money to be made from his love of theatre. However boom and bust would haunt every theatre even as this one regularly packed in the local working classes with a programme of weekly melodrama and seasonal pantomime. In the face of stringent health and safety requirements from the London County Council, the building was sold off and converted into a cinema in the early 1930s.
Another cycle. Another fifty plus years of cinema in vogue and then decline. The cinema finally closing its doors in 1999. The Coronet club was christened in 2003.
There is a new phase of contested regeneration taking place at the Elephant and Castle. The social housing and shopping centre is being replaced by new forms of private housing, shops and business. At the time of writing, I don't know if the writing is on the wall for the Coronet Club. Let us hope that it has at least another 100 years to entertain.
So as I zip around in space and time, let me transport you (once again) to the ABC Elephant and Castle.
The auditorium is in semi-darkness. The camera tracks across row after row of empty seats. A projector beams into life and reveals a couple sat at the back. She in hot pants, him in tightly crocheted flares. They are on a date. He hopes the horror and sex double bill will facilitate intimacy. She is anxiously waiting for the first move. They almost have the auditorium to themselves apart from an old geezer in the front row fumbling about in a bag and then cracking open some monkey nuts. They are all in for a shock.
Frightmare (1974) is being screened.
Shirley and Deepak are watching the film with growing consternation as several off-camera murders culminate in the bloody use of a power tool on a corpse; this D.I.Y predates Texas Chainsaw. Then forty seven minutes into the film, the first dramatised murder. Shirl and Dee are gripped. They might later reflect on how the writing (David McGillivray), acting (Sheila Keith), filming (Peter Jessop), music (Stanley Myers), all come together in a memorable construction of cinematic horror.
This is what they see and feel.
A vulnerable young lady, Delilah, has arrived for a tarot card reading at the country home of Dorothy. The latter has been shown to be a senior citizen with the craving for flesh; hence the corpses and bloody packages delivered by her daughter. Fear the worse! The soundtrack however starts with the reassuring chime of a carriage clock and a flickering fire place. The comforts of pastoral domesticity. Conversation about what the future holds is interrupted by the rustle of a curtain. Dorothy's animalistic qualities then come to the fore. She ominously refers to the little squirrels in the house. Deliah has money and tarot cards thrown in her face and tries to escape. The demonic laugh of Dorothy, licking her lips with perverted excitement is a classic echo of melodrama (more of this anon). The chime is now replaced by frenzied percussion and dissonant orchestral chords.
S and D as spectators are implicated in the alternating close-up, face to face, point of view shots of Dorothy and Deliah: steam hissing from the red-hot poker, blood issuing from the mouth, the rictus of horror.
Don't try copping-off with this!
Aside from the aesthetics, we might want to briefly consider the ideological impact of a horror film like Frightmare. Robin Wood in his influential essay, An Introduction to the American Horror Film, argues that the best types of horror film tap into political, cultural, and sexual issues. Horror is not just about goose bumps, but can explore complex ideas about the nature of society and its inequalities. The monster as the "return of the repressed." This reading is very pertinent to the films of George A Romero; take Dawn of the Dead, with both zombies and plain old humans consumed by the mania of a shopping complex.
For Frightmare, director, Pete Walker and his scriptwriter were keen on "making mischief" by embedding their film with a subtext that was probably drawn from the pages of the Daily Mail. The film loosely dramatises the question - should not the most serious offenders be locked up for good. Dorothy is able to carry on her cannibalism as a consequence of a legal and medical judgement about being fit for society. This is a topical debate; not the cannibalism, but recidivism. The film likewise makes the male lead a do-gooding medical professional. He sucks. Or rather has his brain sucked out. One senses a questioning of the efficacy of psychiatry. It's a pity that Walker doesn't spend more time teasing out what the lust for flesh actually means for Dorothy apart from satisfying some primal drive. Minor quibble.
Was Pete Walker conservative by nature and compelled to direct subversive films? Apparently so.
With these thoughts still in mind, let me guide you to the Elephant and Castle Theatre in 1927 and 1935.
Norman Carter Slaughter (1885-1956) commonly known as Tod Slaughter was an actor/manager of stage, screen, radio and T.V. who championed melodrama when it was long out of fashion. Jeffrey Richards in his book, An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929-1939, sees Slaughter as a missing link between the theatrical world of melodrama and the cinematic horror; a pioneer for a "cinema of excess" predating Hammer horror by several decades.
Slaughter and his repertory company were based at the Elephant and Castle theatre for 3 years. 1927 was a hight point when West End audiences flocked to see his production of Maria Marten, or Murder in the Red Barn. He must have been annoyed that he wasn't acting in this production. Expected to run for one week, it was seen by over 100,000 people and bowed out after 100 performances. It generated intense debate about "blood and thunder" melodrama in the context of contemporary theatre. Alas, there is no film record of this production. But you can see Tod (below) acting in the film version made in 1935.
So what would a courting couple at the Elephant and Castle make of this stage production in 1927 or the screening in 1935. They would certainly have found it difficult to get intimate in a packed, hissing and cheering theatre. Once again there would have been the shock factor, this time witnessing an execution on the stage; less effective on screen, due to censorship. The actor playing the role of William Corder, who is executed for the murder of his lover, Maria Marten (all based on real events) has a noose applied and then falls through the trap door. The brutality of the staging had audiences gasping.
What about the hammy meat of Tod's acting style? It's difficult to swallow in our post-modern world, but is ripe for re-evaluation as a stylisation where the heart is worn on the sleeve. We can easily identity the broad brush strokes of melodrama: the sneer, the gesticulation, the maniacal laugh. No great psychological insight is intended. Freud need not apply. But it is very sincere and convincing. The villainous roles that Tod Slaughter became synonymous with, Sweeney Todd and William Corder, despatch opponents in a style that should remind us of modern counterparts who have a savvy, deadly punch line. Sweeney Todd uttered the line: "I'll polish you off!" Corder had this quip: "I promised to make you a bride, a bride of death!" Perhaps its best to view the acting in relation to the world of melodrama and when you respect the laws of this artistic universe, it is as natural as natural can be.
My previous blog flagged up some of the Euro influences on British horror. This also applies to melodrama which emanated from French and German musical dramas in the late eighteen century. By the mid nineteenth century this had been codified into a recognisable art form extremely popular with working class audiences. We know the heightened passions and the spectacular effects of melodrama, perhaps best remembered from early silent movies: the damsel in distress, tied to a railway line, the train approaching, the hysteria, the rescue. This is typical character and plot for a Victorian melodrama. However the plays also contained much depth and elaborate stories that often reflected the political and social changes of the late 18th and early 19th century. By and large, the "return of the repressed" could represent the working class (urban or rustic) against the forces of the land owning squire or the new industrial boss. Often Irish nationalism would play out against the English. There is a sense of fatalism as characters are born in a hierarchical society. They exert themselves in a power or psychological struggle to either inherit property or find fame or misfortune (Australian gold or penal colony?) or, if you were a heroine, fending off the oily love making of the villain. Tod Slaughter's films are updated versions of plays in this tradition. They are a window onto the past. One notable exception that looks forward to Hammer horror is The Face at the Window (1939).
So having cross-bred Sheila Keith and Tod Slaughter as uber serial killer, mashed up the world of horror and melodrama and teased out ideological and historical concerns - what next?
Let me re-think that first one again. Sheila Keith and Tod Slaughter meet on screen, we violently cut from one to another as they unleash anarchy and challenge the social order. A wound on the surface of British culture. Prick it and watch yourself bleed.
I am intrigued by how melodrama and horror offer the potential for extreme psychological states. The representation of mental health and madness.
Installation? A theatrical and cinematic space that is shape shifting between the 1920s and 1970s.
Reminded of other artistic interventions - Marcus Coates, A Ritual for Elephant & Castle (2012).
I write this screenplay outline:
Tod Slaughter, theatre impresario in dire financial straits is putting on a stage play. The bailiffs have confiscated his costumes and props. His love life is problematic; ex-wife and child acting in the wings. Tod is about to mount a last ditched melodrama, perhaps updated with gothic touches and this becomes the hit sensation of theatre land in 1927. But it all descends into a blood fest. He is stalked by a serial killer bumping off all those connected with him. Let's add a character called Alfred Hitchcock fresh from the screening of The Lodger (1927). Hitch has some interesting ideas about casting Tod in his next film. But will Tod survive the final reel when the theatre is consumed with flames?
Will an older, wiser, Shirley and Deepak, be engrossed watching this as a download on their iPad? What are their memories of the Elephant and Castle? They might be interested to know that things haven't exactly changed that much. The Coronet Club is staging a Valentines party on Friday 14th February, 2014. "Discover a NAKED FEAST! Or discover your wild side in the Chambers of Venus, whilst elsewhere in the Coronet you’ll find the Onion Cellar, a chance to Voodoo your ex, or jump in a hot tub whilst watching a movie."
If anyone wants to engage with these themes or ideas, please do not hesitate to contact me. I'm an artist open to collaboration.
Next blog will once again shift in time, but not space. I will introduce you to the leading lady at the Elephant and Castle, the Victorian actress, Marie Henderson (1841-1882). There are at least five things you should know about her!
Took part in a HISTORYtalk event last night with Natalie Marr and Emily Ballard from Latymer Projects.
I screened two short films called Flood Light (2010) and Home (2012). Also a selection of images culled from my archive research into the Grand Union Canal, Westway, Slum Clearance Programme and Silchester Estate development.
This was a good opportunity for me to review my practice and to talk about maps created as part of my work. The first map, West London Waterways, was made in 2009 as part of a development bursary for the Cultural Olympiad. This got me noticed by the Arts Officer in RBKC and I was commissioned to stage an arts event as part of InTRANSIT 2010. Flood Light was a participatory film making project getting local residents and Londoners to connect with the inter-related legacy of the Grand Union Canal and Westway (A40).
Naturally, I made a map and invited people to creatively journey across this landscape. Ten other film makers took up the challenge and produced excellent films. I was able to present this at the Portobello Film Festival alongside my own work.
As a follow-up project, Home is about the last house demolished for the Westway. It's based on an evocative photograph taken by Mary Miller in the late 1960s. For several months I've been obsessively trying to find out more about this lost house and the home owner who refused to be moved as the wider area was demolished for slum clearance and Westway road building. No luck so far. I have microfiche disorder.
At this juncture in time, I'm working with Latymer projects editing analogue and digital maps. We want to focus on the area around Bramley Road, Freston Road and the Silchester Estate in W10. This is an area steeped in radical history: 1958 race riot, Westway activism and Frestonia. It is also about to undergo regeneration (again) and our map will hopefully represent issues around community and housing. Check out the excellent map (below) made by Allan Tyrrell. For a full low down, visit the Latymer Mapping project website.
West London Waterways map, 2009.
Inspiration for my eco-arts projects based around blue and green spaces in West London.
Last house demolished for the Westway, late 1960s.
Photo by Mary Miller.
© RBKC Local Studies and Archive.