Sweet Toof artwork, Regents Canal, Haggerston. © David Secombe 2010.
From Wikipedia entry ‘Sweet Toof’:
Sweet Toof is the pseudonymous name of well-known United Kingdom graffiti and street artist.
Meaning of Mouth, Teeth and Gum imagery
According to an account by Olly Beck, Sweet Toof looked at himself in a looking glass “in crisis after a messy break-up”, with the enlarged and distorted imagery of the “crescents of teeth”, the “visible part of our skeletal frame” as a reminder of mortality. Beck relates Sweet Toof’s concerns and imagery with the 16th Century Northern European “Vanitas” tradition of reminding of the transience and vanity of life, and to the Mexican celebration of skull imagery to accepting, honouring and celebrating death as part of the life trip.
Sweet Toof’s own comments seem to uphold this interpretation, in which the artist comments, “To get one’s teeth into things, before it’s too late.” Elsewhere he notes, “Teeth can be really sexy, or aggressive, but they’re also constant reminders of death. They’re how we get recognised by police when there’s nothing else left.”
Jeremy Ramsden in his darkroom at Labyrinth, Bethnal Green. © David Secombe 2011.
One of the things that is being lost in our back-lit, screen-bound digital world is the texture associated with older forms of image-making. As someone who became a photographer because I liked the idea of making something, of leaving something tangible behind me, I mourn the gradual passing of the physical photograph: the transparency, the negative and the print.
Traditionally, the relationship between photographers and their printers was not always easy; not every photographer could print their images like Eugene Smith or Don McCullin, and even if they could, they couldn’t always spend hours in the darkroom when they were busy shooting. Some printers would – justifiably – resent having to fix their clients mistakes or deal with photographers who didn’t really know what they wanted their prints to look like. But others took a more lenient view of photographers’ foibles and would, where necessary, give them an informal technical training to go with their prints. And from the mid-1980s,advances in reproduction technology and an increasing acceptance of colour negative film as a serious format for serious photography ushered in a new era of image-making. Professionals were liberated from the unforgiving tyranny of the transparency – more room for manoeuvre after the shoot, more latitude of exposure and expression, a level of freedom previously available only to those who shot black and white. It was in this arena that colour printers like Brian Dowling and Jeremy Ramsden reigned supreme.
Jeremy Ramsden, who died last week, was one of the finest colour printers of his generation. Jeremy could take a frame of anyone’s film and turn it into a work of art on paper. The quality of Jeremy’s work is only partially discernible on a website, because the sheer physical beauty of his prints, their intensity and almost holographic clarity, can only be experienced by personal appointment. Jeremy’s fanatical attention to detail was apparent in the way he would, as a matter of course, produce a variety of prints from the same frame, with each print having its own distinct mood and character. Variations on a theme, if you like, the creation of totally different images from a single piece of film. And when you got your negatives back, you’d see his meticulous notes written on little strips of masking tape affixed to the protective sheets. Jeremy went to these lengths because he cared, because he was an enthusiast for photography. And when you consider the names on his client list – which included the likes of Tim Walker, Elaine Constantine, Harry Borden, Brian Griffin – the breadth of his achievement becomes clear.
Jeremy was Australian (not for nothing was his erstwhile lab in Shoreditch called Outback) and he arrived in London as a merchant sailor in the early 1970s. He knocked around London’s photo scene in a variety of capacities – studio assistant to the likes of Brian Duffy and Angus Forbes, freelancing as a photojournalist (he was a very fine photographer in his own right) and mastering all aspects of the arcane art of colour printmaking. His experiences of the glory days of Soho in the advertising boom of the 1970s and 80s would have made a very interesting book. Jeremy had a stereotypical Ozzie enthusiasm for travel, people and a good story – but, above all, he liked sharing his enthusiasm for the world and how we see it. He was generous with his time and, like our friend John Driscoll, who died last year, he was a champion of photographers. Having Jeremy or Brian or John in your corner was like having a secret weapon; if you had the nod from them, you could breathe a little easier. They knew the score. I always thought it was important to earn the respect of the people who handled my pictures, and I think most photographers would agree – although there were some ‘celebrated’ photographers who relied a little too heavily on the expertise of darkroom staff to produce their meisterwerks. But Jeremy spoke of his clients very warmly, and this was because he was reluctant to print for anyone he didn’t respect; so an unsolicited compliment from Jeremy was worth far more than one from almost any picture editor.
It is hard to write a piece like this without sounding nostalgic or merely old; but it seems to me that apart from the loss of the tactile aspect, the ubiquity of digital imaging has led to the erosion of a social element within photography. I’m not the only one who misses that. It is hard to think of Jeremy not being there to work his magic on a print, to offer his take on it, see the potential of a negative fully realised – and then discuss the competition and swap stories over a pint. A couple of years ago, Jeremy co-founded Labyrinth, a darkroom in the East End which has become a mecca for new and established photographers. Jeremy was full of excitement for the young talents who were bringing their pictures to him, the brave ones who had chosen to render their images on film rather than as pixels on a chip. He was rejuvenated by the challenge and, apart from anything else, it is a tragedy that he will not see his fledglings develop and mature.
He gave a great deal and asked for very little in return. Personally, I owe him a huge amount – and the shock of his sudden passing still hasn’t sunk in. I can’t quite believe it. The industry will feel a lot colder without him. The world will too.
… for The London Column.
Victuallers’ almshouses, Caroline Gardens, Peckham. Photo © David Secombe, 2002.
From Georgian London, John Summerson, 1945/1969:
There were plenty of other institutions, some educational, some charitable, some newly-born, some perhaps half a century old, which housed themselves with some grandeur. Almost all were Greek, with good, simple fenestration, and a portico – Doric or Ionic – to mark the status of the institution. Some of these buildings still stand. There is the pleasant, spacious courtyard and porticoed chapel of the Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum at Peckham, built about 1831. Others were damaged in the war and have disappeared since.
As Sir John pointed out, the Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum at Caroline Gardens – almshouses built for retirees from the brewing trade – is a rare survival in the unsentimental city. The Asylum is pretty enough to make one wonder at how it has managed to avoid the wrecking ball, as its very elegance must have been a goad to generations of developers and civic engineers. It is an oasis of Grecian calm just a few steps away from the bleak, business end of the Old Kent Road, and in its present context its charm seems positively defiant, even heroic: an assertion of a charitable ideal in architecture that is both grand and humane – and a welcome corrective to the lurid, day-glo Toys ‘R’ Us shed across the road.
The Old Kent Road remains one of the strangest of all London roads, as well as one of the oldest; it incorporates part of Watling Street, the Romans’ highway from Dover to London and far beyond, to the wild Welsh Marches. A walk along The Old Kent Road today – between New Cross and the Bricklayers’ Arms roundabout – is impressive by virtue of the vast contrasts in tone and scale. On the one hand you have the massive gas works, the acrid colours of the new retail sheds, the abandoned or decommissioned pubs, the unwelcoming wasteland of Burgess Park, the brutalist road scheme and the endless stream of traffic thereon … yet on the other you can see repurposed evangelical churches in former office units or light engineering premises, occasional glimpses of Georgiana subsumed into offices for tyre warehouses, and little runs of genteel villas and terraces which form tributaries off the churning thoroughfare. (The Victuallers’ Asylum is on Asylum Road, one of the most architecturally interesting streets in south London.) On a summer evening, the Old Kent Road has a strangely foreign quality; one could be in a dodgy suburb of Miami or Los Angeles. This may have something to do with its untended nature; even the Holloway Road doesn’t look this abandoned by civic authority. Perhaps any road in any city, left to its own devices, ends up looking slightly American.
With the repurposing come the artists, and it is no surprise that the ragged districts which line the Old Kent Road are increasingly hip areas for ambitious young artists to set out their wares. I have heard both Peckham and New Cross being described, with varying degrees of conviction, as ‘The New Hoxton’ – a statement which ignores the fact that Goldsmiths’ College has been churning out YBAs for decades, so one might say that New Cross was the ‘old Hoxton’. The Victuallers’ chapel was disused for many years but it has recently been adopted as an arts space by a group that calls itself ‘Asylum‘. Tomorrow, Saturday 8th December, it will be hosting a performance of ‘Christmas Mysteries’, a ‘musical adaptation of the nativity from the traditional Medieval Mystery Plays’. An atmospheric venue for it… photos of the interior of the chapel may be found here.
Jerusalem Tavern and Jerusalem Passage, Britton Street, Clerkenwell. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
This week’s sad news has prompted some of us to remember pub crawls with John on his patch, and the names of the hostelries we’d encounter on the way: The Horseshoe in Clerkenwell Close, The Crown on Clerkenwell Green, The Coach and Horses in Ray Street, The Marie Lloyd in Hoxton, The Eagle on Farringdon Road, the Sekforde Arms on Sekforde Street – and, now and again, The Jerusalem Tavern on Britton Street. As this week we have been remembering a great Londoner and champion of art, it seems oddly fitting to add this nugget about an artistic promoter who operated in the same area 300 years ago, and who is now buried in Clerkenwell churchyard. D.S.
From Without the City Wall, Hector Bolitho and Derek Peel, 1951:
Britton Street was named after an incredible Londoner of the late 17th century who walked the streets by day “in his blue frock coat and with his small coal-measure in his hand”, and who by night gave concerts in his humble abode next to Jerusalem Tavern, in what is still Jerusalem Passage. In The London Magazine we read: “On the ground floor was a repository for small coal; over that was a concert room, which was very long and narrow. … Notwithstanding all, this mansion attracted to it as polite an audience as ever the opera did.. … At these concerts Dr. Pepusch and frequently Mr.Handel played the harpsichord.” When passing along the streets with his sack of small-coal on his back, Thomas Britton “was frequently accosted with such expressions as these: ‘There goes the famous small-coal man, who is a lover of learning, a performer in music and a companion for gentleman.’”