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At S.Festenstein & Sons, Furriers

October 2, 2014
by the gentle author

Observe this young woman peering from the upper window of S.Festenstein & Sons in Banner St, Bunhill Row, around 1900. She looks a little precarious, as if she had climbed up onto a table in her curiosity to look down at the photographer below. She did not know that Mr Festenstein was standing in the doorway in his top hat, three floors below, and I wonder if any comment was made when the photograph was shown to the proprietor later. Yet she had won her place in eternity, which is surely a satisfactory outcome from taking a five minute break?

Danny Tabi, the last furrier in the East End, told me that in 1967 he worked at Gale Furs in Fournier St, when James Mason was filming The London Nobody Knows in the street outside. There is a famous tracking shot that captures all the factory workers as they crowd the pavement and lean from the windows. Danny can name all of them and now regrets that – unlike the woman at Festensteins – he forsook his opportunity to be captured on film, just because he wanted to finish his piece of work in hand.

The fur trade flourished in East London for centuries, working with imported skins that came through the London Docks – and these photographs of Festenstein & Sons, one among hundreds of similar companies, record a trade that no longer suits the sensibility of our modern world and has almost vanished entirely today.

S. Festenstein & Sons, 31 & 33, Banner St, Bunhill Row, Ec1

Is this Mr Festenstein in his silk hat?

Factory workers step outside to watch the photographer

In the Factory

In the Skin Department

In the Showroon

Home Order Department

Overseas Order Department

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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Phil Maxwell’s Mobile Phone Zombies

October 1, 2014
by the gentle author

“I photographed people with mobile phones since they first arrived on Brick Lane in the eighties,” Contributing Photographer Phil Maxwell admitted to me, “What’s happened is that those people on the phone have become separated from the dynamic life of the street, inhabiting their own digital bubble. It’s a change that’s crept up and now you can no longer tell who’s deranged, when everyone is talking to themselves.”

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell


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New Designs From Old Treasures

September 30, 2014
by the gentle author

Renaissance Bronze bridle motif embellished with gold and set upon a silver pin

Jewellery maker Romilly Saumarez Smith has long been fascinated by all the small pieces of metalwork from previous ages that litter our landscape, endlessly lost, buried and rediscovered. The majority are not of significant quality or value to merit inclusion in a museum yet – however modest they may be – each of these items possesses a potent magic of their own. They speak of their makers and owners who inhabited this land centuries ago, evoking other times and other ways.

Over the last three years, Romilly has developed a collection of jewellery that cherishes these artefacts, presenting them in settings and mounts which are sympathetic to their material and form. A cardinal principle is that no object is damaged and the patina acquired over time is preserved.

“Because they come from the landscape, I decided to put them back into a landscape,” explained Romilly, referring to the subtle sculptural form of her work which exploits the possibilities of burnt and oxidised silver and gold to produce muted tones that offer a natural complement to the worn surface of old metal.

“Many of these are things that people have lost, maybe they fell off a bridle on the battlefield, and were once searched for,” Romilly told me, as I wondered over the great variety of her ancient treasures laid out upon her table in Stepney.  Each one has been rescued now for perpetuity, ingeniously worked into brooches, mounting on rings or attaching onto pendants, so they will be valued and preserved safely by their new owners.

Upon closer examination, you realise that each piece consists a puzzle –  or rather – a solution to a puzzle. Every artefact possesses different qualities of form, challenging the designer to conceive of the ideal means to present it sympathetically – proposing a dialogue between the original maker and the jewellery designer today. It can be a conversation in which each speaks a different language with results both humorous and poetic – such as the pair of gold rings, entitled ‘King & Queen,’ in a setting which is unexpectedly revealing of the quirky personalities manifest in two old buckles.

There is an irresistible romance in these exquisite pieces that declare their elegant contemporary handmade quality while also engaging with the distant past so affectionately and respectfully. No longer discarded junk metal, they become precious talismans – setting the concerns of our moment against the wider perspective of history, offering a welcome consolation and a necessary sense of proportion to the fortunate owner living in our modern age.

Dark silver brooch with a Roman turban nail head, gilded pins and a piece of eighteenth century paste

Medieval button and Renaissance finial mounted upon a silver ring

Nineteenth century buckle with teeth encased in gold

Eighteenth century thimble with silver embellishment

Broken eighteenth century thimble with gold edge attached to serve as  a ring

Renaissance metal finial from a leather belt set upon a gold pendant

Medieval enamel button mounted upon a gold ring

Nineteenth century thimble with gold

Nineteenth century cut stone mounted in reverse in gold with pearls

King & Queen, buckles mounted as rings

Bronze Saxon brooch with traces of original gilding and addition of gold ring

Medieval buttons mounted upon gold earrings

Saxon bronze pin head mounted upon a silver ring

Golden hand from an effigy mounted upon a silver ring

Medieval castle brooch adorned with pearls and gold pins

Eighteenth century clasp filled with black pearls and gold pins mounted on a gold ring

Silver and gold pendant with black pearls, nineteenth century paste and earlier studs, finials and nail heads

Saxon ring embellished with pearls threaded on gold wire

Nineteenth century thimble mounted upon a gold ring

Saxon ring  embellished with pearls threaded on gold wire

Medieval button mounted upon a gold ring

Nineteenth century thimble embellished with gold and silver wire

Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies

NEWFOUNDLAND - Joint exhibition of Romilly Saumarez Smith‘s jewellery alongside the work of Edmund de Waal runs Friday 10th to Sunday 12th October, 11am – 5pm

If you would like an invitation to attend the exhibition please email

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At The Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club

September 29, 2014
by the gentle author

Dominic Patmore, Powerlifter

In Turin St, there is a single-storey brick building so unassuming that even the locals do not know what it is, yet this is home to the celebrated Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club. The esteemed members believe their association dates from 1926, but a poster for the New Bethnal Green Weightlifting & Physical Culture Club on the wall inside the gym, dated 1931, suggests that its origin may be earlier.

Even the most senior member, Ron Whitton of Columbia Rd, is a relative newcomer who joined in 1946. He greeted Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I when we paid a visit at the weekend, fresh from his twice-weekly swim in the Serpentine and preparing for his twice-weekly weightlifting session to follow. A sprightly octogenarian, Ron is a shining exemplar of  the health benefits of body-building and weightlifting. “I’ve always been a keep fit guy,” he vouched, indicating the photos of his former glories upon the wall,“there’s not many guys of eighty-three still training.”

“In 1946, it was just an old shed in the playground with one or two bars and a set of dumbbells, where a couple of guys who’d come out of the forces started weight-training,” Ron recalled fondly, casting his eyes around the hallowed space, “Around 1948, Jack Brenda, Secretary of the Club, opened up this place but it was like something out of the Hammer House of Horrors then, it had been closed for years and there was no equipment, but we got it going and we’ve been here ever since.”

On Saturday morning, we encountered a mutually respectful crew of all sizes of male and female weightlifters absorbed in their training session, punctuated with intense cathartic moments when a major lift was ventured and one among them heaved and strained, channelling the support of their comrades egging them on, before throwing the weight down with a clang onto the mat. Although there were those who had the obvious advantage of size, most compelling in their lifts were those skinny individuals of diminutive stature who appeared to summon resources of strength from the ether in lifting weights that looked far beyond their apparent capacity.

“I started because I liked the idea of being strong,” powerlifter Laura Porter admitted to me, “but now I’m obsessed – it’s the satisfaction when you get a new personal best. I’m not super-duper strong yet, but I’m not bad and I like the feeling of being powerful.”

“It’s a good thing for women to do because it’s good for your bone strength, counteracting any tendency to brittle bones,” she revealed with a blush, “I’m approaching forty so I think about these things, but I hope to be weightlifting and competing in my sixties and beyond.”

A relaxed family atmosphere prevails at Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club, uniting enthusiasts of all ages and walks of life. “There was a time when every London borough had places like these but now there only two left in the entire capital,” Martin Bass, Club Secretary informed  me, readily indicated pals that joined with him over forty years ago – and demonstrating the modest camaraderie among all those who seek transcendence of their physical and spiritual limits, here in confines of the gym, as a counterpoint to the external challenges of life’s journey beyond its walls.

Ron Whitton, still weighlifting at eighty-three

Ron is second from right at the Bethnal Green Physique Contest of 1952 – London’s first body-building contest. “all the other have passed away”

Laura Porter, Powerlifter

Laura - “I like the feeling of being powerful”

Martin Bass, Club Secretary and Member for forty-five years

At the Women’s Powerlifting Contest

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club, 229 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 6AB – entrance in Turin St

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The Language Of Tailors

September 28, 2014
by the gentle author

Complementing yesterday’s portrait of Chris Georgiou, Bespoke Tailor, today I offer this selection of the language of tailors.

Chris Georgiou

BABY - The stuffed pad of cloth that the tailor works his cloth on.

BALLOON, TO HAVE A – To have no money coming in at the end of the week.

BANGER -  A piece of wood with a handle used to draw steam out of the material during ironing.

BOARD – Tailor’s work bench.

BOOT? , CAN YOU SPARE THE - Can you give ma loan? Dating from the time that all tailors used to sit cross-legged at the bench. The tailor would record a loan by chalking it up on the sole of his boot.

BUNCE – A perk of the trade. Mungo is one type of tailor’s bunce.

CODGER - A tailor who does up old suits.

CRIB - Larger scraps of cloth, saved from a length of cloth alloted for a job. The crib can be used to make a skirt or a pair of trousers. Another example of a tailor’s bunce.

DEAD - A job is dead when it’s been paid for already. So there is no more money coming in from it and it is as well to get it off your hands quickly.

DOCTOR - An alteration tailor – a separate trade in most houses.

DOLLY – A roll of material, wetted, and used as a sponge to dampen the cloth.

DRAG, IN THE- Late with a job of work.

DRUMMERS - Trouser makers. A term of contempt used by jacket makers to describe trouser makers because there is said to be less skill in making a pair of trousers. Trouser makers are also given the more contemptuous name of FOUR SEAMS & A RUB OF SOAP.

DUCK SHOVING - An East End expression, meaning making the stitches too big. The West End equivalent is SKIPPING IT.

GOOSE IRON -  Hand iron, which used to be heated upon a gas flame.

INCH STICK - Wooden ruler.

KICKING - Looking for another job. If dissatisfied, a tailor might go out looking for another job during the lunch break.

A KILL - A job that is no good at all and cannot be resold. eg If burnt with an iron.

KIPPER – Female tailor’s assistant, called kippers because they always worked in pairs. This was for their own safety – a kind of chaperone system – so that one could protect the other if the tailor made advances.

MANGLE - Sewing machine. Old machine that worked on a treadle looked like mangles.

MUNGO – Cloth cuttings. These belong to the tailor and he can make a few pennies by selling them to a rag merchant.

ON THE COD – Gone for a drink.

ON THE LOG - Piecework. As in most trades, tailors are paid  according to the amount of work they turn out. The work is logged up against the tailor’s name in the book.

A PORK - A job that customer rejects but which can be sold to someone else.

PT, RUBBING IN A – Fitting in a private job eg making yourself a pair of trousers during the lunch break. This practice os allowed in most work rooms provided th tailors are discreet about it, and do it in their own time.

SCHMUTTER, BIT OF OLD –  Jewish expression for a piece of poor cloth.

SHEARS – Tailor’s scissors.

SKIFFLE – A fast job that a customer wants in a hurry.

SMALL SEAMS - A warning expression to a fellow tailor that the person you are talking about is coming into the room.

SOFT SEW – A cloth that is easy to work with eg tweed.

TWEED MERCHANT – A tailor who does the easy work. A term of contempt for a poor workman, because tweed being soft and rough is easier to work with than other cloths.

UMSIES – A name to describe someone who is in the room whom you are talking about but you do not want them to know it. Even if they hear, there is an element of doubt who you are referring to.

Photograph copyright © Colin O’Brien

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