Pepys Estate, Deptford. Photo Tony Ray-Jones, text Edward Mirzoeff, John Betjeman. (1/3)

Pepys Estate, Deptford, 1970. Photo © Tony Ray-Jones/RIBA Library Photographs Collection.

Edward Mirzoeff writes:

Bird’s-Eye View was a pioneering series of 13 films shot entirely from a helicopter. For the first of these, The Englishman’s Home (BBC2 5 April 1969) John Betjeman wrote in the commentary about the new high-rise blocks. At the time his strongly-felt views were very much against progressive liberal thinking on the subject, and what he wrote was attacked and derided. By now most people have come round to his old-fashioned but humane way of thinking.

Betjeman refused to fly in the helicopter, but wrote his commentary, in verse, over weeks in the cutting room, once the picture-editing had been completed.

[Edward Mirzoeff was the producer of Bird's Eye View.]

Pepys Estate, Deptford by John Betjeman:

Where can be the heart that sends a family to the 20th floor
In such a slab as this.
It can’t be right, however fine the view
Over to Greenwich, and the Isle of Dogs.
It can’t be right, caged halfway up the sky
Not knowing your neighbour, frightened of the lift,
And who’ll be in it, and who’s down below
And are the children safe?

What is housing if it’s not a home?”

[Tony Ray-Jones was one of Britain's finest photographers, whose early death - at just 30 - in 1972 robbed us of an artist of acute insight and integrity. His book A Day Off is celebrated as one of the definitive post-war photographic studies of British life, and influenced a generation of native photographers, not least Martin Parr whose early work showed an obvious debt to Ray-Jones. Until I went searching for means of contacting the Ray-Jones estate, I was unaware of his work for Architectural Review in 1970: a total of 138 pictures that are now in the RIBA photographic library. These are images of the impact of modern housing, and he responded to the brief with characteristic power; he seems to have been especially engaged with the London subjects -  Deptford, Thamesmead, the Old Kent Road, etc. - and some of these pictures are the equal of his better-known work. The London Column will be running a further two images from TRJ's series on the Pepys Estate later this week. Special thanks to Robert Elwall at RIBA Library Photographs for allowing us to reproduce them here. D.S.]


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