Incredible Londoners. Photo & text: David Secombe.

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.’”


Hockley Hole, AKA Central Saint Martins. Photo & text: David Secombe.

Back Hill, 2010. © David Secombe.

From The Fascination of London: Holborn and Bloomsbury, edited by Sir Walter Besant 1903:

The lower part of Saffron Hill was known at first as Field Lane, and is described by Strype as “narrow and mean, full of Butchers and Tripe Dressers, because the Ditch runs at the back of their Slaughter houses, and carries away the filth.” Just here, where Back Hill and Ray Street meet, was Hockley Hole, a famous place of entertainment for bull and bear baiting, and other cruel sports that delighted the brutal taste of the eighteenth century. One of the proprietors, named Christopher Preston, fell into his own bear-pit, and was devoured, a form of sport that doubtless did not appeal to him. Hockley in the Hole is referred to by Ben Jonson, Steele, Fielding, and others. It was abolished soon after 1728. All this district is strongly associated with the stories of Dickens. In later times Italian organ-grinders and ice-cream vendors had a special predilection for the place, and did not add to its reputation.

David Secombe writes:

One might add that in the 20th century, the area described above became associated with the photographic profession: at one time Clerkenwell was said to have more darkrooms and studios per square foot than anywhere else in the world. As a coda to yesterday’s post remembering the great Johno Driscoll, here’s a picture of ‘found art’ posted to the wall of John’s old premises, Holborn Studios, which is now a campus for Central Saint Martins art college. The building is situated within ‘the Hole’ – although the site of the bear-pit itself is now occupied by the pub opposite, The Coach and Horses. (Allegedly, the pub once afforded access to the Fleet river from its cellars, providing 18th Century fugitives with an escape route to the Thames.) Somehow, it seems right and proper that one of the most disreputable spots in 16th and 17th Century London should have gone on to be associated with photography, fashion, and art: the favoured trades of chancers, ne’er-do-wells and diamond geezers.

… for The London Column. See also: Little Jimmy, King of Clerkenwell.


Johno Driscoll. Photo: Tim Marshall, text: David Secombe.

John Driscoll, outside the Horseshoe, Clerkenwell Close, 2011. Photo © Tim Marshall.

David Secombe writes:

Any photographer who came of age in the pre-digital era can still summon up the clammy, vertiginous mix of excitement and fear which attended a trip to the darkroom to review the results of a shoot. Most London labs (invariably located in basements) reeked of fixer and testosterone: some establishments referred to their clients as “the enemy”, and any cock-ups or infelicities on the part of the photographer left the hapless smudger open to mockery, abuse and, it was rumoured, actual physical violence from short-tempered darkroom staff. This added a certain nervous tension to the experience of checking out your film. But there were some noble exceptions to this rule.

John Driscoll, who died on Monday, was the proprietor of the legendary Johno’s Darkroom – black and white only – an establishment supreme of its kind, its reputation resting on John’s brilliance as a printer and warmth as a human being.  On any given day from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, a bewildering array of images would pass through Johno’s – haute couture, music, hard news, fine art – but whatever the subject, all John’s prints bore that exquisite, luminous quality which made him the printer of choice to the likes of Nick Knight, Craig McDean, Elaine Constantine, Eamonn McCabe, Sean Smith, and many, many others. His printing technique was matched only by his generosity and enthusiasm for the work of the photographers he admired.

Johno’s was a sort of club for the profession. You’d wait for John to finish your prints, swap notes with other photographers, sneak a look at pictures other people had brought in and inwardly (and occasionally outwardly) remark upon the quality of them. You’d exchange stories and bad jokes with his colleagues Jason and Paul (later it was Barb and Cherie), and glimpse John emerging from the dark now and again to take a call, retouch a print or send someone to the bookie’s with a hot tip and a tenner. When all the rush jobs were cleared, we’d migrate to pubs in pre-gentrification Clerkenwell or Hoxton (John was based in Hoxton Square for much of the early 1990s, and his darkroom was next door to where White Cube stands today), where John had to be forcibly prevented from buying every round. Very often, his wife Barbara – the other half of the Variety double act – would be at the lab, and could usually be persuaded to come out for a drink: much shouting and hilarity and missing of trains home would ensue. Everyone felt good around John, he could energise a room simply by walking into it.

The best photographers went to him because he was the best, but all the bullshit surrounding the profession fell away when you were in his company. Some photographers might be prima donnas in the wider world, but no-one outshone John in his own domain. And it was unwise for, ah, naive photographers to treat John as just some kind of tradesman; more than one photographer was shown the door because John thought his or her work was fraudulent. Yet, for some of his clients, John was prepared to do much more than just turn out lovely prints. Occasionally, John would receive rolls of film from some flailing, desperate young photographer, fearing disaster after a fraught shoot on a big assignment. In a war film, John would have been the cheerful sergeant steadying the nerves of an inexperienced officer: if John was on your side, you were all right. He’d get you through. He was the relief column. There are a number of very successful photographers who have very good cause to be grateful to John. He inspired tremendous loyalty. We weren’t his clients: we were his devotees.

John first went to work in New York around the Millennium. It was at the request of Craig McDean, who had him flown out at the expense of a client as he was the only black and white printer who could do Craig’s pictures justice. He ended up founding Johno’s NY and stayed in the US until the rise of digital eroded the market for traditional printing, retiring to Brighton only a few years ago. Of course, he wasn’t really retired, he was looking to get a darkroom going on the south coast, or a gallery maybe – somewhere where he could share his love of photography and showcase the work of his friends and clients, a place to show “all those wonderful images that need to be seen”.

With grim irony, I learnt of John’s death on the same day as I heard of a new digital camera from Leica: the ‘Monochrom’. It only takes black and white images – the idea is that a digital chip will duplicate the look of the finest black and white photographs. It’s worth stopping to consider the proposition: that a piece of hardware can replace the care and dedication which transforms a negative on a piece of celluloid into a work of art on paper. I can’t see it myself.

I think of John casually producing a box of prints he’d made from my negatives, and asking if I was happy? The prints glowed from within. I was so grateful I wanted to cry. I’d grabbed a few pictures in difficult conditions for a demanding client and he’d turned them into objects of beauty (saving my arse in the process). You can’t replace that with a chip. An age is passing and we are the poorer for it. I grieve for an irreplaceable friend.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2012.


Clapham Common Clowns. Photo: Tim Marshall, texts: Joanna Blachnio & Tim Marshall (4/4)

Sir Robert Fosset’s Circus. © Tim Marshall 1984.

Joanna Blachnio writes:

Elephants in London have a long history. Tradition has it that Julius Caesar used a war elephant during his invasion of Britannia; he and his forces pitched camp not far from modern-day Bromley, so this un-named animal might be said to be the first pachyderm to impress suburban Londoners. In the 13th century, there was an African elephant amongst the Royal Menagerie which resided at the Tower of London – a gift from Louis IX of France. Plus, there is the elephant at the Elephant and Castle – although that area got its name from an 18th century coaching inn that stood in the vicinity.

One of the most poignant stories in the bestiary of London was that of Chunee, the mad elephant of Covent Garden. This sad creature arrived in Britain from India in 1809 as a theatrical and, later circus, animal, becoming one of the city’s attractions for almost two decades: even Lord Byron took note of his dexterity and good manners. He spent his dotage in the fabled menagerie at Exeter Change in The Strand, increasingly tormented by loneliness (there was no mate to help him while the time away) and a bad tusk.  In February 1826, during his weekly parade down the Strand, Chunee rebelled against his captivity and went berserk, trampling one of his keepers in his rage.  His temper did not subside and a death sentence was passed.  The convict, however, clung on to life with the strength proportional to his body mass – almost seven tons. When they tried poisoning his food, Chunee was having none of that, and would not touch it. A troop of soldiers were sent for, yet even the fusillade from their muskets failed to kill the elephant, whose moans allegedly caused more distress than the sound of gunfire. Finally, one of his keepers ended his agony with a sword.

The elephants in Tim Marshall’s photograph are remote from the romance and pathos surrounding the death of their famous London ancestor. An impassive clown holding the curtain aside for their entrance, they take the stage with the weary docility of ageing pros. Their thick skin seems whitewashed in the glare of the stage lights. The last elephant to take to the ring can probably only sense what we are able to see: how much space there is in his wake.

Tim Marshall writes:

These photographs where taken in Easter 1984. At that time I was a student at Central St Martins School of Art making a life changing decision to stop illustrating with a pen and to start doing it with a camera.

I spent about four days photographing Sir Robert Fosset’s Circus. I remember going to Clapham Common at 8.00 in the morning, and before the circus site was in view hearing tigers roaring and elephants trumpeting, which was very surreal in central London. I photographed the tent being put up and only realized later that, everybody worked as a team and very hard. The tiger trainer helped put up the tent, starlets of the trapeze would, after finishing their acts, sell candy floss. Clowns empted bins. The clown Nelo, was not actually that funny and quite sad. Children would laugh at him rather than with him. He was a clown whose personal life seemed to be in complete disarray. But he wanted to be loved and make people happy.

After the show, I remember that certain pubs had a ‘no travellers‘ policy, so the people from the circus were refused entrance; and in the pubs they did manage to get into, they were only allowed in to the public bar rather than the lounge.

… for The London Column. © Joanna Blachnio, © Tim Marshall, 2012.