Natalia Zagórska-Thomas wearing Julia Schrader. Photo © Jens Schaumann.
DS: Well, we managed to negotiate our way out of 2016 only to find 2017 looming before us like a rogue ice shelf. Yet although the festive season was full of foreboding there were occasional moments of optimism amidst the gloom; one of the most enjoyable events in my pre-Christmas calendar was the private view of Call of the Wild at Studio Ex Purgamento in Camden.
Antlers © Julia Schrader.
Visitors to the gallery are often wrong-footed by the address; it is located in a second-floor extension in a private home, a flat that belongs to artist and conservator Natalia Zagórska-Thomas and her husband Simon. If there was ever an enterprise that demonstrated devotion to an ideal of what art can and should be, Studio Ex Purgamento is it.
Going into the Thing Seriously; or These Influences Have Been Exerted for Good. © Natalia Zagórska-Thomas (alternative titles provided for the artist by Diane Williams).
Profit, apart from a tiny percentage above a certain price to try to recover some costs, goes to artists directly. Some years we sell a lot; others, not at all. I want to show established names alongside lesser known artists whose work interests me, and to mix visual art forms with text, design, performance, architecture, design, music and science. I show many Polish artists to promote their profile and contribution to the culture of the city.
As to the current show, Natalia describes it thus: This is not a tidy show. This is not a tidy subject. What I wanted is what I think I always want: a contemporary version of the cabinet of curiosities, a camera obscura, an idiosyncratic collection of specimens picked up along the way. It feels like life: messy, chaotic, undisciplined, joyous, violent and confusing.
Pale Blue Hexapod © Danuta Sołowiej.
Somehow, Natalia has managed to fit work by 25 artists into her small gallery; these include sculptures by Almuth Tebbenhof, Danuta Sołowiej, and Andrzej Maria Borkowski, wearable art by Julia Schrader, photographs by Jens Schaumann, Marzena Pogorzały (whose images of massive Antarctic ice sheets are elegant visual tokens of the strangled metaphor I opened with) and your own correspondent. The show also features an extraordinary ‘biological’ installation by Heather Barnett, and poems by such luminaries (and friends of The London Column) as Roisin Tierney, Christopher Reid and Katy Evans Bush.
Ice 3. © Marzena Pogorzaly.
© Andrzej Maria Borkowski.
You hardly need me to tell you that the London art scene is full of bullshit, any more than you need me to tell you that 2017 could be a rough year. We will need all the optimism we can get our hands on; and any blows against philistinism or the dead weight of cultural conformity are as welcome as they are necessary. As Katy Evans-Bush writes in Call of the Wild‘s exhibition catalogue: ‘At the time of going to print no one knows what’s going to happen next. Old ways of being uncivilised are being exhumed and new ones invented. The one thing we do know is that we will need to call on all our most civilised impulses – as well as our deepest, wildest aardvark’. Or, to put it another way, if you think the world is going to end tomorrow, plant a tree today. (Who said that? Answers on a postcard to …)
Ruan Minor, Cornwall, 1978. © David Secombe.
Gallery photos by Natalia.
Call of the Wild runs at Studio Ex Purgamento until 15 January; open weekends from 11 am — 6 pm. To visit during the week, call for an appointment. (132D Camden Street, London NW1 0HY; 07799 495549; firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.studioexpurgamento.com.)
Photo: Tim Hadrian Marshall.
From Barton Fink, Joel and Ethan Coen, 1990:
Chet: Are you a trans or a res?
Barton: Excuse me?
Chet: Transient or resident?
Barton: Oh, I don’t know. I’ll be here indefinitely.
D.S.: Tim Marshall, a regular contributor to The London Column, recently brought this set of photos to my attention. They are souvenirs of a bleak period in his life when, in search of ‘a quiet place to hide’, he checked in to one of those big Art Deco hotels that loom like sentinels across Holborn. Tim’s state of mind is indicated by the fact that he renewed the booking on a daily basis, which meant that he was constantly shifting from room to room, becoming both transient and resident at the same time.
Photography is full of sad hotel rooms; Tim’s pictures remind me of canonical images by Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, William Egglestone and others. They also bring to mind scenes from 1940s film noir, not to mention the aforesaid Barton Fink and, of course, The Shining. But all those references are American; most of the sad hotels referenced in British culture are of the sad, faded or seedy boarding house type, the ones found in Graham Greene or Patrick Hamilton novels, Larkin’s poems, Rattigan and Pinter plays, etc. (Over thirty years ago I found myself spending a winter’s night as the only guest in a B&B in Scarborough, a huge Victorian house where the landlady was a gentle widow. I remember her showing me the accommodation and commenting that she had many backpackers staying in summer, and that she regretted not travelling when she was younger; as she spoke, snow began to fall past the bedroom window. That encounter struck me as the quintessential British bed and breakfast experience.)
Anyway, here is Peter Ackroyd on the subject. He too is invoking the drabness of small Victorian or Edwardian hotels, but the melancholy of the temporary resident in the metropolis is nicely evoked: ‘London has always been the abode of strange and solitary people who close their doors upon their own secrets in the middle of the populous city; it has always been the home of ‘lodgings’ , where the shabby and the transient can find a small room with a stained table and a narrow bed’. (London the Biography).
I wouldn’t wish anyone to think that Tim is in any way strange or shabby; but five pictures of anonymous hotel rooms amount to a working week’s worth of hell.
All pictures © Tim Hadrian Marshall 2005.
View from the saloon, south London, 2016. © David Secombe.
Recently overheard in a south London pub:
Have one, come on, have one. Look, I’m celebrating, I was acquitted. This afternoon, yeah. Before lunch I’d been in the witness box and they were jumping all over me, I didn’t land a blow. Felt like a right wanker. And I was looking at doing four years. I was up before this judge who was an MP – yeah, an MP, stuck up git, probably a nonce, he’ll be up in court himself next week. I tell you who he looked like, Pluto – Pluto the dog. Did you see my barrister? She was all right, nice looking she was. Put her hand on my arm she did. Yeah. Yeah. Anyway, after lunch the jury was ready to come in and everything and then the prosecution said the CCTV didn’t work. That’s their case dead in the water. So I was acquitted. [looks at racing on pub TV] My jockey’s an idiot – look at that div, looks like his bollocks haven’t dropped. Looks like a rent boy. Anyway, thrown out it was, it was thrown out, the fucking CCTV didn’t work. I’m thinking of compensation. Go after them I will, yeah. I’ve got letters about my loss of hearing. Here, I’m selling this phone. It’s fucking immaculate, no scratches on it or nothing, I mean I did manage to drop it in the slop bucket behind the bar, but you’d never tell. Where is this cunt anyway?
Boarded-up pub, Bermondsey, 2010. © David Secombe.
See also: A Fragment of Bar Life.
Empty Office, Clerkenwell, 2002. Photo © Peter Marlow.
The office as its redundant workers move out is spotted with relics of human degradation: that is, of the letdown from future perfect to mere life.
The screw stuck in the wall, reminder of that award for the old campaign that no one still here now remembers – although it was great work and targets were exceeded – surrounded by nails that hold their heads proud, knowing they held up the proofs of its successes.
Comfortable tea stains, paper clips wedged where the desk didn’t quite meet the wall, a blotched photo of Sarah who worked here half a decade ago, with a small child; she’d be wanting that back, if anyone knew where to find her now. Bits of phone chargers. A chocolate egg in foil. A bit of silk ribbon, some one-legged scissors, a dusty old bottle of Bristol Cream: why is it blue? Are they really that colour? A sad pile of paperbacks no one will ever read: Windows for Dummies and guides to blogging for businesses. Blu-Tack smears where no one thought they’d matter. Sticker-marks on the phones, where someone put the new supplier’s number. Dirt on the sills from the plants the receptionist had to water, because optimism always wins out. Optimism and sheer daily labour.
Things can’t stay clean forever. People are people and every negotiation will be tarnished. Its spreading spots will eat at your blind belief in silver and grey and the functional streamline that bypasses doubt and loops back to the bank, via mobile phones, and suits with reinforced shoulders, and platinum cardholders.
Forget your cheap tiles screaming masculine thrust from the Carpetland down on the roundabout. This office was made for pink fluffy sweaters, cake crumbs, to-do lists, pictures of cats, the darkening water in a vase, nail files and overstuffed folders.
… this is a reprise of one of The London Column’s early posts, from June 2011, in tribute to the English photographer Peter Marlow who died last month.
All photos © Tim Marshall 2015.
Merry Christmas everyone.
… from The London Column.
Remember that old 70s movie, Network? It’s mainly famous for its catchphrase – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’ – and for Peter Finch’s bravura performance (which earned him a posthumous Oscar) as Howard Beale, the newscaster who has a meltdown on television and gets the whole country saying it. On Saturday night I went to a private reading of a stage adaptation of the film, scripted by my friend Chris Brand (a fine actor as well as a writer) and produced by another friend, Peter Finch’s nephew Dallas Campbell. There are several reasons why it was a brilliant evening, and the first of them – before the evening even began – was the surprise of the surroundings.
We were in the old Water Board building in Rosebery Avenue in Clerkenwell. This sounds boring enough, and indeed we had only been told it was going to be in a ‘board room’. But this is grand municipal architecture, and this particular example harbours a secret at its heart.
The Water Board building was built on the site of a previous water company building – the old New River Company building, Water House. The New River is the river you can see a bit of, running through Clissold Park in Stoke Newington; it’s technically more of a canal; built by one Hugh Myddleton to bring water from Hertfordshire to a rapidly growing London. It was completed in 1613. Water House, built in the same year, was originally a ‘cestern house’ adjoining the reservoir, and included accommodation for the site manager.Many people had use of its residential accommodation (including Edward Sadler, who was also probably the founder of next-door Sadler’s Wells). This building grew over the decades to reflect the massive success of the New River company (King James, a key funder, lost money on it, and Hugh Myddelton was created a baronet). It grew larger and larger, and more and more respectable until finally it was a large house. In about 1693, one Sir John Grene, a wealthy shareholder of the New River Company, was living in Water house, and he commissioned an ornately carved set of pannelling for a room that became known as the Oak Room… You can read a long and intensely interesting account on British History Online.
In 1914, London’s water was municipalised and Water House had to go. Work on the new Water Board building began in 1915 – stopping between 1916 and 1919 due to the War – and the building, on a scale commensurate with the ambition of its civic status, was finished in 1920. For the past twenty years it’s been flats. When you walk in through its large stone-clad entrance, it feels plausibly Edwardian – but then the first thing you are confronted with is a grand, glorious, light-filled, pink-painted Art Deco ballroom. (This, however, is the former Rental Ledger Room, and used to host ranks of large oak desks.) The building is awash with light.
Turn left and through large glass doors to a wide, high, sweeping staircase with huge windows. At the top, back through the doors, turn down a little corridor, open another door, and you are suddenly in a rather unexpected time-warp: an oak-carved antechamber, which is the mirror of another oak antechamber, at the two ends of a dark, oak-panelled room. A marble fireplace looms in the middle of the long wall, with bookshelves in the alcoves on the sides, and intricate carvings above. Pride of place belongs to a magnificent lion and unicorn panel, where the unicorn’s horn stands free of the carving.
This is Sir John Grene’s Oak Room – given new ceiling joists in the 1860s, and then carefully dismantled and reassembled in the new Water Board building – a nod to the history of the site. The room was dismantled again in the War and the panelling taken away for safe-keeping, but the ceiling could not be moved again and the central painting had to be restored again after the War. The room is very dark – it makes more sense when you know that in its day it had glorious windows on three sides, giving panoramic views over the Round Pond that was the New River reservoir, and its filter beds. It was even open to the public.
Accommodations had to be made when it was transplanted into the new building; in one corner we found a door which, opened, revealed only brick. It was on the outside wall of the building. It’s been not-a-door for almost a century, but for two and a half centuries before that, it was a door and people walked through it. And the doorways into the antechambers – two on each end of the room, with a central panel – will have been its other windows.
You could write a whole blog post just about the notion of civic pride and historical awareness, the respect for the past and sense of beauty and historical decency that made a company spend £2,000, back when that was proper money, to keep this in situ. Nowadays, they would more likely put it on display in an airlocked vault under perspex.
In the middle of the room is a giant black oval table. When we were there it was littered with scripts, plates of chocolate biscuits, and numerous large white candles. The room has electric light, too, of course, but the three-dimensional black walls seem to just absorb it. Those three walls of windows have been a bit of a loss, in fact.
So there we were. Friends on chairs around the walls of the room, with glasses of wine or gin & tonics. Around the table sat the actors. And the reading, in due course, began…
(See more here … )
Balfron Tower. I love it. It anchors Poplar, it looms over the A12 just by the Blackwall Tunnel approach, and it seems to defend that whole end of Tower Hamlets. In the evenings, when the sun reaches a certain point, it glows golden. You couldn’t help but find it beautiful, its slightly Escher-esque planes and shapes and perspectives changing with the weather and the light, its strange humanity, its arrow-slit windows. Just as the now-demolished gasometers in Stepney did, it casts its grandeur over everything around.
Poor Balfron suffers the slings and arrows of public disgust towards its whole genre. People think ‘the New Brutalism’ is called that just because it’s brutal, but in fact, it’s a play on the French term ‘béton brut’, for raw concrete. It’s easy to forget now that when this architecture went up, it was intended to make life better for people. Goldfinger referred to its corridors as ‘streets in the sky’, and the plan included incredibly optimistic landscaping: Balfron has private yards for the bottom flats, mature trees and shrubberies shielding it from the A12, and light coming at it from all directions. Its flats meander up and down levels, and have balconies and stupendous views.
A website by a Trellick Tower resident, Chris Paulsen, gives the flavour of its aspirations towards good living:
The flats themselves are large by tower-block standards, & packed with space-saving devices. … Doors of wood & glass slide rather than open out, & can be used to partition certain parts of each flat. Glass is plentiful in order to let in as much natural light as possible… Adjoining the main tower is a service tower. This incorporates lifts, stairs, & refuse chutes, as well as a boiler house. The lifts stop at every third floor, meaning that in some flats the bedrooms are above, & in some below, the entrance level. The flats have large balconies which, if you are high enough up, offer views across the North Downs.
My own personal knowledge of Balfron Tower reached its zenith in 2001, when, as a publicity officer for Tower Hamlets’ housing department, I toured the place with a deputation from Trellick Tower, and a member of its resident management committee. The reason they were visiting was very simple: Trellick was in trouble and needed a major overhaul. (The figure given at the time was £9m to get it up to its original standard.) Balfron and Trellick are ‘sister buildings’; Goldfinger learned some lessons from Balfron, but by 2001 they were like twins raised separately.
Trellick had, being in (even if only north) Kensington, been gentrified while the East End was still thought of as a wild space. Its tenants were that bit more prosperous, and more able to get mortgages, and had bought their flats under Right to Buy. However, many new owners didn’t have the money to maintain the flats – or else they did have the money, and took out original features. Kensington’s reputation for affluence got in the way of attempts to secure funding. They had a vandalism problem, and some of the original features – such as the marble that had been in the entry area – had been stolen. The building had been designed to have a concierge but for many years it never had one. No one was – literally – keeping an eye on things. It was in a bad spot.
Balfron, by contrast, had had a boring life, with tenants instead of leaseholders, and with several rounds of major works on it – new windows, for example, and new asphalt in the external linking walkways. It also had more of its original features, like the quarry tiles lining the corridors – different colours on different floors – and its flats had more of their original fittings – for example their bakelite light switches instead of Thatcherite gold-look ones. And Balfron had had one asset money can’t buy: it had had one very hands-on, community-spirited caretaker for almost twenty years.
I interviewed Irvine Gallagher, otherwise known as Jock, for the council’s newspaper, East End Life, around the time of this tour of the block. (I knew him a bit to have a drink with; when I rang him to suggest the interview, there was a long silence, and then he growled: ‘IN THE PUB.’) He told me, ‘When we took over this estate from the good old GLC it was a disaster area. Burnt-out cars, black soot stains, bin rooms full of old rubbish’.
‘No one knows as much as me about Balfron Tower’, he said. ‘I know how the whole building works, where everything is. I’ve had calls from housing management, architects, heating engineers. They wanted to put in new central heating but it’s listed, they couldn’t run the gas pipes up the outside – I identified where the cupboards were, and internal routes where they could run their pipes. I know how the flats fit together, this one on one level, this one on two – I always know where the water’s coming from’.
Jock was a people person, though, as well as being able to do 3D mental mapping. ‘I know everything that happens here’, he said. ‘Everybody knows me and I know everybody . I know all the kids, who their mums and dads are. I’ll knock on someone’s door if I’ve seen them doing something. Nine times out of ten people are grateful and say they didn’t know their kid was doing whatever.
‘But there isn’t much vandalism. We’ve got CCTV, and if a kid is doing something we can see them. We call out the window, “Smile for the camera!” You should see them run!’
Happy days. Also around the time of this interview, Jock had to apply for his job, as the council was bringing in ‘super-caretakers’ – a sort of Blairite caretaker-manager position. I spoke to him right after his interview and he said it had gone really badly. It lasted five minutes.
Five minutes! What went wrong?? ‘Well what was I supposed to do’, he growled down the phone. ‘Spend an hour talking about fucking BLEACH.’
So the job went to someone else, and Jock became an under-caretaker, and I heard last year that he had recently passed on.
My other personal connection with Balfron Tower is that when I was working in that job, my marriage had broken up and my children and I were living in adorable but extreme overcrowding in a wisteria-garlanded one-bedroom flat in Hackney. Things were difficult, and at just this juncture a flat came on the market in Balfron Tower for something like £37,900. But Balfron was in Poplar, and my kid were in school in Stoke Newington, and you couldn’t raise a mortgage in Poplar (or a tower block) to save your life, and I had no savings at all… In one corner of my brain I have always lived there.
I left that job few months after the Balfron tour and the interview with Jock, and have no idea how Balfron Tower fell into the situation it’s in today. It’s about to have the makeover of a lifetime, which will also catapult it into a new social class. Indeed, as life imitates art, the millennial city imitates the famous ‘I Love My Life as a Dickhead’ video, wherein the hipsters have taken over Trellick Tower. For with the ensuing works, and the the huge project of decanting all of Balfron’s tenants underway, Balfron’s flats have been let all year at cheap rents to artists, to keep the place full – and, presumably, soften up a tiny little social transformation.
Balfron went to sleep as a brave and plucky social housing experiment; is currently dreaming a strange technicolor dream; and will wake up, what only feels like a lifetime later, a princess.
And it’s some slight consolation to know that, if I had bought that flat all those years ago, I’d have a big headache just about now.
The photos are from the exhibition Balfron Tower An Unrealised Future, featuring work by photographers Michael Mulcahy, Mike Seaborne, Peter Luck and James Wakefield. This runs until this Sunday (21st September), 12 – 6 pm at Flat 89, Balfron Tower, Poplar, E14 0QT (2 min. walk from All Saints DLR). Buzz flat 89 for entry.