Skip to content

In Geoffrey Fletcher's footsteps

April 9, 2010
by The Gentle Author

Hidden away behind the Genesis Cinema and Wickham’s lopsided department store is Bellevue Place. To get there, you walk up a side street from the Mile End Rd where you discover a bright green door in an old wall hung with ivy. Push this door and enter another world just as writer and artist, Geoffrey Fletcher, did when he walked through the same doorway in 1964.

In The London Nobody Knows he wrote,“A green gate opening in the wall leads to a totally unexpectedly corner of London, one that may well disappear if Charrington’s, who own the property, ever decide to expand. Bellevue Place is well named. It is a cul-de-sac with a paved pathway leading to the far end, under a creeper-covered wall. The cottages are early nineteenth century, and have true cottage gardens fenced with wooden rails, pointed at the top. Here are unbelievably rural gardens, full of lilac, lupins and delphiniums – all a minute’s walk from the Mile End Road.”

Geoffrey would be gratified to see my picture and learn that Bellevue Place remains today, its cottage gardens still fenced with wooden rails, pointed at the top. The irony is that Charrington’s has gone and the large brewery complex, of which the creeper-covered wall once formed part of its perimeter, has been replaced by a housing estate. Geoffrey Fletcher’s project was to record the quaint old corners of London before they were destroyed in the name of progress, but the popularity of his work marked a change in public opinion towards the preservation of buildings. As a result, many of those he recorded in elegiac tones in “The London Nobody Knows” are preserved today as characterful landmarks of the London everybody knows.

Bellevue Place, unseen from the street and surrounded on four sides by high walls, is a magical place where it truly does feel as if time has stood still. The walls form a wind break, creating an atmosphere of warm still air in the gardens and, each of the half-dozen times I have been there, I have never seen any of the residents. There is an innate quiet in this corner. As I searched to find the exact spot where Geoffrey Fletcher did his drawing, framed by lush foliage all those years ago, I should not have been surprised if he had appeared through the green gate or, equally, if I had walked out of the gate to discover I was in London in 1964.

Over in Spitalfields, Geoffrey deliberated over what to draw because even then people were catching on to the London nobody knows. “One of the finest eighteenth-century shops in the whole of London is here, in Artillery Lane. However, as this is well-known, I have chosen to illustrate a curiousity instead – the Moorish bazar in Fashion Street, given an odd realism by the turbaned figures of Indians who have drifted into the area. It was once a Jews’ market, a place for the sale of cheap textiles, penny notebooks, and fifty-blade penknives. Buildings with a Turkish, or Moorish touch invariably appeal to me, by their utter disregard of architectural qualities. I have a liking for the tawdry, extravagant and eccentric.”

The eighteenth century shop in Artillery Lane (which James Mason stood outside in the film of The London Nobody Knows) is now the Raven Row gallery and the Moorish bazar, after being derelict for many years, has been reconstructed, preserving most of the facade, as an office building occupied by media businesses. The integration of the facade of the bazar into the new building means it is more corporate than tawdry today. This is no longer the place for penny notebooks and fifty-blade penknives, though if Geoffrey came back he would not have to look far in the surrounding streets to find them.

You have to ask yourself who the “Nobody” of ‘The London Nobody Knows” refers to, because all the places he describes have inhabitants. How could the population of the East End rank as nobody? Given that Geoffrey Fletcher was a Daily Telegraph columnist, I choose to assume that by “Nobody,” he means “Nobody who reads the Daily Telegraph.” The implied title being, “The London Nobody who reads the Daily Telegraph Knows.” If you can forgive me being so disingenuous, let me quote the following extract from his introduction of 1962 – which regrettably sounds comically antiquated now – as evidence of my assumption, and leave you to your own conclusions, “There are parts of London never penetrated, except by those who like myself, are driven on by the mania for exploration: Hoxton, Shoreditch, Stepney for instance, all of which are full of interest for the perceptive eye, the eye of the connoisseur of well-proportioned though seedy terraces, of enamel advertisements and cast-iron lavatories.”

Even if he was capable of being a curmudgeon, we owe Geoffrey Fletcher a debt of gratitude for recording his fond appreciation of once neglected aspects of our city so conscientiously and with such lyricism. In fact, I cannot deny a twinge of jealousy that I was not around to visit these places as he described them, though I am lucky enough to have Bellevue Place nearby whenever I need a glimpse of his London.

By 1989, Geoffrey had become aware that “The London Nobody Knows” was a relative concept, an horizon that retreated endlessly and, in acknowledgement of this, he added a new preface including the words, ” Tomorrow, scorning the London everybody knows, we may take the road, like Mr Pickwick, eager for character and flavour, expecting only the unexpected. We may search for bankrupt tandooris in the uplands of North London. We may even set out for the Seven Sisters Rd…”

11 Responses leave one →
  1. November 12, 2010

    Do you know whether it is possible to buy any of Geoffrey Fletchers drawings?

  2. December 27, 2010

    Have always regarded “The London Nobody Knows” with slight disdain, both the writings and the filmed footage with James Mason, as being just a little condescending. An attempt to excuse it as being of it’s time did not really wash when compared to Raphael Samuel’s History Workshop series which bring dignity to these same areas without complacency. Your analogy of “The London Nobody who reads the Daily Telegraph Knows” makes for pertinent logic and has motivated another look, even if just to revisit the drawings, putting preconception aside.

  3. Rob Moore permalink
    January 2, 2011

    I remember in a “That was the week that was”, I guess shortly after “The London nobody knows” was published, calling it “The London nobody wanted to know”. Wholly accurate, as the people who did live in the areas Fletcher drew and wrote about so wonderfully well, which are now trendy and right-on London, were neither aware nor cared about their surroundings.

  4. February 27, 2011

    I have no artistic background, but some years ago came across a set of unframed but mounted pictures of London streets and buildings (signed, I think by the artist) along with the printed signature. I think the pictures were from about the 60′s/70′s when unframed pictures were quite popular. I thought they were absolutely beautiful and bought them. I then, from a completely different source and different time zone, by coincidence, found the original wording relating to each picture and which appears on the back of each picture. They are a fascinating insight as to old London. If anyone is interested in purchasing them, please feel free to contact me.

  5. gillian jamieson permalink
    October 31, 2011

    I am interested to know if the person enquiring about geoffrey fletchers art ever did manage to buy a painting/drawing and if so, what was paid for it. Geoffrey Fletcher’s neice is a close friend of mine and would like to know the value of a couple of Geoffrey’s paintings which he did for her.

  6. March 23, 2013

    In response to Jane Young’s comments, I have to say that Geoffrey was the least condescending person you could ever meet. He lived in Rotherhithe years before the trendies descended and was completely down to earth, tramping round unfrequented streets (and yes, there were many of those) with his Jack Russell. I don’t think his writing needs defending, frankly, but I think what he meant by “nobody knowing” was that in the 1950′s and 1960′s when he was writing, the pseuds/connoisseurs and artistic poseurs not only weren’t interested in the kind of things he was writing about – Victorian public loos; ramshackle Georgian terraces; semi-derelict wharves etc – but actively sought to have them swept away. He was a pioneer and a first-rate artist. In answer to Gillian Jameson’s question, Geoffrey’s drawings don’t fetch very much money but there is a market for them. Depending on the subject matter, I’ve sold them for as much as £1,200 or as little as £100. Hope that helps.

  7. Christine Francis permalink
    November 2, 2013

    I collect Geoffrey Fletcher’s books, as his descriptions of a bygone London are absolutely marvellous and the drawings superb. I would love to have met him.
    As a regular visitor to London and a serious student of London’s wonderful history Geoffrey’s books have been such a good guide.
    I would be very interested to own one of his drawings, does anyone have any info please?

  8. Denise permalink
    July 25, 2014

    Hi can anyone tell me where I can buy a copy or the original painting of Bellview Place?

  9. March 19, 2015

    Geoffrey painted the house in Alie Street, Whitechapel, where my grandfather was born. Does anyone know where the painting is held?

  10. Dominic Pinto permalink
    June 7, 2016

    I’ve only recently come across both Geoffrey Fletcher’s book – a reprint – and the James Mason narrated film (on DVD, along with Les Bicyclettes de Belsize) …. along with John Gay’s black and white photography of London, and North London.

    Islington Libraries holds many of his works, and worth enquiring as to what these comprise, and if copies are or could be made available.

    https://www.islington.gov.uk/publicrecords/library/Leisure-and-culture/Information/Factsheets/2011-2012/%282012-03-03%29-Geoffrey-Fletcher‘s-Islington-impressions-in-time.pdf

    A search on google shows a number of sources/holdings:
    http://america.pink/geoffrey-scowcroft-fletcher_1689893.html
    http://artuk.org/discover/artists/fletcher-geoffrey-scowcroft-19232004
    http://www.ashtead.org/people/gf.htm

    Of interest
    https://thelondoncolumn.com/tag/geoffrey-fletcher/

    The Islington Local History Centre at Finsbury Library is open but you need to make an appointment – and they currently note ‘that a large quantity of our archive collection is currently in external storage in anticipation of a new in-house archive storage facility. It is estimated that items placed into storage will be unavailable until October/November 2016.

    Staff will be happy to advise as to what remaining material is available for consultation. For further details please email local.history@islington.gov.uk or telephone 020 7527 7988.’

    http://www.islington.gov.uk/islington/history-heritage/heritage_lhc/Pages/contactlhc.aspx?extra=9

    I’m going to visit as soon as I can to find out more!

  11. Paul Ridgway permalink
    March 31, 2017

    Geoffrey Fletcher also wrote and drew for his ‘London Souvenirs’, published by George Allen & Unwin in 1972.

    I have a pen sketch by Hanslip Fletcher whom Geoffrey told me was no relation.
    See Hanslip here from the BM website:

    Hanslip Fletcher (painter/draughtsman; British; Male; 1874 – 1955)
    Also known as

    Fletcher, Hanslip
    Biography

    Etcher, illustrator and painter specialising in architectural studies of London and elsewhere. Born and lived in London. Educated at Merchant Taylors’ School. Member of the Art Workers’ Guild. His architectural drawings appeared in newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times. Exhibited extensively including the Royal Academy, Goupil Galleries, Dudley Gallery, New English Art Club and other London galleries. He published several books of his illustrations including: ‘Oxford and Cambridge Delineated’, 1909; ‘Changing London’, 1924; ‘Bombed London – 38 drawings of historic buildings damaged during the bombing of |London’, 1947. His work is held by Dundee University, Manchester City Art Gallery, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, as well as the British Museum.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS