In the footsteps of C.A.Mathew
It is eighteen months shy of a hundred years since C.A.Mathew visited Spitalfields in April 1912, but yesterday he was my invisible guide as I walked through the close-knit streets to take new pictures in the same locations, and make a photographic assessment of the changes that a century has brought. I had copies of his pictures with me, and in each instance I held them up to ascertain the correct alignment of buildings and other landmarks that told me I was in the same spot exactly.
Being in his footsteps revealed that C.A.Mathew composed his photographs to expose the most sympathetic play of light and shade, demonstrating a subtlety of tone that I dare not attempt to replicate in a different season at another time of day, in another age. Yet there was the delight of recognition when I knew I had found the right place and a sense of dislocation when there was no clue left. Disoriented, I found myself half in the world of a century ago and half in the present day.
When I discovered locations that cross-referenced precisely with the pictures, I felt a sense of elation because the street acquired a whole new dimension and the people in the old photographs took on a more tangible reality, as I contemplated the places where they stood. I relished being party to this secret knowledge and I knew C.A.Mathew was with me. But equally, I recognised an emptiness in the areas that are unrecognisably changed, and recent buildings appeared mere transient constructions to my eyes that had grown accustomed to the world of 1912. C.A.Mathew forsook me in these places, and I refrained from taking photographs when I could find no visible connection. Yet I told myself to resist sentimentality, because the world that C.A.Mathew photographed two years before World War I was one of flux too, only in his pictures could it be fixed eternally.
All streets belong to cars today and we cannot linger on the roadway or step off the pavement without risking our lives. A fact that became vividly apparent to me when I stood momentarily in the middle of the Bishopsgate traffic, risking my life in my attempt to discover C.A.Mathews’ vantage point upon Middlesex St, before following his path Eastward. I have always been fascinated by the change of scale and atmosphere, walking from the expanse of Bishopsgate through into the medieval streets at the edge of Spitalfields. And in C.A.Mathew’s pictures this change is also emphasised by social contrast, because he found these small streets full of people that lived there. There is a domestic quality that continues to draw me back to these streets, alleys and byways which still evoke their previous inhabitants through scale and form. A century ago, Bishopsgate was a major thoroughfare as it is now – and both my pictures and C.A.Mathews’ of it show people going somewhere. However in the alleys which are no longer inhabited as they once were, people do not occupy the space with the same sense of belonging as their predecessors in these photographs. They were more at home in these streets than we are today.
Unlike C.A.Mathews, my walk was on a working day and I found myself surrounded by suits, participants in the omnipresent corporate drama of the City, as hundreds of anxious business men took to the streets for a lunchtime walk in the September sunshine. They had escaped the office for a furtive cigarette, to make a private call or have confidential discussions about problems at work. Some passersby spied me with suspicious fleeting curiosity as I stood to take my pictures, very different from the people of a century ago who stood in groups to participate in the novelty of a photograph. Yet I delighted in the exotic drama of everyday life in the twenty-first century, seeing it from the perspective of C.A.Mathew.
In this photograph, only the bollard on the left hand side remains from the earlier picture.
C.A.Mathew’s photographs © copyright Bishopsgate Institute