Margaret Lowenfeld (1890-1973) was a pioneer of child psychology and play therapy. She was able to make creative connections of the highest originality. The child-centred philosophy she developed and its process of therapeutic play-making was the culmination of many factors: central to these being her experience of children traumatised by World War One; and also her observation of the colourful patterns in Polish folk costumes. Her work and legacy has influenced my thinking and art practice, both before and after the Grenfell Tower fire that occurred on 14th June 2017.
I have always used a model of art making that was rooted in play and non-verbal processes of communication. I was able to use this during Art for Silchester, a seven month residency that has just ended at Silchester Estate. I worked with residents and children who live across the road from the tower and each of whom are coping with the tragedy in different ways. During these sessions, we made large scale drawings and ceramics which were indirectly connected with the therapy of Margaret Lowenfeld, who first started her work in this area of North Kensington in the late 1920s.
I also recently met up with Margaret Lowenfeld's great nephew, Oliver Wright, who is one of the therapists working with the NHS in providing support to local residents traumatised by the fire. But this blog is an interview with Thérèse Mei-Yau Woodcock that was recorded from July-Sept 2018. She is retired from practice, but was trained at The Institute of Child Psychology in the early 1970s and was the leading proponent of Lowenfeld Mosaics as applied to child psychotherapy. In talking about her life and work as a Lowenfeld therapist, I was also able to open up and have a reflective space to think about my own feelings, my inability to voice them over the past year and how I am now moving forward as a person and artist.
A war child in Hong Kong and China
I was born in Hong Kong, a British colony in 1935. My parents were both teachers. When they graduated from university they started their own school based on my mother’s ideas. She was an intuitive teacher and had this notion that when you teach a child it isn’t just the teaching that counts. It is also about the child. In Hong Kong during the 1920s and 30s that was a rather unusual idea.
When the Japanese took over Hong Kong they changed all aspects of our lives including our consciousness. When my brother was born, my parents decided they didn’t want to live under the Japanese and they went to Canton, China. We had nothing and squatted in an empty house. My parents had to have two jobs in order to have enough money to feed us.
I was left on my own and wandered around quite a bit. I once stumbled across this march. Being small and very inquisitive I wiggled to the front. There were two Chinese men being executed by the Japanese. The whole crowd watching was Chinese. As soon as one of the prisoners stepped forward the crowd cheered. Then a band of soldiers tried to shoot him but he kept on spinning and it took a long time for him to fall. The crowd just kept on cheering. I was an innocent child and didn’t know anything about politics, but I thought: fate was going to show the people this was a good man. Children see things that they don’t understand and they have to make some sense of it. I didn’t see him fall and I thought he was a good man. That thought came to me as a child and I only found a word for it, patriot, when I came to England. So the words come much later in my understanding.
After some time my father returned to Hong Kong to see when it would be safe for the family to return; leaving my mother, my baby brother and myself in Canton.
It was during that period that I met a Japanese boy. The meeting was very curious because the Japanese boy was trained to think that Chinese natives were bad. I was walking with my brother in my arms and he threw a stone at me. It hit my elbow and I got really angry. I rushed home, dumped my brother on the bed and went back. I said you hit me and I’m going to hit you back. It was very foolish of me because I was eight and very tiny. He was about ten or eleven. He was so shocked because I could speak Japanese. He then said: if you can speak Japanese, you must be educated and civilised. So he wouldn’t fight me. We became friends and I learnt even more Japanese from him because I didn’t have anyone else to play with. My mother knew nothing about this Japanese boy because she was so busy earning our rice. Just meeting him prevented me from thinking that all Japanese were bad. This later fed into my understanding that all group prejudices were a generalisation of personal experiences.
Life is not simple. It’s not reasonable. It is not governed by things like - if this happened here, then that happens there. There is a war, but for the individual child all kinds of experiences are possible. These were war-time relationships and had no consequence afterwards. But even now, I sometimes wonder what happened to that Japanese boy.
A scrambled education and life in post-war England
We came back to Hong Kong in about 1946 with a wheeled cart and the little luggage we had. My father had found a flat. I continued to look after my brother but not for long. My mother wanted me to go to school, but I had missed three years and so my Chinese wasn’t up to standard. So she decided to put me into a school where the teaching was in English. I didn't know any English. I was 11 and had to spend the first few months writing nothing but lines: I MUST HAND IN MY HOMEWORK. I was always semi-bottom of the class.
￼In my school leaving year, I failed in everything because I couldn’t be bothered to study. It just seemed too difficult. My mother asked me if I would be happy to be a street sweeper or a secretary. It was then that I realised the value of an education that enabled the individual to have a wider choice in adult life. So that year I started to study. When the exam results came out they would be published in newspapers and the top 50 students would get scholarships. I got one. That was such a shock.
I later discovered that my mother had been saving money for my education. But my father would always say - don’t overeducate your daughter because she won’t get a husband. You can see there were two very different philosophies in the household. But in the end he was very proud of me.
At university I knew I had to study hard. I studied political philosophy. I did psychology, I did logic. All the kinds of things you don’t get at school. Wonderful. I was just enjoying my life.
I wanted to become a librarian because I love books. The only post-graduate course on librarianship in the whole of the UK was at University College, London. They had lots of foreign students but they only accepted people with First or Upper Second Class honours degrees. I was very lucky to get in. They said do you have a classical language? I was very cheeky and said I have Chinese. I didn’t tell them that I only studied basic Chinese. They said, they didn’t have a Chinese student and we’ll take you even if you haven’t got any Latin or Greek, nor German or French. This must have been in 1958 and it was a one year intensive course.
￼During the second term I had pneumonia. I was staying in a university hostel and the registrar who was looking after me thankfully had a nursing background. When I went to take the exam, there was no way I could pass it. I passed one paper. I failed the other. They said we really want you to pass, so come back. But I had no money and the course was teaching you how to catalogue Latin manuscripts for working in a university library. It was not for public libraries. I thought this is all too alien and that I couldn’t continue.
Domestic life and the discovery of a vocation
I then thought I might enjoy teaching but got married and had children. I had to learn how to be a housewife and mother in England. All without any help. What I discovered was that I could talk to another PHD person but I didn’t have any ordinary language.
My husband was working in the Midlands as a salesman and he travelled all over the place. We were living in a new estate which had just been built and I didn’t know anybody there. The biggest town was Bromsgrove and that was at least three miles away. We had no telephone. My husband just thought: this is your domestic scene and he decided to have a mistress. I said, this isn’t right, is it? We can’t carry on together when there’s no connection.
￼So I was in a terrible bind and came back down to London. Then he followed with the children. I had to get a job. As I was the one who left, I had to help with the family finances and earn enough so that my husband could have some of my earnings as well.
Then I met Jasper. We discovered that maybe we should get together. Jasper and I were married for 46 years and the children lived with us. The children have always thought of him as their dad.
During this period I also had personal therapy. The therapist said to me: I can see that you don’t want to be a librarian anymore or a teacher. Do you have any ideas? I said: yes, I want to sit in that chair (pointing at her). I’m going to be a therapist who sees children.
First Mosaic made by Therese upon arrival at the ICP, 1969
The Institute of Child Psychology (ICP)
I went to Hampstead to visit the Tavistock Clinic. They said you can’t see anybody because they are seeing children and they are in private practice. I said: how do I find out about your training? Well, you’ve got to come to attend our courses. How long will this take? The lady said: it depends on the individual but it could be 4 or 5 years and the student would need to have personal psychoanalysis as part of the training. I just didn’t have the time or money for this.
So then I went to visit the Institute of Child Psychology in Notting Hill and they said: Dr Lowenfeld will see you, but she’s with someone else at the moment. They gave me a Mosaic to play with while I was waiting. It was a very clever idea. I knew nothing about what I was doing. It was fun. I made this tree and plane in my Mosaic. In hindsight, I realised this encapsulated my journey and life here in England. The tree was me growing up and the potential to develop in this country through the course. What I didn’t know was that they kept records of all Mosaics and when the Institute closed, I looked through the records and rescued my Mosaic.
Margaret Lowenfeld was one of the first child psychiatrists who was interested in finding ways for children to express themselves without only using words. She thought about what happens to a child between age zero and seven. How do children of that age think? She realised that what children perceive is multi-dimensional and cannot be put into words that are in linear time. The child has many ways of seeing the world and they formulate ideas through their sensorial experience. Lowenfeld had this notion that they do it through pictures. So she had this idea of picture thinking in the late 1920s and 30’s and pioneered the use of Mosaics and the World Technique; the latter known more generally as the sand tray used with miniature toys in dry or wet sand. These are play and language tools for the children to express themselves without relying solely on words.
Lowenfeld opened the Children's Clinic for the Treatment and Study of Nervous and Difficult Children in North Kensington in 1928. This offered a unique form of therapy for children that did not exist anywhere else in the country.
Before the Second World War, the clinic was very well known and mainly supported by private funds. Lowenfeld wasn't charging the local people very much because this was a poor area and she wanted these children to have the use of these facilities.
Photographs of Margaret Lowenfeld and children using the World and Mosaic.
There was a change of name and The Institute of Child Psychology relocated to 6 Pembridge Villas in Notting Hill Gate. The Institute had facilities that were exclusively given over to the self-generated play activities of children. There was a big basement to the house where the playrooms were located. The children could play ball and use climbing frames. There was a trunk on wheels which the children could hide in. Another trunk had clothes and hats and objects. This was used for dressing up and often lead to dramatic play in innovative ways. There was also a painting room where the children could paint on the walls. You could hose off the paint with water to obliterate the child’s painting should the child not wish for the painting to be kept. There was also a water room where you could have water and toys on the floor and we all had to wear waterproof clothing and wellingtons. The older teenagers might think that playing was too childish and so they could talk in what we called the Quiet Room. Occasionally we would take a Mosaic in for them to use. The Institute always had a file for each child’s therapy work that included a recorded copy of all their Worlds, Mosaics, drawings and paintings.
At any given time you might have 6 therapists with their children in the playrooms. We worked together as a team, often helping out by observing other children when the therapist might have missed out on some aspect of their child’s action. It was also a very demanding training. I could write about 12 pages of notes that documented what my child did in any given session. We would never impose a point of view or interpretation of their play. The aim of all this was to allow the child to express their point of view and feelings through play.
I started my post graduate course in 1969 and this lasted three years. We only had two new students per year. We had daily supervision, but on Tuesdays and Fridays we had two hours of group supervision to discuss what we called Corporate Cases; these were the children who were not solely the patient of a particular therapist. In the student’s last year, they would be supervised by Lowenfeld.
I liked doing the Mosaic and the World with the children. It could take two sessions to do this because sometimes children take forty minutes to do a Mosaic. I prefer to use the Mosaic because they have a progression or a regression and they tend to be linear. I don’t interpret the mosaics. I talk to the children through it and then sometimes they will tell me what it means. The Lowenfeld therapist always had to be lower than the child. I would sit in a chair that is the same size as the child. I’m lucky because I am fairly small anyway.
Lowenfeld was not psychoanalytical. She said her ideas were only just one philosophy and so we were taught about Freud, Klein and Jung. She said you will need to understand what other professionals might tell you about the child under consideration. The Institute had a child psychiatrist, an educational psychologist, a social worker and a West Indian social worker, as the area the ICP was in had a lot of West Indians.
I think I had an excellent training and it never troubled me that the psychoanalysts thought I was not trained. Lowenfeld had set up a proper postgraduate institution and awarded postgraduate diplomas. They had an academic board who oversaw standards. That’s why I got a student grant because it was properly recognised by the national Education Department.
Case studies and sexual abuse
I remember this nine or ten year old girl who came to the Institute and just stood rigidly. She believed that her back was made up of one bone and that she couldn’t bend her body. She only spoke in whispers, not wanting to expend her energy reserves. She was worried that she would die and had stopped eating. I said to her: do you know what our back is made up of? She said there’s a bone there. I said your quite right but there’s not just one bone but many bones. I’ll show you. We had these models. I got her the skeleton and I went slowly down the spine guiding her hand so she could feel the knobs. The first treatment objective was to get her to learn about moving freely. We often did body work because, for instance, many girls didn’t understand about menstruation.
There was also a fifteen year old Indian girl who was very unhappy and wasn’t eating. She told me she was going to have an arranged marriage but wanted to go to university. The parents felt that any further education would be unnecessary since their aim was for their daughter to get married immediately after leaving school. To enable her to get into university, I said: you have to go to the library rather than home to do your school work. Sometimes therapy is being pragmatic for people to get out of these difficult situations. You’ve got to offer them a solution that will relieve them from that. Only then can it be analysed and if the child wants it to be.
What happens if the daughter is expected to sleep with the parents? I said okay. Which side of the bed are you sleeping? I’m sleeping on the right hand side. Who else is in the bed? Mummy is on the other side. So I asked who is in the middle. That’s daddy. I asked her how she liked the arrangement. This is a thirteen year old girl and was a case of sexual abuse. There are girls who I can discover their issues through their World Play or like that girl who did a Mosaic. She kept on shoving Mosaic pieces in between other pieces. I said sometimes that happens to older people as well. She nodded. I said: it also happens to girls. What you need to do, to stop this, is to tell an adult. There’s a law that allows me to talk to you about this.
I was getting somewhere with one child who was telling me the parents were abusing her. The parents then stopped her coming to see me, saying Mrs Woodcock’s English is so poor that my child can’t understand her. You can’t argue with that. What I said to the girl was: I’m sorry this is your last session because your parents are not happy about you coming. I said: you know what the problem is. You are fifteen and by the time you are sixteen, you can leave home. That was all I could say. Perhaps there are limits to the therapeutic process.
Lowenfeld never talked about sexual abuse at all. You would think she never knew about it. But you see nobody was talking about it at the time. The biggest change I saw over these years was actually having abuse recognised and also the legal aspect of myself and social workers having to report it. I thought that helped me to talk to the children. By law, I had to report this and some other professionals were then able to help the child.
I am extremely grateful to have attended the course at the Institute of Child Psychology. It enabled me to help children by using the World Technique and the Lowenfeld Mosaics.
When I graduated in 1972, I worked for the NHS and child guidance clinics in Newham, Haringey and Barnet. Both Haringey and Newham were multicultural and deprived areas. I didn’t actually want to work anywhere else. That was a personal choice. I wanted to work with a variety of children including the poorest.
I saw my last case in January 1995 having worked as a Lowenfeld therapist for over 20 years.
A selection of my work will be housed at the Wellcome Library as part of the Margaret Lowenfeld archive.
Expressing the shape and colour of personality:
Using Lowenfeld Mosaics in Psychotherapy and Cross-Cultural Research
By Therese Mei-Yau Woodcock, Sussex Academic Press, 2006.
Photographs and text kindly reproduced: © Thérèse Mei-Yau Woodcock, Dr Margaret Lowenfeld Trust and Wellcome Library.
Let us end with Margaret Lowenfeld's account of the first day the Clinic opened on Telford Street in 1928. This was in rooms hired from the North Kensington Women's Welfare Centre (aka birth control clinic) where Margaret's sister, Helena Wright, worked as the Chief Medical Officer:
The two rooms that allowed for the Clinic's work consisted of one opening direct on to the street, which we used as treatment room for the children, and a second room opening out of it. Here records could be made and kept, parents interviewed, biomedical investigations carried out and discussions conveniently held between myself and my colleague.
Money was short so the playroom furniture began as one table and three chairs, one of them a fireside chair placed between the diminutive gas fire grate. The play material was kept in the second room and carefully selected for each child who came - it was too precious to be indiscriminately displayed. Later a second table was added for the children to paint on, the first round table remaining in the centre of the room. A scene in which this table figured later won us our crucial friend.
The first child who came was the "bad boy" of the neighbourhood, abominated by the shopkeepers. He came by himself and I do not remember seeing his mother. He was defiant and silent but remembering the Polish children, I left a French painting book - these were lovely (good ones being practically unobtainable in England) on the table with water and painting brushes. He seated himself with his back to the centre of the room and studied them. Half an hour later I stood silently in the communicating door watching him. His concentration was intense, he breathed excitedly and - schools being different in those days - I found later this was the first time he had the magic of colour in his hands. Every day the Clinic was open he came, and slowly began to talk. By that time I knew his attendance at school was erratic and all efforts to improve this had been defeated by his silence under questioning. We made a pact together: more regular attendance at school on the days and times the Clinic was not open, and fresh paints and painting books when he came. It was from the school we heard later that a different boy had slowly emerged - complaints against him ceased. One day he brought a young friend with him and we knew we were winning our way in the neighbourhood.
Constantine Gras making a mosaic, with from left to right: red beacon, tower from black to green to no colour; myself draped in those colours; and a key, a set of arrows pointing to me, the tower and Thérèsa as witness to the mosaic.
"I felt I needed something in addition to the tower and me. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's a signpost trying to direct me or others, but everything is shifting apart again over time. Then I step back and look beyond the tower and me. I want to get a sense of the overall space and how these objects function within that space. Can I possibly create something that is aesthetically or emotionally satisfying? I am trying to make a work of art. I'm not sure if that is right."
"Yes. You are an artist. You cannot escape that."
"I was hoping that I might, but I don't think so."
"You won't be able to escape yourself, will you!"
At Play In The Ruins: A Lost Generation
oil pastels, 33x24"
19 Dec 2016
Artist's comments on the reverse of the drawing:
Starting off with abstraction, but thoughts turned to Lowenfeld sand play (Sand Face in the picture) and childhood. The news on the following day. The battle and now the desperate evacuation of Aleppo in Syria. One of the defining media images of the year, Osman Daqneesh pulled from the bombed building. His haunting stillness in the midst of horror.
As the poignant anniversary of the Grenfell fire approaches, we reflect back with raw emotions and also brace ourselves as the public inquiry unfolds as a prelude to the legislative reform and criminal prosecutions that must follow. With all of this being shared on our local and national stage, I want to mark the occasion with some musical reflections that make me think about the residents from this community; those who sadly died and the survivors who have formed the inspiring Grenfell United.
During 2015-16, when working as artist in residence at Lancaster West estate and Grenfell Tower, I was also remastering the soundtrack for a student film called This-That made with Jacob Barua in 1989 at the University of Warwick. The film ends on a freeze frame with the protagonist (me) leaping into a future sky of uncertainty. Set across this image is a wonderful duet of angelic voices from Monteverdi's Vespers. I decided to re-record this song for the new version of the film and invited Cathie Hammond and Théo Hénusse from Queen's Park Singers to St Francis of Assisi church in Notting Hill.
At the same time, I was re-dubbing one of the dialogue scenes for the film. This took place in a residents flat in Grenfell tower. Strange how our 1989 film was having the acoustic space of North kensington, church and tower block, encoded into its DNA.
In the past 6 months, a scratch choir has been set up in the shadow of Grenfell Tower and under our excellent choirmaster, Sam Chaplin, we have been belting out tunes from Bob Marley to Emeli Sandé. This is a recording of You Are the Sunshine of My Life composed by Stevie Wonder. At our peak we have about 25 singers, but on this occasion we were down to half-size and rather thin on the bass end. However, I will always remember this recording. I was singing next to Tania. We have walked side by side on the monthly silent march in memory of those lost in the fire. She was a resident of Grenfell Tower and walks and sings with quiet, positive dignity.
Duo Seraphim, You Are the Sunshine of My life.
A pack of 8 art cards are shuffled and dealt out to the players.
Maybe they are more like Tarot cards, predicting a narrative of past-present-future.
What do you see? Please feel free to re-arrange the order and tell me a story or mood.
My game was conceived while researching and viewing Charlie Chaplin movies.
Also editing a short dramatic film about an aged tree and hard earth.
I'm running both silent and sound moving pictures in my mind.
I wonder if these drawings represent a parallel universe I travelled through last week.
One where I filmed a dance under the Vaults on Leake Street.
Searched for a tabby called Doorkins Magnificat at Southwark Cathedral.
Laughed in Bay 56 under the Westway in a space re-claimed by the community.
Cried during the Grenfell public inquiry held at Millennium Gloucester Hotel.
Dance, search, laugh, cry.
I may be the author of this game, but recall that chant - La mort de l'auteur.
Shuffle the pack, deal the card, play the game.
I have struggled to talk about Grenfell because I am an artistic "witness." I made a deep connection with the estate and its gardens several years before I started working here on an art residency. When I was officially contracted to produce a film and mural in 2015, several residents kindly opened their front door and hearts to a stranger. I navigated a delicate path between authorities and residents at a time when the latter were in dispute over the tower’s regeneration. After the tragic event in June 2017, I handed over all my photos and films to the police as part of their criminal investigation. I gave a witness statement. As we try to understand what happened at Grenfell, artists and film makers will all have a challenging but important role to play alongside the media.
I’m trying to objectively recall how I approached making art on the estate when I was commissioned by the TMO (Tenant Management Organisation) to create a tiled art work and short film. The TMO were impressed with my V&A Museum and RIBA funded residency on Silchester Estate. I convinced them that an open-ended, durational process would work far better in delivering the outcomes rather than the original two weeks envisaged. As it transpired I was on the estate for approximately 1 year 2 months. When the time is right I will talk about the film, The Forgotten Estate, in more detail.
The original plan was to design a large tile art work to cover an area approximately 3.6m wide by 2.2 m high in the newly formed ground floor entrance at Grenfell. This was to be created with the residents and children of the tower block. I was given a completely free brief as regards design. I decided to use large scale drawings as the blueprint. But as the drawings were so impressive in their own right, I decided to just stick with that as the completed art work. In total, 4 large scale drawings were made in the temporary lobby, on the elevated concrete deck just outside the tower and during the Grenfell fun day.
The design for the art work was inspired by the classic blue and white willow pattern used in pottery. I was constantly sketching in the ceramic gallery at the V&A where this pattern had caught my eye. I always envisaged using an image of Grenfell tower in the completed design and perhaps to have this framed by an equally large tree. I saw a flock of birds in flight as representing the residents energised by their newly renovated building. The sessions with the kids would allow space for their own images and experiences to be added. That was the plan. As it transpired, the most successful drawing was realised at the Fun Day.
The Grenfell Fun Day on 30 May 2015 was held mainly as a form of respite from the conflict taking place during the renovation. I was invited to attend and hold a workshop. A teenager looked at a blank sheet of paper. "What do we draw?" "Absolutely anything you like." Most children had the desire to draw or write what came naturally to them. The tower block they lived in. A girl picked up a leaf and sketched this. Animals started to appear. One wrote the memorable words: live, laugh, love. The cultural identity of the children also became a point of self-reflection with a Moroccan and British flag. The outline drawing in oil pastels was made by approximately 20 children and I then coloured it in.
The art work then fell into a state of limbo. I had shown it to the TMO who were happy and also took it to a residents meeting. This would prove to be my last engagement and memory of the estate in May 2016. In the middle of that meeting, shortly after I had talked about the art work, one of the residents had challenged me over my film and this annoyed another resident, whose tense relationship with each other I had observed before. They then had a fight, then and there, in the meeting at which children were present. It lasted for about 5 minutes. Blood had to be cleaned off the walls. I believe they shook hands shortly after.
I could understand how the residents were wanting to get on with lives after the huge impact of the building works. But the TMO? Why didn't they contact me again to hang the art work in Grenfell? I can only assume they were not pleased with the way my residency had developed, especially in terms of the film project. I held onto that art work for a year. After the fire it assumed importance as a visual and textual testimony to a destroyed community: Live, laugh, love. I'm pleased that this has been handed over to Grenfell United and is in the new community space for survivors and the bereaved.
I have now started work back on Silchester estate across the road from Grenfell. After the anniversary of the fire, we will hold an Open Estate Garden weekend on the 30 June and 1 July. This will display the art created by residents. I have plans for a dance or performance piece facilitated by Dance West, although this might have to be staged later on in the summer.
Over the years I have self-published photo books as well as making hand crafted books. I have increasingly turned to the latter as a means of reflecting on my engagement at Lancaster West and on the people I met and befriended. I am constructing my own self-questioning narrative. Did I make the right decisions in terms of my engagement? How will my imagery and art work be reproduced and the film footage help with any inquiry or criminal proceedings? Above all, how can I help the victims and community? I know that this was a "voiceless" community that nobody really listened to. I have also thought about my interaction with the press as they strive for the dramatic and poignant human story as well as the political message behind Grenfell. During the previous 9 months, I have developed an inner artistic voice that has kept the media, by and large, at arms length. These books, as I turn the pages, are part of my opening up.
Imageless and Voiceless
Booklets, 32 pages each, 2018
Oil pastel drawings, 5.5 x 4 inches
Just heard about Grenfell Tower. Ghastly. What on earth went wrong?
I was wondering if we could get this picture to do a story on.
I would be very grateful if you could give me a ring as soon as possible to discuss an article I am working on for this weekend.
I am the Dangerous Structures surveyor on the tower following the incident. If you were involved in the original construction it would be good to talk or meet you to discuss how certain elements work together.
Constantine, various journalists have tried to contact me but I am not responding, so I would appreciate your confidence and not pass on any of my contact details.
I don’t want him to think I’m stalking him! I don’t actually need him to discuss the fire. It is the building we are interested in and the original vision.
One thing I'd say is that if we want to tell this hugely important story then now is the time, before the world moves on to the next headline. We have three million readers worldwide, a lot of them policy makers. Do please let me know if you change your mind.
I am contacting you in relation to a live broadcast we are holding tomorrow evening. The event will consist of an audience of local Councillors, residents, firefighters, volunteers etc. If this is something you may consider being a voice for, please let me know.
I do totally understand your reticence to give opinions on the matter, but could I trouble you with a quick question – do you know of any nearby towers that have a similar interior, i.e. common parts and layout?
We are not tabloid journalists in for a quick story. We do very considered films on very difficult and distressing subjects.
Thanks for the clear details in each of your blog posts. In an attempt to lend a little assistance from afar, a group of us have been building up three Wikipedia articles [[Lancaster West Estate]] [[Grenfell Tower]] and [[Grenfell Tower fire]]. Please go to these pages and tell us of any inaccuracies.
I would rather use an image that speaks to the life in the community rather than awful images of destruction and tragedy to publicise the auction. The last thing I would want to do is appear to sensationalise the suffering of so many people.
If you do have a change of heart, let me know. We would happily make a £200 donation to a Grenfell charity for use of your images.
Dear Mr Gras, the V&A have been contacted by the Detective Constable from the Art and Antiques section of the Metropolitan Police in connection with the Grenfell Tower enquiry. She is working on the construction side of the investigation and has been tasked with identifying and contacting every company who may have information about the construction or refurbishment of Grenfell.
I'd like to ask some questions on a positive note. I'm not press or politics. I knew that building was fundamentally safe. I'd really appreciate some answers regarding.... Sorry I can't say here.
An exceptional ceramic object was made recently at one of the workshops I'm running at Silchester Estate. Cerys Rose made a tower block to begin with and then added this onto a base structure. But it was what she did next that was truly remarkable and inspiring; she took a conceptual leap of faith that is advanced in one so young. Cerys playfully added on what appeared to be flying buttress supports. I then asked her to reflect on what she did: "My art piece is based on protecting. It is a peel, for example a banana peel. When it is peeled, it is not protected. When it is not peeled, it is protected." So much for flying buttresses! Cerys was on a more imaginative wavelength. At the time, I didn't want to ask her whether the banana protection of her building was in reference to Grenfell tower which looms large over all of us in the area. Cerys's friend, Sina Michael, another very talented artist, had made a more direct reference to this in her scale model ceramic work of the five high rise tower blocks that dominate the local skyline.
As residents at Silchester Estate shape clay into objects real and imagined, sublime and surreal, my mind wanders back to two previous ceramics projects. One that I have blogged on and another that I have repressed from living memory, until now.
Leo The Last is a 1969 film that I used as a meditative tool and to create art with residents of the estate in 2015. This wild and experimental film, tapping into the counter-culture of its era, has mythic qualities for our patch of North Kensington in London. It is a true Notting Barns film made on the plot of ground and in the soon to be demolished “slum” houses on Testerton Road before they were developed into Lancaster West estate and Grenfell tower. Leo is an aristocrat who has moved into his million pound white house that is cheek by jowl with the black painted properties of his down at heel Afro-Caribbean neighbours. Leo becomes radicalised, albeit in an idealistic fashion, after he discovers he is the slum landlord for the area. The film ends with a community riot that burns down his house. Leo is philosophical about not being able to change the world, but we can change our street.
After screening the film on a 35mm print for the general public, a group of residents went to the V&A and created houses and other structures under the supervision of ceramic artist, Matthew Raw. I was then able to use these to re-create the road that you see in the film. This was displayed at the museum as part of my end of residency display of art.
In a prophetic parallel, Cllr Rock Feilding-Mellen, had the opportunity to become Leo. Rock is not a film character, but a Tory Councillor of aristocratic origins, who moved into a posh property that was located across the road from Lancaster West estate. But there was no sense of him becoming radicalised by his neighbours or attempting a more modest community engagement here. His job as deputy leader of the council and head of regeneration was to mastermind the plans for the systematic regeneration (i.e. demolition and disruption) of Silchester Estate. This was at the same time he was directly responsible for the modernisation of Grenfell tower. You cannot watch Leo The Last now, without making these poignant connections.
When I was inviting residents to make ceramic houses and reflect on social history and its relevance to the contemporary world, I had little idea what was about to happen in North Kensington; or even how that might radically change me. I feel my art engagement here was sympathetic to the local residents and their sense of place. However, if we go back a few years to 2012, another ceramic art project was artistically and socially less successful.
I was running several art projects at the time around the theme of water and one of these had Cultural Olympiad funding. It was for an 11th century motte and bailey listed heritage site at Manor Farm. I enlisted two other artists, Emily Orley and Elinor Brass, and they worked with the education programme manager for Hillingdon, Fabiola Knowles, in devising a wonderfully organic project called In Mercy For A Trespass.
The plan was to build a durational outdoor installation with a selection of ceramic objects made by community groups and children and for these to be partly submerged around the moat and for it to collect rainwater over time. The installation would create the impression of an archaeological dig, now abandoned, overgrown and collecting water in a way that the moat no longer did. We worked with about 100 residents and school children and used their ceramic pots, cups and sculptures to create the installation. This should have been a fusion of contemporary and community art.
However, what we did not foresee, was the relative conservatism of the area. Shortly after the installation was complete and before we had an opportunity to put down any signage or run a community event, we were informed that the installation had to be either substantially redesigned or removed. We were never able to have a direct conversation with the Councillor who thought the art work looked “messy” and "not very aesthetic.” The concept of it being allowed to grow into the landscape was lost on them. It was one of the most difficult projects to manage as Emily and Elinor quite rightly refused to rework the design without a more frank and informed discussion. Communication had broken down.
Were we at fault as artists who had imposed ourselves onto the cultural landscape? Ironically enough, Emily and Elinor had prefigured this issue by calling the installation In Mercy For A Trespass. The heritage site at Manor Farm also used to be a manorial court and in the medieval era residents would have to pay fines for any crimes or misdemeanours and these would be couched in the terms of a trespass: "Richard Bacon puts himself in mercy for trespass in the grain with a heifer" or "Elena Thomson is in mercy because she gathered herbage from the standing grain of the lord contrary to the prohibition."
After a cooling off period, another willow artist was brought in to tidy up the installation and make it look pretty. There is no denying this reworking of the design did look "aesthetically" better and more of a visual presence on the landscape. However the whole process, ethos and subtlety of the original vision was lost. The installation was renamed Ea Eard, which literally translates as ‘water earth’ in Anglo-Saxon language.
This is the sweet-bitter project film made after the final installation was completed. Apart from one festival screening, this is the first time it has been given a public airing.
There are some banana peels that are not protective.
I recently treated myself to a double bill of The Angelic Conversation (1985) and Mirror (1975). I don't think any programmers have paired these two films before, but they resonate with each other, lyrically and visually, as well as offering divergent approaches to art based film making. Both were viewed on a computer screen, with the Jarman film rented online. However this screening of one film after the other was an act of homage to my golden age of cinema going as a teenager in the 1980s. After wee nippering at the ABC Edgware Road, I gravitated to the flea pit circuit that took in the posh Everyman at Hampstead and the grungy Scala at Kings Cross. During this period you could watch double or triple bill features in memorable combinations designed to shock and awe: The Exorcist riding on the back of Enter The Dragon; Terror followed by Savage Weekend (the rediscovered memory of Terror would inspire an arts project called The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle); Fassbinder double bills; and, not for the faint-hearted, a starter, main course and dessert of Pasolini films. Also, certain films that should not have been coupled, such as the groundbreaking In The Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida).
I’ve just looked over some calendars from the mid 1980s and was surprised to see how much film I was ingesting. There may have been a limited amount of TV channels in those pre-satellite days, but there was no shortage of films. Auntie Beeb and new kid on the block, Channel 4, had a public monopoly access to the film market. VHS was established and DVD was on the horizon. But to be able to see what your heart and soul desired, necessitated a trip to the picture house.
It’s good to see there are plans afoot to design a Scala book, as the cinema produced lovely posters listing their monthly features. I usually hoard memorabilia, so I can’t account for the fact that I don’t have a single calendar month from my membership of the Scala.
Perhaps it might surprise you to hear that I really can’t watch films anymore. I rarely go to the cinema. When you are in the business of producing art, there seems to be little time and perhaps inclination for seeking out art in your down time. Maybe it was also studying Film and Literature at the University of Warwick for 3 years and the celluloid feast we had as students, watching each film twice for close textual and semiotic analysis and which also included us projecting the 16mm prints sent up from the BFI. After ingestion, overdose?
While I had an eclectic taste, enjoying the classic narrative joys and happy endings of Hollywood cinema, it was the European art house movies that really tickled my fancy; although they did on occasion stretch your patience; the 317 minute cut of Bertolucci's 1900 seen at the Curzon Bloomsbury springs to mind. In the 1980’s, the work of two artists shaped my aesthetic outlook and personality: Derek Jarman’s gay-punk sensibility that pricked the constricting norms of Thatcherite society; and Andrei Tarkovsky’s metaphysical exploration of memory and haunting use of landscapes.
I had to write an essay to get into Warwick University (in addition to A level grades AAB and a medical examination!) That essay was on Derek Jarman’s The Angelic Conversation which I saw on both the cinema and TV in 1985. The film was a jittery and sensual evocation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets as read by Judi Dench. It was set in a timeless landscape of grainy, every changing palettes of muted colours that condemned men to drift and brood and lock horns in the slow-motion ritual of love and sex. The Sonnets themselves have an enigmatic quality that has divided scholars; the first 126 addressed to a man and the last 28 to the dark woman.
Abbey Fields, Kenilworth 1989
As a young man, dressed in my 1940’s suits, I seemed to wander in and out of both Jarman’s and Tarkovsky’s filmic landscape. I even had a dramatic film, This-That, inspired by my personae and made by fellow student and dear friend, Jacob Barua. That film was recently digitally remastered and there are plans for a sequel that updates the character into the 21st century. I better watch these spaces.
After Warwick, I attempted to forge a part-time career as a stills photographer and eventually made it behind the film camera. Apart from several minor juvenilia works, my first real directorial effort was Flood light (2010). This was made for InTRANSIT festival of arts and I made a connection with the V&A Museum, later becoming one of their artists in residence. Although it wasn’t consciously conceived of as such, this film employed the strategies of what we might term the art film. The film used dialectical montage rhythms around the Grand Union Canal and the elevated road in the sky, Westway (A40). It fused together autobiographical elements (school books, carpentry tools), archive photos and film from the 60s and used period locations at the V&A to meditate backwards and forwards in time. There was no narrative drive or dialogue to guide the viewer in interpreting this stream of visual consciousness. A dripping soundtrack connected up images from beginning to end. It was a film about my urban identity in North Kensington. How I was able to intellectually and emotionally connect with water and concrete built environment. It is a film that has been aptly screened under elevated motorway roads in East and West London and in the Whitechapel Gallery. It has all the sins of a first film, but is probably my best work thus far.
Poster for Flood Light, 2010
In addition to making films, i have also curated film programmes and these have been useful platforms to support other emerging filmmakers. These are not exactly double or triple bills, but short films screened one after another and all inter-related on a specific theme. Flood Light was screened as part of a programme in which I invited other film makers to journey with me across the landscape of North Kensington. Local residents were also supplied with film cameras and edited their films at the V&A's Sackler Centre for Education. A panel from the V&A, Westway Development Trust, British Waterways and RBKC Arts selected the Best Film submitted for Flood Light and this was Intersections by Rickster. Henrietta Ross from British Waterways commented on this film: "I was very impressed by this. I thought the format worked really well conveying a great sense of movement. The sense of a journey was represented well, as was the great variety of activity going on around the location and the varied perspectives the location offers on West London life. I thought the different views were matched really effectively with a great eye for detail. The combination of colour, movement, stillness, nature and community activity was really engaging." It was also a pleasure to see an early film from film maker Azeem Mustafa who has since gone on to specialise in martial arts film. Simona Piantieri has also subsequently produced exceptional work. I particularly like the documentary film she made with Michele D'Acosta called A House Beautiful (2017).
I followed up Flood Light with another curated programme called West Ten Fade Out (2013). This was able to showcase the film making talents of Dee Harding and Sandra Crisp.
When I was the V&A Community Artist in residence based at Silchester Estate, I put together another selection of short films called Home Sweet Home (2014) around the issue of housing and domesticity. I particularly like sourcing archive films and using extracts that provide ironic or amusing contrast in the programme. I used two such extracts in Home Sweet Home and they are animated films from the Wellcome Collection. The Five (1970) is by Halas & Batchelor and opens with a young girl coming home from a party and going to bed; but her pooped toes take on a life of their own. The opening 7 minutes of Full Circle (1974) has exquisite art and animation by Charles Goetz that shows the development of city living and the possibility of over-population in the future leading to the collapse of civilised life.
I have also tried to use film to connect residents with the history and social issues in the area in which they live. One example was a free screening I arranged of Leo The Last at the Gate Cinema in 2015. This was and is a profound film that connects with Lancaster West estate and Grenfell tower. I even wanted to screen this on Lancaster West estate for residents and the housing authority but circumstances conspired against that. The residents were locked in dispute with the Tenant Management Organisation over the Grenfell building works. I was commissioned by the TMO to make a short positive film of this regeneration taking into account the residents perspective. The film I delivered was a one hour long film completed in 2016 and called Lancaster West - The Forgotten Estate. It was based on the life stories of seven residents. This was not a straight forward documentary with people speaking to camera. It is voice over set against the architecture of the estate. Although that film was deemed not fit for purpose by the TMO and fell into a state of limbo, I know that it really bonded me with residents in the community who have since become good friends. Hopefully it will have a proper screening in the near future. I have other footage that is strictly reserved for the police investigation. It isn't a good feeling to have art work that is delicately tied to the tragic events of Grenfell. There is no awe, just the shock.
2015 Poster for programme of short films, including rough cut of Lancaster West - The Forgotten Estate
As I think of film, I draw and vice versa. I visualise films in my mind and these invariably start off as storyboard type drawings. The reality its that most films never get off the drawing board. But with the combination of drawing and writing, perhaps I can release some of that pressure cooker tension of being a multi media artist whose main aspiration is to make films. Let me conclude this blog by visualising a meeting of sorts between Derek Jarman and Andrei Tarkovsky on Hampstead Heath. Nothing is impossible in art and film. I need you to imagine that both are simultaneously drawn to the area for the making of a film.
A young man materialises out of the bushes, doing up his trouser belt, exhilarated, out of breath. A trickle of blood flows from his lips. Tarkovsky screams in Russian: cut, cut! The actor has wandered into the wrong film. A grounded helicopter rotor blade whips up a force of air onto the billowing grass and almost topples over the camera. Cut, cut. The production assistant rushes over to the helicopter. The timing is all wrong and aviation fuel is expensive. Tarkovsky curses under his breathe. Then looking at the bemused actor and the apologetic pilot, he starts to giggle and can’t stop giggling. The crew look at each other unsure whether to laugh. Tarkovsky motions for the actor to stand still and for the cinematographer to train the camera on him. Smiles all around and the actor looks up at the sky. It is a bright cloudless summer evening sky. A few rain drops start falling.
Cut to Jarman lining up his shot on the other edge of the heath, near a pond. He has torn up the script (that didn’t seem to be working) and is waiting for something to happen. His actors have got lost and a search party has been sent out. The rest of the crew have gone off for a tea break. A woman in her fifties dressed in a flowered dress walks into shot and sits on a log in the distance. She catches Jarman’s eye. He goes over and speaks to her. Hello, are you waiting for someone? She shakes her head in a combination of yes, no and don’t understand. He tries again. Would you like a cigarette? She nods and takes one. While lifting up the fag to his match, Jarman notices a raw burn mark on her wrist. Jarman wanders back to his camera. He zooms onto her. They hear the sound of a helicopter in the distance. She looks up in expectation. She appears to be acting. Jarman thinks she looks Eastern European, maybe Polish or Russian. He starts filming her as she turns her gaze to the pond and the gentle ripples on its surface formed by the wind.
Booklet for Stewart Wallace, 2018
Oil pastel and pencil on paper
Folded paper: 8 inches by 11.5 inches
Unfolded paper 16 inches by 23 inches
I suppose it was inevitable, as I return back to work with residents on the estates around Grenfell, that my own private art work would move in a corresponding pattern. Since the new year, I have made two artist's books.
The first, featured above, is dedicated to Stewart Wallace, the community gardener at Lancaster West estate. This is a fold out book that consists of 3 separate images drawn with oil pastels and pencil. The title page has Stewart in his garden, his sanctuary. He invites me back at Easter to see the full fruits of his labours when the strawberries and raspberries will come into season. I have visualised this in the yellow pages of the book. Stewart has his back bent to the soil and tries to avoid looking up as he lives in the shadow of the burnt out Grenfell. Image two in the fold out section of this book, illustrates the tower with 71 spherical objects, each one representing an adult and child and unborn baby, that died as a result of the fire. On the reverse side of this double-image page is a darkened abstraction. It might be a space inside one of the flats of that tower block. It seems to still flicker and pulse as if there is an after glow from the fire that can never be extinguished. There is a legal and societal search to find meaning and identity in this now truly Brutalist architectural ruin. Are there any fragments left of tooth enamel? Can this domestic object be reunited with the survivors and bereaved? I fold back the pages of the book and put it into storage. I wonder what Stewart will make of this booklet when I show him.
The second book, while having more of a traditional structure of pages (hence no fold out and fold back challenge), is actually far more complicated to read. It's a book I've made for myself. You might think the author would be in control of every aspect of the image making. Sorry! The world of my art does not operate in this fashion at this moment in time. I can only offer tentative dream-like suggestions and hope you, the viewer-reader, can make positive or negative connections that might offer some resolution to the narrative. Beyond the strawberry patch, perhaps you can help me decide what is the future? Or will there always be an artistic enigma to the tragedy of Grenfell?
Untitled cover page: This is me dressed as an artist
But what am I leaning on or pushing away from?
Pages 2-3: we have cut to another time, but the blue prevails
4 media images of Grenfell projected in rapid succession - where are we?
Pg 5: I knock on the front door of a flat on the 21st floor
Who restored my hair, yellowed my face and gave me pink earrings?
Page 4: No one can answer my knock, the family who live here are on holiday
Why does page 4 not precede page 5 and what are these new buildings?
Pg 6-7: I see my face briefly glimpsed in the metallic panel of a lift
Are we going up or down or passing through new pipe work?
Pg 8-9: I have drifted in an out of consciousness, but have arrived
Who are these two strangers wanting to dance with me?
Pg 10: The sun sets at the end of empire building (after Turner)
Pg 11: I am dancing alone across a square
Are you happy to dance or sad as the empire ends?
Pg 12: The End
Or is this a new beginning?
Booklet for Constantine Gras, 2018
Oil pastel and pencil on paper
I've wanted to write about the past 6 months in my life, but realise I'm still not able to formulate coherent and dispassionate words. Therefore I'm going to attempt a visual and poetic experiment with parallel time lines. I sense this is a turning point where life, performance and art all co-exist and move forward as one.
Time line 1 – Grenfell Tower
I cannot believe the news that Grenfell tower is on fire. I immediately cycle down assuming everyone was out. All bystanders shocked, crying. I had made friends and art here in this building burning before my very eyes.
A resident tells me how the wind blows and resonates through the exposed windows. How it is like hearing a voice.
I am haunted by my last conversations with victims. Medhi, 8 years old, telling me about the drawing he had just completed: “I push the imagination button”. Denis Murphy: “When are you going to put that art work up?”
Then the world comes calling. Could I appear on TV or supply this photo! We want to recreate scenes from Grenfell and do the adjacent towers have the same layout? Are you the architect of the Tower?
The police visit me 4 times. They make copies of all my photos and films during my residency on the estate. I was commissioned to make a short positive film about the regeneration of Grenfell tower. Instead I listened to residents life stories and made The Forgotten Estate. I have withdraw this film until the community conjure it forth.
The art work commissioned for Grenfell tower was never hung up by the TMO. It has survived the fire. What will become of it?
On the Silent March for Grenfell, I meet and hug survivors. We walk the streets of North Kensington. A wave of compassion. I sketch en route.
I return back to the estate to a location that I have invested with a mythic and poetic quality. If you excavated the ground here you might discover the remains of Leo The Last. It is the community garden between Testerton and Barandon Walkways. It loomed large in the film I made for the V&A Museum, Vision of Paradise. Here I met the gardener Stewart Wallace. He was a guide who navigated me through the housing states of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Now his sculptural garden is contaminated by cladding. Steward had a stroke recently. But he is now back at work in his garden. This garden will be subject of my third film about Lancaster West Estate.
Time line 2 – Family, friends and personal well being
I had recently applied for my dad’s WW2 records. I discover he was entitled to a British war medal, but within the archive documents there was a shocking and sad story. It was something my patriotic Dad could never speak about. I was gobsmacked. Poland truly has a tragic history! I have started making drawings about this and filming at Wormwood Scrubs dressed in my old 1940s suit. I don't want to cause pain to the family, but this is very much about how the diaspora shaped my identity.
Mum has developed severe spinal problems. From complete independence to requiring intensive support in a matter of weeks. Hospital appointments. Disjointed hours. She becomes suicidal. The life of a carer beckons. Readjusting time and space.
I visit Jo Poole at Wellington Hospital and tell her about the Melodramatic Elephant. Our lovely Dress Doctor from Silchester Estate cannot speak or communicate but I wish she could advise me about my recent dress code and how we might use fabrics in the Melodramatic Elephant project. I cannot speak to her about Grenfell. I sing her a variation of the Beatles song – Hey Jo!
I meet up with an old friend who is now working for the NHS and providing mental health services for the victims Of Grenfell. He asks me how has the fire affected me? I think my confidence has been knocked as I bottle up feelings. The only way I have to communicate is through my art and this inward turn makes it more difficult. Most people don’t notice, thankfully.
Silchester Estate has asked me to become an artist in residence from Dec 2017- June 2018. I am honoured to be working with residents as part of their recovery after Grenfell. It will probably do me a power of good.
Time line 3 – The Melodramatic Elephant
I can barely focus on a new project called The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. I had been developing this for the past 5 years and now it has Arts Council Funding.
There was an incredibly poignant story to tell here about a melodramatic actress once associated with the Coronet theatre. While developing the core ideas, little did I realise the significance that fire and destruction would have in my own life.
The original Elephant and Castle Theatre burnt down in 1878 and Marie Henderson, the actress and manageress of the theatre, was reported as having gone made after losing all her costumes in the fire.
I sit alone in the Coronet and sketch. The manager talks about a ghostly presence that makes her hair stand on end. I don’t feel this. I just absorb the lonely and soon to be demolished space.
A newly composed score by my Godson DJ Lysergide has an emotional impact on me. It is the Bedlam Dance scene aka Marie Henderson’s tune. The opening chords has the crackle of flames. This haunts me for months. I hum it in my sleep.
For the poster art work, I set fire to clothes. I nearly burn myself
I attend an emotional Lowkey Concert in tribute to Grenfell at the Coronet.
Each time I hear the lines from the play, Fire! Fire! Fire! or watch the actors rehearse a complicated fire scene, with ladders and water buckets, my mind drifts off.
Intense collaboration takes me out of myself.
I found a great friend in John Whelan, theatre director. We laugh uncontrollably about the fetishism in our life. And he leads a lovely group of actors, the People’s Company. They devote months to bringing our visionary ideas to life. Namely, a building psychically linked to an actress. Together we found new ways of combining art and performance. And it is a fitting end for the 147 year old Coronet.
THE MELODRAMATIC ELEPHANT IN THE HAUNTED CASTLE - ART EXHIBITION
9-20 December at The Art Academy Gallery
155 Walworth Road, London SE17 1RS.
Opening hours: Saturday and Sunday 12.00-17.0O Monday to Friday 15.00-19.00
Atmos (Marie Henderson theme)
From the Bedlam dance scene in The Melodramatic Elephant stage play
Composed by DJ Lysergide
Photo by Irena Hlinkova